In this post: side wordstrokes paint reality, ideas and their evolution in a tiny corner or the scientific world, a woman’s strategy for surviving workplace mobbing and developing clarity of purpose.
Today is a day for blogging but I am supremely lazy these days so asking myself to write a coherent essay, even if it is a subjective thing that need not follow all the rules of logical discourse, seems to be asking me for the ultimate sacrifice. So what I would do is just paint with side wordstrokes some thoughts that had been dwelling in my head, making me think but not too much or too articulated, and, hopefully, they will make you think too.
12.1 A Walk
It is funny or amazing how a walk outside can made me feel good, a level of contentment that I thought I could never reach anymore because something has become unstuck in my head after all the many struggles, something that, freed from artificial constraints will never go back to what it was. Today I can take a risk and take another walk. Of course there is a price to pay, pain, hurt, the effects of gravity on the physical facts of my life. There is no guarantee that a reward comes afterwards but it is worth trying. And then, I’ve been told by my elders that exercise is a-kind to food for the brain.
It is a matter of value. I value things like beauty or fame in the abstract; ideas, illusions of illusions; money is a trap, health, an eternal striving after. The brain is the center of the universe because it is the only window through which we can generate some sort of understanding of what we perceive. The brain is like Koyi Kabuto piloting Mazinger Z, the nervous center of the machine and the mashable pulp inside the coconut. It deserves its walks.
12.2 A Great Punishment
I put the damned book down four or five days ago. I thought, with some reason, that in a situation in which I was not feeling so physically well it was not the wisest course to read a book that was making me feel angry at the world and despondently helpless with my fate. I used to think that there was no fate nor destiny but that which we construct with our own actions, but it happens that other actions are around also constructing fate and I ended up in here despite all of my effort and my best intentions. And when you end up in such a corner in which your cosmovision is severely challenged, the least that you can expect to catch is some sort of perennial helplessness. What about the book then? Horrible stuff, brilliantly written. I should just give up reading it, however, after eating that big feces pie of a book for 651 pages, my honor demands that I finish my plate; think of all those poor people who have no books at all to read! Which book is that, which is amazing and hateful at the same time? Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, and most everything in the big collection of his works included in Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963-1973. This morning, feeling chipper for having had a nice walk yesterday and not watching the news the whole weekend, I decided that I wanted to give a try to finishing it. Another thing to add to the long lists of mistakes that I carry around to flagellate myself with when I cannot blame anybody else about how inharmoniously the voices in my head are screaming.—They say they are singing but it sounds like a scream to me.
Let’s be clear, I do not actually hear any voices except when real people, or fantasy people on media, speak. The voices in my head or the voices in your head is a playful name that I have for the time when my mind is overactive and I have too many competing ideas, which is most of the time because I was born with an overactive mind, or so I was told by my elders. They even made a legend about it culminating with the time I put my pudgy little hand between the rolls of a wringer washing machine. But I will tell you about that some other time.
12.3 Too Much to do, Eggplants
It doesn’t matter what kind of comfortable middle class life I achieve, there are always things that need to be done by me if I want them done properly. Clothes to fold are screaming in a chair in a corner of my bedroom and I still have to finish organizing the closet, things like that. I have a very small garden, my therapy garden, and today the air has more than a hundred percent humidity and smells like a combination of 30% diesel engine exhaust, 15% wet dog, 25% bird poop, and 39.767% cheap spaghetti sauce, with traces of other, not easily identifiable things. Ah! And the ever present dust that is 65% pulverized camel droppings. So I started freaking out, what should I do first (?), what should I do last (?), what will fit the time before sunset (?), what could be done with a click (?)—in the real world, very little. So I went out and staked up the eggplants.
The eggplants are some of my creatures. I keep creatures all around the house, mostly in pots, but there are also a cat, a little lemon tree, a honey bee, and several wasps that come and go as they please. The cat has been sick these days and the little lemon moves only as it grows though, surprisingly enough, it has migrated to various places around the house during the time we’ve had it.
The cat has been sick because he insists on pretending to be a stray cat every now and then; just to indulge in nostalgia, I presume. Must be some catty wiring on his catty brain that urges him against his best interests, the pilot and the pulp on the biological, four-legged, one-tailed machine. He comes back home today.
12.4 Too Many Ideas
When I hear—or read—people wondering where to get ideas I feel like a mutant. I think I said that before somewhere, ideas are the easiest thing in the world, just keep your eyes and ears opened and your nose away from the screen. They float around like butterflies, bad and good and mediocre in a great multicolored cloud; unlike clouds, they are easy to pluck from thin air. Sometimes they fall in love with you and they follow you around making cow eyes at your each an every neuron, “fire-up your chemical soup for me,” they say, “tell your friends and neighbors.” So I never lack ideas and I never worry about ideas.
In a past life, when I was a scientist, I had these breathtaking ideas so ahead of their time that no matter how much I pitched them, nobody else would understand what I said. I thought, “hum, maybe there is some fundamental mistake in what I am suggesting that I don’t see because I need to study more.” And so I did, and time passed, and I never published it but saw other people publishing before me. Which made me feel vindicated and bitter; see, I was right but I did not get to benefit in any way from it except for the meagre satisfaction of knowing that I was right even though nobody else knows or care. —If a female scientist proposes a brilliant idea in a meeting and her colleagues ignore her, does she makes more or less sound than a tree that falls alone in the forest?—When ideas are really good, you can be sure that sooner or later somebody else will pluck them out of their ethereal orbits and made them manifest in the world. Experience taught me though, that not all ideas are easy to tame, to embody, the real mastery, the great accomplishment lies in implementation.
I once had a boss, a scientific director over my head, that had only two ideas on his mind and he was simply overwhelmed by them: (1) the inevitable priority of motherhood for women, and (2) that we needed great men to give us ideas of how to conduct our research. He did not want my ideas, and he told me, paternalistically enough and with the sweetest demeanor an incompetent old man who had attained his position by being the last one standing could muster, that he understood that maternity always instinctively guided women through all their life decisions and wants. Prior to that he had asked me, as if in a low-pressure, collegial conversation, what I wanted out of life, and I had been so naive as to say “naturally, I want to become a Nobel Laureate and save the world.”—Yes, I know, some things just need to be kept to oneself.—I knew then and there that his interest in my eventual reproduction was a big red flag and that I ought to have said something like you know, stereotyping female researchers borders on the illegal. Instead, I thought, “no, he could not possibly mean what he says, maybe he is a bit confused, dotage and so on, it happens.” Experience taught me better, or worse, depending how you look at it. So, listen, if your boss ever stereotypes you, disregards your ideas, or expects you to mother or babysit anybody else in the team as if instead of adults your were in charge of a nursery for underwhelming performers, run! Run like hell, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and go job hunting instead. Don’t wait until two years down the road for him to come into your office to yell at you and threaten to hit you if you don’t do as you are told. And certainly don’t wait until he starts encouraging your post-docs to sabotage your projects, steal material from your lab, and publish non-reproducible results behind your back.
For the record, before all hell broke loose, I did talk to a great man about ideas. Not what I would have wanted to, but I thought that I could buy some breathing space if I was agreeable and played some of the silly games that I was asked to play.—At the time, it seemed easier than to start popping out babies just to put bosses and colleagues at ease.—There happened to be a great man visiting our lab, a truly great man that I did look up to, whose papers I had read when I was still a bright-eyed graduate student that believed in Santa and in merit-based funding. I happened to be thrilled and star-struck to meet this distinguished scientist whose work I had cited with relish several times in my own research. He was, and is, one of the kindest scientists that I have ever met, everybody in the field likes him, and I do too. This glory of the scientific world condescended to talk to one of my students and enlighten her with his ideas. What he said to her was that iron (II) chloride solutions could be corrosive, and oh glory, of course he was right. I knew that, it is general chemistry, I taught general chemistry for three years during my Ph.D. Ok, so chemistry is true and we are illuminated. All hail and so on!
On other occasion, pluck, pluck, pluck out of great men air and we went on to test and publish a battery which performed only when it was corroding its casing. None of the post-docs involved, the scientific directors, or the luminaries of the electrochemical energy storage world that served in the scientific advisory committee saw how that was a problem. I was deemed “very bad” for worrying about little details such as scientific integrity and leak currents, and I started to suspect that there might not be a Santa Claus after all.
My hair started to turn massively white—I am not kidding, I did more aging in those three years than I had in the previous twenty—when it was not busy falling off in great chunks. I decided it was time to ask for help from some people that professed to be my friends and from some women who loudly championed fairness for female scientists. Bullshit. Nobody wants to be associated with harassment and discrimination even by helping the victims. If you are a victim, that is your own problem, and it cannot be resolved by going into conferences and calling for more girls to be encouraged to go into STEM careers. I am fine now, and I forgive you, I understand that you think I should just have sucked it up, take the punch and hide it under make-up, consent to publish crap like everybody else, and throw a couple of babies into the world to appease a system that insists on biased gender roles. Too bad I didn’t. Let’s turn the page.
12.5 Happiness and the Next Thirty Years
The world goes on, bad things, good things, boring things, simple things happened and are still happening. In Spain, I went through a horrible thing that later on I learned is called a “workplace mobbing.” I lost hair, grew it back mostly grey, gained thirty pounds, had my reality displaced in strange ways. For a while, I underwent a kind of amnesia; I knew what had happened—partly because I took detailed notes while it was happening—but my mind fogged up every time I tried to explain it. I took some time to think about about suing, then I decided that I’d rather just get back to my usual sunny, high-energy self and go on with my life away from that evil place. Apparently, I am fortunate, the responses of victims of this thing range from suicide to eternal bitterness. I have kept my detailed notes, the e-mails that were exchanged, and one day I will write it all in a memoir, but that will happen only when I’m absolutely ready.
It has been several years, this is the first time that I could actually give an account of some of the things that I experienced, relatively clearly and without going into a deep funk. Progress.
Back to ideas, I wrote a book, a healing book, a compassionate book, a playful book. Good for me! I have so many ideas that I have compiled a list of books for all the things that I want to write; I have enough material for the next thirty years. I have something great to do with my life, some really good dirt to dish out, a loving husband and a crazy cat. All is not well in the universe and yet I have had my happily ever after in some ways. Let’s see what comes next.
Would you like to know more? Here are some interesting links:
- Koji Kabuto and Mazinger Z: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuaQ2BPnAbM
- Workplace mobbing:
- My beautiful book, Lizard-Monkeys and Other Stories