The brutal winter continues with a horrible flush of rain which, to my distaste, has managed to keep my laundry out three days in a row. Overnight, the world had become ablaze with my old classmates receiving their job offers for next year on the 19th, and celebrations and tears being shed concurrently or for different reasons all over the place.
Trying to meet up with Catrina the Monday evening without my phone was a nightmare. Sunday night had seen me in Ascot Vale with Meng, who made us dinner in her small kitchen in that seemingly effortless way of hers: Sweet potato soup, spinach and mushroom and garlic grill, with salsa verde on panini; red velvet cupcakes for dessert, iced with butter cream icing (because I liked them, and had bought one for her the other time we were in city in an attempt to make her like them too). It was a relief to talk about research to someone who understood it. More than that, it was comforting to fall back into step about inane bits of our parents’ lives, like children who had known each other as family friends sometimes do. I’d left with a smile on my face and my phone on her couch.
Like a secret agent, I emailed Catrina with two times and places that I would meet her an hour and a half apart, in case I couldn’t make the first one due to a meeting. “Stay there 10 minutes each time, in case I’m running late,” I said.
How did I live without a phone? How did anyone? I picked it up on Tuesday from Meng’s flatmate in the midst of the coldest day in memory. Hearing about my disastrous two phoneless days (which included turning up for a cancelled meeting very far from my house), he recollected having to organise outings in the 90’s, and one of his friends would wave a hat outside the window of her train carriage in New South Wales to tell her friends she was on the arriving service. I realised that when I was old enough to go on outings like that (when you were old enough so that your mother didn’t have to drop you off at someone else’s house to begin with), mobile phones had become common. I’d never had to live without one.
We eventually found ourselves at Match, one of my favourite places in Melboure (although I’d only ever gone for drinks). They serve red wine in a giant glass — one that you don’t hold by the stem. I swirled the glass absentmindedly - the weight of the liquid shifted in my palm like waves. I hadn’t drank wine since the end of Summer, or early Autumn. The wine tasted strongly of that oaky, woody musk that reds carry, and a savoury taste that sat at the back of your tongue, dark and brooding (a good wine to have with caramlised rhubarb). I’d ordered it on a whim, because someone who named their estate Nanny Goat just invited that sort of curiosity — maybe that’s why they did it.
Cat’s sister is getting married soon. I guess when one person gets married, it affects others around them. You start to think about how easily they changed in front of your eyes from the person who was single to this new person, and you wonder if that transformation is possible in your own life. My own cousin (the one I grew up with) recently got married, got his wife pregnant.
22 feels like a mile away from even 21, and I’m not sure how I’d feel when I’m Catrina’s age, going on 24, or my cousin’s — going on 25, maybe. My mother had me at 26, I keep reminding myself. In 4 years time, will I have a child? It seemed so far fetched that it was implausible.
It asks you to be a better person than you ever thought you’d be.
I was in the lift today, going up to the Ethics office to drop off a submission (such boring stuff) with a chubby woman with a jolly face. Just as the door was closing to go up, a man with a pram arrived and I hurridly pressed the Door Open button to keep the lift for him (the woman had given up after the door had closed, not realising you could press something). He had two kids strapped down, one eating chocolate and the other one staring at me wide eyed. When they left, I must have sighed, because the woman grinned and said, “Clucky, aren’t we?”
I’d laughed. “I want one.”
The doors opened to level 4, where we were both getting off. “I have two,” she smiled. “Trust me, enjoy your sleep now, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.”
The way she said it… so much love, directed inwards, like a private joke that made her happy every day.
It wasn’t until I had said goodbye to her that I realised that we were in the Paediatrics wing.
“This is our world, lit with crescents and stars of light ; and great petals half transparent block the openings like purple windows. Everything is strange. Things are huge and very small. The stack of flowers are thick as oak trees. Leaves are high as the domes of vast cathedrals. We are giants, lying here, who can make forests quiver.”—from ‘The Waves’ — Virginia Woolf
Rain, cold, and more rain and cold, and amongst it all, J (an old housemate) at the train station looking small and rumpled. I hadn’t seen for a while, the last time being lunch at a small Japanese place that students frequented in Caulfield at which point she said she finally broke up with her boyfriend. We’d all lived together in that massive house in my third year of university and I thought she deserved better. At least someone who didn’t borrow money off her while mooching at home while she went and tried to find a job, and not one who went back to Hong Kong and left her here on her own while mooching money off her. It’d been 2 years and he still hadn’t found a job like he said he would there. She’d thought he was cheating on her for a bit — it’s something he’d done before.
A relationship like that seemed exhausting and full of infinite sadness. I think there’s something to be said about first relationships that somehow survive based on super-human (or super blind) faith and strength that for the rest of your life you just can’t muster again for someone else save a child. Always this place that you somehow can’t find again that makes it ok to be left alone for years on end, that makes it ok to be drained of money by someone because an ‘I love you’ has been exchanged at some point, that makes it ok for someone to cheat on you, as long as they return.
Looking at J, late 20s, it’s crazy to think she’d been with the same person for be better half of a decade. That this wasn’t even the first time she’d been extorted. She describes herself as quiet, and weird. She even said this quietly and weirdly once when I had gotten to know her better. The weird part isn’t an eccentricity, but more an unusual unreactiveness. If anything were to happen to her, her manner would be equally mild and unflustered.
She’s unemployed now, trying to find a job. She frets . But she’s still quiet and calm thinking about it, drinking wheat tea. She’s wearing black, but it could just be the cold. She fidgets a lot.
It’s amazing that someone who’s been through what I’d thoroughly describe as a bad relationship can come undone at a something simple science, reassurance and statistics can explain away (as with a lot of things in medicine, really). What one person is afraid of, to someone else is so ordinary. A simple medical procedure, easily dismissed over dinner down the road as benign —
— though, as I’m sure other people in their 20s would say, while in your teens ‘bad relationship’ is synonymous with ‘bad person’ (as in, bad other party). Afterwards, it becomes more a shade of grey. Two people can be good people, but be horrible — not just for each other, but to each other.
In my other life, the research one, things seem to be settling. Thinking about it, the reason that Prof R and I probably rub each other the wrong way is due to the penchant I have of having things done “right”, and as a result, constantly trying to change the study design. Why aren’t we having age and sex matched controls — these normal ranges change with age and gender? Why is there no placebo? Why are we giving all 3 substances at the same time — wouldn’t you not know which one was working? Why is this a quality assurance study instead of full clinical research when we’re taking blood from them for assays that aren’t even commercially available? Why am I lying outright on an ethics form?
In a comparison between Jon and I, Jon is the calmer one, who just does what he’s told. It’s the same difference between Padma and Yi Wee, and Padma who Prof R adored to pieces (who will be first author of the research paper that I’ve spent this time working on, it turns out). I think he blames me a little bit for the fall-out of the clinical trial. In his head he gets confused, feels like I’m still working on it.
I’m grateful for Christina, the Ph.D, and Cherry, the research assistant. Cherry said the other day that Prof R., despite the papers, was a surgeon first, a scientist second. Our natures are fundamentally different. I think she’s right.
I wish that when I was younger I could have met my current self. We would have sat down at a coffee shop so that I could explain life to young me in terms that only we would understand. It would have saved me a lot of hardship.
You can listen to all the sage wisdom you want, but things only make sense when you can explain them to yourself in your own words. For instance, I’ve been told for three years that Breaking Bad is the best show on television, but only after I watched it was I able to tell myself exactly why everyone was right. Other truths I know now that I can explain them: that I’m not missing any crucial information and that poker really isn’t all that fun; that heartbreaks do fade but they take about a year longer than you expect and by the time they do you really don’t care about it enough to notice; and above all else, life is simpler than you think.
I used to think that life was an intricate series of levers and pulleys, buttons and switches, Mexican standoffs and hostage negotiations. As I get older I realize that life is more Netherlands minimalist than Jackson Pollock. The problems don’t get fewer, and in fact they grow in number, but the way I index them in the database is different. More problems get filed under fewer category headers.
Things are getting simpler, and it’s making life better. Here’s the cheat sheet:
People want to be liked. We all crave attention and affection and we all reject shame. When we get embarrassed we send a thug version of ourselves to the forefront to do our fighting for us. We’re at the top of the food chain just under fear. We don’t want to be in a relationship to hear the words “I love you,” we want to be in a relationship to say the words “I love you.” We want to feel needed, and exceptional and we hate feeling insignificant. We want to ace a hearing test. We are binary creatures; if we’re the plaintiff, we want to win every dollar. If we’re the defendant, we want guard every penny. We want to make more money than last year. We don’t want to get cancer or die in our cars and we want the same for our loved ones. We go out on weekends to try and have sex while trying not to get punched in the face. We drink so we can be ourselves and not mind it so much. We’re desperate to be understood. We want to know someone else has felt it, too. We hate being judged unfairly. We want to make the person we heard wasn’t all that into us change their minds and admit they had us wrong. We want sunny skies with a chance of killer tornadoes, just to keep music sounding good. We take hours upon hours to admit to self consciousness. We don’t know exactly how to pleasure each other. We just want love. In any and every form.
“..How often is it we are rescued by a stranger,if ever at all? And how is it that our lives can become drained of the possibility of forgiveness and kindness - so drained that even one small act of mercy becomes a potent lifelong memory? How do our lives reach this point?”—from ‘Life After God’ — Douglas Coupland
Last Saturday, so early in the morning that not even the birds were waking — 6am, fingers frozen, missing bed, drinking the 3rd cup of tea to clear my head… I was at work.
When you do a morning shift, you find out that the number of people who wake up alone is phenomenal. Sometimes I give in and converse, settle them into their day with the guilty feeling that they’ll pretend to go away but call right back, get someone else. Mostly I gently remind them that a counselling service with a stranger isn’t a real relationship.
"Why do you call instead of making real connections?" I always ask.
"Because there’s something unattractive about loneliness," one person said. "When someone meets a lonely person, they are always thinking, what is wrong with you — there’s something wrong about being alone. I can guarantee you there’s not one person in the world who wants to hang around someone who is alone."
I wanted to laugh then. All these years of friends telling me off for going for people because they seem a bit lonely, I meet one person in the world lamenting at how people who do this don’t exist. I’m pretty sure we’re as common as bread. I wasn’t allowed tell him though - we’re not allowed to self-disclose in any way, but reassurances would be empty without a real example to back it up with.
People always underestimate how different one person can be to another person, and yet fundamentally the same.
“It was the sea that made me begin thinking secretly about love more than anything else; you know, a love worth dying for, or a love that consumes you. To a man locked up in a steel ship all the time, the sea is too much like a woman. Things like her lulls and storms, or her caprice, or the beauty of her breast reflecting the setting sun, are all obvious. More than that, you’re in a ship that mounts the sea and rides her and yet is constantly denied her. It’s the old saw about miles and miles of lovely water and you can’t quench your thirst.”—from ‘The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea’ — Yukio Mishima
It’s another wet winter day. Hot chocolate in hand, glasses sliding down my nose, I’m sitting in the middle of my floor surrounded by 4 echocardiograph textbooks. It’s strange, but whenever I read up on something, I never seem to able to trust just one source. Most of my notes, in small, cramped cursive, and are a correlation of me numerous chapters in multiple textbooks, all on the same thing.
A meeting yesterday had not gone that well; correction, it had gone alright, but not as well as one would have hoped. Read: consultants 2, Prof R 0, Melissa 1. Walking down the corridor a few days later, I bumped into Yan, a research student from last year who asked me how it went. I told him, as it occurred to me at that intersecting pass, that the meeting had been a manifestation of my own passive aggressiveness. I’d waited and waited until someone could fight my fights for me. I’d expressed the same doubts to Prof R that the consultants were expressing, only to have my opinions vetoed over and over for around half a year. There we were in cramped consulting room on a cold July afternoon with Prof R being ganged up on by consultants 1 and 2. He listened.
They say that up until Masters and Ph.D, any flaw in the study design of a research thesis can be blamed on the supervisor and I’m starting to see how it can be true.
It’s been a few days of feeling disconnected with the world, doing a lot of work from home or from the office/behind a desk at a meeting. Catrina was on hand to remind me that meetings (of which there are many) are a badge of real life. I’ve learnt over this year that:
1) If you have something to say at a meeting, say it. Tact doesn’t matter, otherwise it will take about 5 more of them to sort the issue out.
2) If you get lost on the way to the meeting room, don’t tell everyone you got lost until after the meeting’s over. It looks bad enough if you’re late, it looks worse if you’re late and directionless.
3) Try and take something from every meeting, even if it’s the most boring 2 hours or utterly pointless. :)
They say that research is isolating, and sometimes it is. I’m envious of friends even as they tense in small ways outside an interview room or bemoan how badly interviews at Southern have gone. Time wasting isn’t a new concept for me, but I am beginning to feel it as the last of autumn gives way to the second month of winter.
Aimee’s parents are staying with her (with us) and the house is filled with noise. For a couple with only one child, they seem to be filled with interaction and conversation, vastly different from my own quieter (but no less loving) one. I struggle to remember what it’s like to be at home, but all I can remember are how usually when I’m back my parents are at work still, and so the house is silent or I am out with friends or reading at Borders.
Billy (drunk flatmate) has taken to sleeping in the lounge and when I creep back at 2am from watching football, it’s always to find him asleep with the light on and his laptop playing a film. They — the couple — haven’t told her parents that they’re seeing each other. I’m not sure how her parents could be fooled by that seeing as Billy is around all the time, takes them in a car that he’s borrowed, and Aimee talks to him about couply things like changes of underwear through the bathroom door. Even I’ve been sworn to silence.
The first night they arrive, Billy opens the door drunk and with a strange expression on his face, greets me as I get in with overzealous enthusiasm that makes me suspicious immediately, even without smelling the alcohol. He is like a cartoon character, too happy — so fake. It makes me nervous, remembering the punching and the screaming from his previous drinking things.
Dangerous people who smile are always a little be more creepy than malicious ones. I almost want to tell her parents, but I swore an oath (to Aimee).