goat monkey

Up until recently I thought I was a monkey. As it turns out, I’m a goat.

I’m talking about the Chinese lunar calendar, of course. I was born in 1980, and that’s a Monkey year. And while I don’t necessarily believe in horoscopes or zodiacs or anything like that, it always kind of made sense to me. According to the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is inquisitive, clever, and creative. People born in a Monkey year often make good scientists and engineers. They also tend to be reluctant to settle down, as they are easily bored.

I thought that described me pretty well. After all, I’m an engineer/scientist traveling the world and trying to have different adventures on every continent. I like observing people, which is also apparently a Monkey trait, and specific to Monkeys born in 1980, I’m warm-hearted and likeable.

But then I found out recently that due to my birthday being in January, I wasn’t actually born in the Monkey year. The Chinese New Year varies a little each year, and in 1980 it didn’t come until after I was born, so technically I was born in the previous year. A Goat year.

The Goat is creative and intelligent, but also insecure and most comfortable being part of a flock. Not strongly individualistic, a Goat would never volunteer for a leadership position, and is most comfortable with a stable, secure home life.

At first, I thought this didn’t sound like me at all. After all, I’ve spent more than a year on five different continents. I volunteered in Africa, went ice climbing in Scotland, horseback riding in Inner Mongolia, scuba diving in Panama, and got attacked by a cassowary in Australia. I’m a monkey, dammit! I’m adventurous and inquisitive!

Plus, monkeys are just cool.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really am a Goat, not a Monkey. Hell, I don’t even like bananas. And when I look back at how I’ve spent the past ten years of my life, it’s clear to me that I’m just a goat who has been pretending to be a monkey. After all, while I’ve hopped from continent to continent over the last decade, the first thing I do when I get to a new one is settle into a routine. I may make one or two big trips per year, but I actually am somewhat of an anxious traveler. I love seeing new things, but the travel itself is stressful to me. And while I have chased different girls on different continents, I think deep down I really have been looking for that special someone to settle down with.

So yeah, after denying my Goat nature for far too long, I’m finally ready to accept it. I want some stability in my life. A good, steady job, and a companion to share my experiences with. Plus, Goats can be pretty awesome. They’ll eat ANYTHING. Just like me.

Again, I’m not saying I necessarily believe in the zodiac stuff, but it does provide a good metaphor for my realization that I’m ready to settle down and be “normal”.

Well, as close to normal as I can approximate, anyway.

attack of the cassowary

I must admit that I expected traveling in Australia for a month with my parents to be interesting, but not necessarily exciting. Although ‘exciting’ may not be the most appropriate way to describe being attacked by a wild animal. I’ll get to that shortly.

The trip started off innocuously enough. My parents flew into Melbourne, took one look at my place that I share with three housemates, and decided to drive to Sydney—where I would meet them after my job interview.  Yes, the house is generally in a disgusting state, but it’s also one of the cheapest places in Melbourne. I can’t complain about that, but I also can’t blame my parents for not wanting to stay here.

So I met up with my parent in Sydney and we did some sightseeing. Then we hopped on an overnight train to Brisbane. Overnight trains are supposed to be like getting travel and lodging together in one convenient package, but the reality isn’t that pleasant. Especially when oblivious parents won’t control their obnoxious children. Although my mom did get me a new Amazon Kindle, so that kept me occupied for a while.

And I wasn’t being that obnoxious, really.

Brisbane was cool. Taking the ferry downtown every day wasn’t necessary, but we did it just for fun. We also went to a game reserve where they had koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats.

Koalas are pretty stupid animals. No, seriously. Most of their energy goes to detoxifying the eucalyptus leaves they eat, and not much is left over for higher mental functioning. Much like some people I know back in Montana—except with beer instead of eucalyptus.

a squinty-eyed koala bear

See those vacant eyes? Yeah.

Kangaroos are cool though. The reason they’re built the way they are—and why they hop—is that’s the most energy-efficient way to travel moderate distances. I tried it myself, but couldn’t really get the hang of it. Then again, I’m not built like a kangaroo. Still, the way they pivot their bodies forward for optimal balance just before they start hopping is pretty fun to watch.

Kangaroo

Australian animal physics should be a required science course

Next, we drove north to Cairns. This was not….the best plan we could’ve had. We thought the road would be right next to the ocean like it appeared on the map, but it actually was quite far inland. And not scenic. As my dad put it, “We could’ve just driven back and forth on the same stretch of road every day, and we would’ve seen the exact same thing.”

Dad walking back from the beach

This spot was cool though.

At Cairns, we went snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef, which was incredible. But my most interesting animal encounter happened just after that.

The cassowary is an extremely rare bird native to the forests of northwestern Australia. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that the first time we saw one (it walked right next to our car), so we didn’t bother to take any picture. In fact, I mocked the people getting so close to a dangerous wild animal just for a picture.

Then I found out just how rare it is to see one in the wild. Needless to say, I became determined to get a good picture if we ever encountered another one.

cassowary

This is the only shot we got of the first one.

I got the chance sooner than I expected. Heading out from the parking lot after another hike, I spotted movement in the bushes. I grabbed my dad’s camera (which I’d never used before) and dashed off with some Italians who also wanted pictures of it.

The cassowary headed away from us as we crashed into the forest after it. I pointed the camera and pressed the button, but for some reason it wasn’t working. I stopped to see what was wrong with it when I heard one of the Italians shout, “It’s coming right for us!”

Sure enough, it was charging us. I read that if attacked by a cassowary you should 1) not run, 2) get behind a tree, and 3) if there are no convenient trees, pick something up and hold it between you and the cassowary. There were no convenient trees around, so while everyone else ran, I did the only thing I could. I took off my sandal and waved it threateningly at the cassowary. Apparently this worked (or it just lost interest), because it turned and walked off into the forest. Much to my relief. After all, I didn’t relish the choice between getting maimed by a freaky dinosaur-looking bird and assaulting an endangered species with my sandal.

And my dad’s camera? As it turns out, it was set on ‘video’. And I was holding it backwards.

The video is hilarious.

the ignoble jerkass and Vipassana meditation

Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation where you focus on your breathing and on various sensations throughout the body with the purpose of learning how to not react to them.

The ignoble jerkass is me.

I’m referring to myself as the ignoble jerkass in part due to my failure to observe Noble Silence during the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I recently went on. But I’m also calling myself that for other reasons which I will get to shortly.

Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is available at various meditation centers all over the world. There are courses of varying length for experienced practitioners, but the course for beginners is always 10 days. That’s apparently the minimum amount of time for someone to learn the basics of the technique.

Either that or it’s just a nice round number they picked at random.

A friend of mine from the Peace Corps was the one who recommended I do it. He and I went through a lot of the same things while we were in Africa; stress, fixating on things, obsessing about things, and so on. He went on a retreat in America and apparently got a lot of benefit from it, and suggested I could do the same.

Initially I was reluctant. I was afraid it would turn me into a liberal hippy douchebag with no sense of humor, or worse, that it would somehow make me lose interest in writing or take away my creativity. Of course these fears are not rational, but I’m not exactly the most rational person to begin with, so what can I do.

Fortunately for me there’s a nice big Vipassana meditation center just outside of Melbourne, and that’s where I went. Seven other guys joined me there, and around 12 or 15 girls. We were segregated pretty much the whole time, and after the first evening we were instructed to observe Noble Silence, which meant no talking whatsoever until day 10.

This was hard for me. Especially when my roommate in the dorms stepped on my glasses on day 1. My first new pair of glasses in almost 10 years, crushed and broken. I had honestly meant to observe the Noble Silence strictly, but I couldn’t help letting out an “Awww…” when that happened. Still, the worst part was that I couldn’t even tell the guy that I didn’t actually care that much, which left him wondering for the remaining 9 days whether I was pissed off at him.

Out of the 8 of us guys, 3 left within the first few days. I have to admit I briefly considered leaving, but what stopped me was the realization that no matter what, I didn’t want to go back to how I was feeling before. I needed some kind of change in my life—or at least in my outlook.

And that’s what I got. Vipassana meditation is simply about training your brain to be aware of the sensations you experience but not react to them with craving or aversion. There’s nothing magical or spiritual about it; it’s like learning a new language or a musical instrument. But like both of those things, it requires a lot of practice. The purpose of the 10-day retreat is not to cure you of all that ails you, but rather it’s simply about giving you the tools you need to cure yourself over time.

It also provides a lot of insight into what’s wrong with you. In my case it showed me just how much of a profoundly negative asshole I really am, and how destructive this is to me, to the people around me, and to my relationships with them. And it was fascinating to just sit and observe my thought patterns as I tried to focus my attention on my breathing. Goenka referred to the restless mind as a monkey jumping from branch to branch.

I think my monkey has rabies.

Another interesting aspect of this meditation is that as you stop reacting to stimuli with craving or aversion, your old reaction patterns start coming to the surface. And as long as you don’t react to them, they’ll fade away as well. I experienced a lot of really intense emotions as this happened. On day 3 it was frustration, on day 6 anger, on day 7 lust (don’t ask), and on day 9 anxiety. And no, I can’t say I’m completely free from all of these things now, but it does feel like the dial has been turned down a bit.

Another interesting aspect of the course was that starting on day 4 or 5 (I can’t remember which) we were expected to practice Determined Sitting for one hour, 3 times a day. That might not be what they called it (we weren’t allowed writing materials so I’m doing this from memory), but the point was to sit without moving anything for one hour. If this sounds easy, try it yourself. If you’re like me and have a lot of muscle tension anyway, sitting in one position becomes excruciating after about 45 minutes. The idea is that you’re supposed to train yourself to treat this discomfort as just another physical sensation and not react to it, but that’s easier said than done. The whole point of the retreat was to stop having cravings or aversions, but after about day 5 I started developing an aversion to the meditation hall itself. Because that’s where the Pain happens.

Still, it was totally worth it. I may not be enlightened now, but I feel like I have the tools I need to gradually improve myself over time. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll no longer be a negative asshole or an ignoble jerkass.

But don’t hold your breath.

priorities

I came to Australia specifically to focus on writing, but I didn’t count on how freaking expensive it is to live here. And while I do have enough money to live, I don’t really have enough to have much fun.

So I applied for a job as a Medical Scientist in Biochemistry at a hospital in a suburb of Melbourne called West Footscray. And as luck would have it, I managed to find a place to live in West Footscray as well, not too far from the hospital. And yeah, the job would definitely take time away from my writing, but it ends in early September and would also give me a little extra money so I could afford to actually go out and do stuff, which would be nice.

Well, I didn’t get the job. Which means I moved out to West Footscray for absolutely no reason. But hey, at least the rent is cheap and my housemates are really, really cool. So it’s not all bad.

Also, I did get offered another job.

Back in China.

Yeah, I ended up mentioning to my old boss that I didn’t get the postdoc I’d originally applied for in Australia, so he talked to our collaborator from my most recent research project and they somehow arranged it in a way I don’t fully understand for me to have a job as a Research Scientist at Beijing Normal University.

Which would mark the first time in quite a while that the word “normal” would be associated with me in any way, but regardless it was pretty flattering. I asked if I could start in November at the earliest, since my parents have already booked their non-refundable tickets to come visit me over here from late September to late October, and they said that shouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and no matter how I look at it I really don’t see what else I can do. If I get a job here in Australia, it defeats the whole purpose of coming here. But if I don’t work at all, I won’t be able to afford to have any fun, and I’ll be flat broke by the time I leave. If I must get a job, I’d rather do it in China, where I’ll be pretty much guaranteed to get more papers, and since they’re doubling my salary I’ll have plenty of money to have fun in Beijing. Plus I’ll be living downtown, which means I wouldn’t have to spend an hour standing on a subway to get anywhere interesting.

So now I have five months to become a commercially successful writer. Is this possible? Theoretically, yes. In his book on how he sold a million ebooks in five months, appropriately entitled How I sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months, John Locke explains how to, well, sell a million ebooks in five months.

Now that’s good advertizing right there.

A large part of his foolproof marketing scheme involves Twitter. I fucking hate Twitter. But I like money, so I signed up. It was just as bad as I expected. I started “following” other writers, which is like stalking but way less interesting, and I was immediately put off by all the blatant and incredibly lame self-promotion a lot of them were doing. (This is not, by the way, what John Locke encourages people to do.)

I quickly found that I could not take any of it seriously. Yes I want to sell my stories and make my living as a writer, but I just can’t bring myself to do a lot of the bullshit things people on Twitter are doing to promote their books.

And I don’t know why I’m doing this exactly, but more and more I’m finding my efforts turning into a parody of all the advice I’ve gotten so far. I honestly can’t bring myself to take it seriously, but it’s actually kind of fun to not take it seriously. I created a new blog (I now have four in total) to promote my writing and editing efforts, and I’m going to stick with Twitter because I actually have met some cool aspiring authors on there and if nothing else I got to fulfill my lifelong dream of using the phrase “penis goes there” in casual conversation, but I just can’t bring myself to be pushy or insincere.

But I do have a request to make of everyone reading this: if you have the time and inclination, go ahead and post random, funny, inappropriate, relevant, irrelevant, or meaningless comments on my other blog. The funnier or more random the better.

I do have my priorities, and it’s more important to me to have fun and (hopefully) entertain other people as well than to sell books at any cost.

Just in case you missed it, the link to my other blog is here:

 http://vizproductions.blogspot.com/

living with hippies

I thought I wouldn’t have a problem living with hippies. I was wrong about that.

I only moved in with them out of desperation. Trying to find a long-term place to live in Australia while I was still in China proved to be almost impossible, and in the end the only thing I was able to get was a one-month stay where I was taking the room of a guy who was going on vacation. And I only got it by lying.

We had a house interview over Skype, and one of the questions the girl asked me, in her perky Australian accent, was “What’s your favorite vegetarian meal to cook?” I told her it was eggplant risotto.

That was a lie. I’ve never cooked eggplant risotto in my life. In fact, I’ve never cooked anything with eggplant in it. I don’t even like eggplant. But I figured since I’ve never cooked any vegetarian meal in my life, my ‘favorite’ one was kind of an arbitrary distinction.

Still, I just sort of assumed I’d adapt and get into the swing of things once I moved in. I didn’t. Yes, I understand the concept of communal living, but I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. I always felt guilty when I was digging into food that I didn’t buy, and they often wouldn’t eat the food I bought because it wasn’t organic enough, or something.

There was one point where we all went to this big outdoor market to buy fresh produce and whatnot. I figured I’d buy some milk and eggs and other staple foods that someone besides me was likely to eat, and my housemate helpfully pointed out where the eggs were. Sure enough, there were stacked cartons of free-range, organic, carefree-chickens-who-live-full-happy-lives, eggs.

For $12 a carton.

Fuck that. I mean, I don’t want chickens to suffer unnecessarily (as much as they’re capable of ‘suffering’ with a brain the size of a raisin), but I’m not paying $12 for eggs. And that’s Australian dollars too, which is like….something more than $12…..in American money. For that much the chickens should be coming to my house and clucking out the national anthem while laying the eggs directly into the frying pan and then turning around and picking out the eggshells with their beaks.

Which, to be fair, would be pretty awesome. Hell I’d even pay as much as $13 for that.

Seriously though, we had a party my first Friday in Melbourne, and my housemate made vegetarian Mexican food. Which was pretty good for the most part, but it seemed like every hippy had some kind of food allergy or aversion. So we had to have regular and rennin-free cheese, regular and gluten-free tortillas, guacamole with and without garlic and onions, and so on. And the funniest part? At one point they started talking about how when they went on vacation and could no longer force everyone to cater to their whims, their allergies ‘mysteriously disappeared’.

And that, pretty much, is why I hate hippies.

Well, maybe ‘hate’ is too strong a word. And my housemates were both really, really cool. Both continued to share their food with me even though I never cooked (well, I cooked once, risotto sans eggplant), and I tried to do the dishes as much as possible to make up for it. Still, despite my efforts it was pretty obvious I didn’t fit in with the dynamic of the house at all.

Thankfully, I moved to a new place. I’m now living with Indian guys, and it’s fucking awesome. I get along with them really well, I can buy whatever food I want and not worry about it, and I don’t feel like I have to ‘fit in’ with their lifestyle or anything. One of the guys cooked dinner for me—a wonderful chicken curry—so I’m going to cook Mexican food for him one of these nights. And the thing is, it’s cool because I actually want to do it, rather than feeling like I’m obligated to do it because I’m living in a hippy house.

Plus it was like $585 a month. Here it’s only $300. That’s like $285 more of beer money per month!

Australia so far

My time in Australia has definitely been pretty good so far. Which is not to say that I’ve done a whole lot. Still, the few times I have managed to get out of the house have been pretty interesting.

My first night in Melbourne my housemate took me to a premiere at an art gallery she was involved with. My housemate is a professional puppeteer (how cool is that?) and I’m not sure exactly what her connection to the art gallery was. She may have explained this to me, but I hadn’t slept at all on the flight over from China, so if she did I missed it. Either way, it was cool. Some people standing around and pretentiously critiquing the art, but a lot of other people just enjoying it for what it was.

Also there was free booze. I definitely enjoyed that.

But one of the best things so far is that I just seem to be surrounded by really creative people. My other housemate does computer programming, and if you don’t think that’s a creative endeavor you obviously don’t know too many programmers. My housemate’s girlfriend is a chef—and a damn good one too.

Last night I went with my housemate to a speakeasy. Apparently this is somewhat common in Melbourne where people set up illegal bars in their homes and sell alcohol—mostly to their friends and acquaintances—just for fun and to help pay their rent. Well, the one I went to last night was a little more elaborate than that. It was in a sort of abandoned warehouse where the residents apparently lived in a loft on the second floor, and they had a guy watching the door dressed in a tuxedo who insisted you give him the password “watch under” in order to get in. They had a live band, and most people were dressed in 20’s era clothing. Instead of buying drinks, you could buy an empty shotgun shell for $5 which could be exchanged for a beer, or a clam shell for $7 which could be exchanged for a mixed drink. Or you could just keep the shell, I guess, if you’re really, really weird.

It was pretty cool. The music was great, and I got to meet some of my housemates friends, who are all creative people. One guy I met informed me that he was also in a band. An 8-piece pirate-themed band, to be specific. I asked him what kind of music they play, and he said “drinking music”.

Awesome.

Yeah, apparently if you know where to look you can find really good live music every night of the week in Melbourne. Which means it’s a good thing I don’t know where to look, since everything is so damn expensive here I feel like every time I walk out the door I just start immediately hemorrhaging money.

So aside from the night at the art gallery and the two evenings where I went to speakeasies, what have I been doing with all my time? Honestly, for the most part I’ve just been typing up the journal I wrote by hand from when I was 16 until I was 22. I don’t know if this seems like a stupid use of my time, but I’m doing it for two main reasons: 1) it’s something special to me because it paints a pretty accurate picture of what I was like when I was younger, and if I lose the notebook it’s written in, it’s gone forever, and 2) I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do next with my life, and in trying to look forward I think it sort of helps to look back at where I’ve been, and what led me to where I am now.

And it’s pretty funny to read stuff I wrote when I was 16. It’s especially funny to read about how all I wanted to do back then was be a writer. Why didn’t I follow through on that? Well, mostly because I just didn’t believe in myself…

Yeah, it’s cool to see how much I’ve changed over the years, and a little funny and a little sad to see how much I haven’t. I particularly enjoyed this part, which I apparently wrote when I was 18: “Andy, If you’re reading this, never forget how to be happy, how to smile, how to be a goofy idiot.”

I don’t know about the first two, but I definitely got that last one down pretty well.

goals for Australia

Obviously I came to Australia for the sake of having interesting adventures on a new continent, but in addition to that there are some very specific goals I want to accomplish while I’m here. And like so many other times in my life I may have completely unrealistic expectations, so I’m going to go ahead and write my goals out here so people can laugh at me later when I fail to achieve them. Therefore, here are my Critical Awesomeness Goals for Austraila, or CrAwGoaFAus:

Become a better writer. This is the main one. I don’t think any amount of effort could turn me into a truly magnificent writer, but I think if I spend the majority of my time here focusing on improving my writing, I can at least become a respectably competent one. And I won’t say that my goal is to write a bestseller, or even get published, because those are things outside my control. But I can focus on reading at least three or four hours a day, and writing at least 2,000 words a day. Those are things I can control, and both will help me to make my writing as good as it can possibly be, which is all I can really ask for.

Learn to cook. The same goal I had when I went to China. Of course it’s slightly more likely to actually happen here, since at least in Australia I can read the labels on things and I don’t have scary people randomly shouting things I don’t understand at me in the grocery store like I did in Beijing. Plus the girlfriend of one of my housemates is a professional chef, and both my housemates can cook pretty well. I may pick up a thing or two just from proximity.

See as much of Australia as possible. This is going to be harder than I initially thought. Mainly because everything is so expensive here. Well, compared to where I’m coming from, anyway. As always I didn’t quite think my cunning plan all the way through, because while I technically have enough money to live here for a year, I don’t have enough to actually do anything, aside from paying rent and occasionally eating food.

I really should’ve come to Australia first, worked and earned money here, and then gone to China. Trying to earn money in China in order to live without working in Australia was just, well, kinda dumb.

Figure out relationship stuff. While I’ve made some fantastic and wonderful friends over the years, I haven’t had a good romantic relationship since 2002. And in a lot of ways that’s actually kind of a good thing for me, since I probably wouldn’t be traveling around the world and having stupid misadventures if I were in a committed relationship. Still, I feel like there are a lot of things I still need to figure out, because it’s unbelievably frustrating when I’m interested in a girl and she sees me as at best a friend, and at worst someone to be manipulated. I’m still not sure exactly what I want (which is another thing I need to figure out) but if nothing else I think I need to get better at making my intentions clear from the start.

Other stuff. Yeah, those are pretty much the main things. I have a lot of other things I want to do, like continue to study Chinese, maybe start studying Spanish again, type up a bunch of stuff I wrote ages ago by hand, maybe self-publish a collection of short stories, learn a programming language, and so on. But these things are secondary. If I accomplish them that’s great, but if not that’s ok too.

Of course, there is one other slightly important goal:

Figure out what I’m going to do next. I’m $80,000 in debt, and I need to start paying on these loans pretty soon. Apparently you can only get an ‘Economic Hardship’ deferment for three consecutive years, and that’s how long it’s been for me. So I need to figure out something. Playtime is almost over. Because yeah, I had this wild idea that somehow I could write a book in less than six months, get an agent, and get a large enough advance from a publisher to at least start to pay down my loans, but when I look at it realistically and objectively, I don’t think it’s very likely that I’ll be able to do this in less than a year. So I need to figure something out.

But not before I learn how to cook. Because you gotta have priorities.

a look back on my time in China

Before I came to China I had already decided that if I really liked it I would stay for two or three years, but even if I hated it I would still stay for at least one year. When I told this to my housemate last week he thought about it for a moment, then asked, “So what does it mean that you stayed for a year and a half?”

Heh.

No, the fact is, in a lot of ways I’m pretty sad about leaving China. I’ve made a lot of really cool friends here, and I’ve had a really good time. Plus I’ve definitely learned a lot, and not just about computational biochemistry.

I try not to have too many expectations when I go to a new continent, but I definitely have goals. And my goals for China were to write a good scientific paper and have it published in a respectable journal, learn Chinese to a basic conversational level, see as much of China as I could, learn as much as possible about Chinese culture, learn how to cook, finish my book, and date a Chinese girl.

Surprisingly, I succeeded at all but two of those things. Although I’m not entirely sure that I should really be calling my experience with dating a Chinese girl a ‘success’.

The main thing I failed at was learning Chinese. At this moment my Chinese is about as good as my Italian, which means I can insult people, hit on girls, talk a little bit about coffee and food, and generally make an ass out of myself. I have many excuses for why I didn’t learn Chinese, but really it all boils down to one thing: Chinese is fucking hard.

The other thing I failed to do was learn how to cook, but I don’t like cooking anyway so I don’t really care about that.

As far as my successes though, aside from the dating debacle things went better than I could have ever possibly hoped. And hell, even the dating was good in a way, because it really was a profound learning experience.

Ostensibly I came to China to do postdoctoral research in computational biochemistry. That’s what got me the visa, anyway. And although I know I could’ve worked harder, learned more, and done a better job, I’m still pretty happy about how things worked out. I wrote a book chapter on drug design, a paper on selenium-modified DNA, and I helped a friend of mine get his paper published. I also gave a series of lectures to my research group on how to give a presentation, how to write a scientific paper, etc. And to be honest, I found that I like explaining things, editing papers, and helping other people a lot more than I like actually doing research.

Might’ve been nice if I’d learned this before spending $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry, but oh well.

And I know my experience would’ve been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the wonderful people in my research group. From the very beginning my boss was cool, patient, and understanding with me, and he’s always been a pleasure to work for. As far as the other members of my group, one of them became my best friend here and eventually my housemate, and I really hope to keep in touch with all the rest of them as well. They definitely are a great bunch.

And I’m not just saying that because I know some of them read this blog (hi guys).

China is a pretty damn big country, and while I certainly didn’t see all of it, I think I did manage to see a fairly decent portion of it. The Great Wall (twice), the Terra Cotta Army, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, and a bunch of other places with names that will be meaningless to almost everyone reading this, but they were pretty damn cool for me to see. What was especially cool was having my parents come visit, and getting to explore China with them. Because it’s highly unlikely they ever would’ve come here if it hadn’t been for me, so they got the opportunity to see some truly incredible things they never would’ve seen otherwise.

Plus they paid for a lot of my stuff too.

Before I left England I had this fantasy that once I got to China I would work during the day, then have the weekends and evenings to work on my writing. But like so many of my fantasies it really did not work out that way. Mostly because research took pretty much all my time and energy, and when I wasn’t working on that I was too exhausted to do anything else.

But finally, in November of last year, in a hotel room in Zhuhai, while smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cheap liquor, both of which probably have taken a combined ten years off my life (but the shitty years at the end that I don’t want anyway), I managed to finish my book. And if nothing else, it showed me that if I really want to be a writer I’m going to have to make it my primary concern.

Which is why I’m moving to Australia tomorrow to spend a year on nothing but writing.

So yeah, I’m truly grateful for the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had, but I’m ready to move on. Ready for the next misadventure. And although I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of living my life based on a comic strip about a kid and his stuffed tiger, as I get ready to take off into the unknown…again…I can’t help but think of the last panel of the last strip of that comic.

It’s a magical world….let’s go exploring.

growth and maturity

Today I want to write about growth and maturity. Not in an economic or financial sense, because I really don’t have much personal knowledge or experience with any of that, but rather in an individual sense; the growth and maturity of an individual.

Of course I don’t have a lot of personal knowledge or experience with that either, obviously, but I’m going to write about it anyway.

Apparently, some people out there are of the opinion that men today are not very mature. For example, this silly bint claims that men today in their 20s are in some sort of lamentable post-adolescent but pre-adult phase where they would rather play video games and hang out with their friends than have a so-called “traditional” life.

Which of course is pretty stupid. Stupid that she considers it lamentable, I mean.

Because so what if guys want to actually enjoy themselves? What she fails completely to mention is how many of these guys are gainfully employed. Because yeah, if they’re just living in their parents’ basement and being human leeches, she probably has a point. But if these guys are hard-working and taking care of themselves and their obligations, she really has no right to object to how they spend their spare time.

Well, if you look closely, what she’s really criticizing is the fact that these guys don’t seem to be interested in getting married. That seems to be her single criteria for “maturity”.

As a 31-year-old who has absolutely no intention of getting married any time soon, I find that pretty funny. Because I know myself pretty well, and I know for a fact that I am definitely not in a good position—emotionally or financially—to get married any time in the near future, and for me to marry someone now would actually be an extremely immature and irresponsible thing for me to do.

Which is why I proposed to a hot 21-year-old girl a couple of weeks ago. But that’s a whole nother story.

For what it’s worth, I don’t consider myself to be particularly mature. But I also don’t have any desire to be mature. I especially don’t have any desire to conform to someone else’s definition of maturity. I do, however, consider myself to be reasonably responsible. I always try to take responsibility for myself and my actions, and I generally do my best to not excessively inconvenience others with my immature antics. And yeah, I don’t exactly go out of my way to take on additional responsibilities, but I don’t shirk the ones I do have either.

But while I may not be particularly interested in maturity, I am interested in growth. Spiritual and intellectual growth, and the continuous expansion of my knowledge and experience. I have great plans for the places I want to visit, and the books I want to read, but I can’t help but observe that there’s a very specific chunk of human experience that I may end up missing out on, and as I get older the odds of me missing out on it forever are only going to increase.

Then again, sneaking into the UN building and rearranging all the countries so the representatives of the ones that hate each other have to sit next to each other and then run away before security catches me is kind of a stupid goal anyway.

There’s also the thought of getting married and having children. Because I have absolutely no doubt that I would experience a whole heckova lot of personal growth, and gain a lot of human experience, if I were to do either of both of those things. Hopefully in that order, too.

And I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good or bad thing, but I think a lot of men around my age aren’t experiencing this because they’re not forced to. With the increase in the variety and prevalence of birth control, along with the decrease in weapon-toting fathers, we’re seeing a lot less unexpected and unwanted pregnancies, and by extension a lot less shotgun weddings. So guys like me are no longer compelled against our will to “grow up” and “take responsibility” and all that other crap.

I can’t help but wonder if by not getting married and starting a family I’ve simply exchanged personal growth for a sort of hollow and empty freedom. Unfortunately, the only way for me to know for sure would be to get married and impregnate my wife, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to do that until I’m absolutely sure that I’m ready.

Plus, you know, I’d still have to find someone I actually want to marry—and who wants to marry me.

Still, despite my worry that I’m missing out on something profound, as an abstract concept I do not find marriage the slightest bit appealing. And I mean this in the kindest way possible, but all the wifey/mommy comments I see on Facebook only serve to cement this feeling. Because while I am absolutely and genuinely thrilled by the happiness my friends are experiencing, every single comment serves to confirm that it’s not something I want for myself.

At least not at the moment.

I was in love once. Well, I thought I was, anyway. Back in 2003 I proposed marriage to the girl of my dreams. Well, actually I just told her I was thinking about asking her to marry me, in order to gauge her reaction, but that’s not the point. The point is, while they were never things I’d wanted before, suddenly I wanted to get married because I wanted to marry her, and I wanted children because I wanted to have children with her. So yeah, marriage as a concept doesn’t appeal to me, but I have no doubt that if I got together with the right girl I’ll feel differently.

On the other hand, when I think about all the stuff I would’ve missed out on over the past eight years if I’d gotten married in 2003, I am so fucking glad that girl flew out of my life before I had the chance to do something really stupid. Even more stupid, I mean.

And yeah, I mean that literally. A couple of weeks after I asked her to marry me, she left the continent. Not the town, or even the country, but the freaking continent.

A simple “no” would’ve been sufficient.

the stupidest thing I’ve ever done

In June of 2004 I climbed Mt. Elgon, the 7th highest mountain in Africa, with a friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. If you’ve read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, you may remember Mt. Elgon as the location where a man contracted the Marburg virus (a relative of Ebola) from a cave on the mountain. The book is non-fiction. And where did my friend and I set up camp while we were on the mountain? That’s right, in a cave.

Oh, but it gets better.

Mt. Elgon is in Uganda, and just before my friend and I went there the US embassy intercepted a transmission from the Lord’s Resistance Army declaring their intentions to kidnap Americans. We met with the Country Director for Peace Corps Uganda and she made us promise that we wouldn’t venture north of Kame, something we agreed to heartily despite the fact that we had absolutely no clue as to where—or even what—Kame was.

The reason I mention this is to simply point out that my going to Japan this week despite an urging from the State Department that no Americans travel there now is hardly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

In my own defense, I must point out that I’ve been planning on this trip for weeks, and my ticket is apparently non-refundable, so I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t go ahead and go.

Aside from, you know, earthquakes, but still.

I hate the thought of being a tourist at a time like this, so if there’s any way for me to volunteer or help out in some way without actually impeding the relief efforts, I’m going to try and do it.

 

[Update: I’m not going after all. The hotel I was going to stay at cancelled my booking, and it seems that things even in Tokyo are not that great. There’s no way I would want to be a selfish tourist right now, and it doesn’t really seem like there’s much I could do to help out since I don’t speak Japanese, so it’s probably for the best that I just stay away.]