taking my ball and going back to research

I moved to Australia with $13,000 in savings and the delusion that I could become a commercially successful writer within a year.

That didn’t work out.

For starters, Australia is more expensive than I anticipated. Even though I live in the cheapest place I could find and I hardly ever go out and do anything, I’m still spending well over $1,000 a month. Which means my plan to live here for a year and do nothing but write is not a feasible one. Plus, starting in February I have to make payments on the student loans I took out for graduate school.

As far as the writing itself, I admit that I got sucked in by the Indie hype. The advantage of being an Indie writer is that you can put out as many books as you want as fast as you want. I thought, with a little revision on the stuff I’ve already written, I could put out a new novel every 3-4 weeks. And within six months, I’d be making at least a few hundred dollars per month. Maybe even more.

But that only works if your books are good. Fortunately, I met a group of writers, editors, and book reviewers who were willing to take a look at my stuff. Even more fortunately, they were not afraid to tell me that my “masterpieces” are not ready to be published. Self-published or otherwise.

Writers (and their well-intentioned friends and family) are generally not great judges of when a book is ready to be published. I’m extremely grateful to the people who gave me the honest feedback I needed. Yes, it hurt to hear that my books aren’t good enough (yet), but I would never want to put a book up for sale if it’s not ready for general consumption. That just seems like it would be a huge disservice to readers. And to my career as a writer.

So much for my plan to become an awesomely famous writer in less than 12 months. And so much for my savings, which are almost gone now. And yeah, I could get a part-time job to pay the bills so I could keep my focus on writing. But to be honest, I’d rather not. I need to start paying off my student loans before the interest consumes me like a rabid wildebeest.

When I left China I swore that I was done with research for good. I love science, but I get bogged down by the day-to-day monotony of running calculations and trying to figure out why the fuck things aren’t working. On the other hand, I did spend $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry. And it’s something I’m good at, so at least there’s that.

I knew from the start it was kind of a long shot, but I applied for a research position at RMIT University here in Melbourne. And somehow, I got the job. I start in January, and my boss seems cool. Plus, the pay is like six times more than I’ve ever made in my life. So that’s nice.

And just in the past few months, my outlook has changed. Maybe it was the Vipassana meditation, or maybe I’m just being more realistic, but the thought of going back to research doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing completely though. I’ll still write in the evenings and on the weekends as much as I can, but now I’m not looking for the instant gratification. If it takes me ten years to produce a good novel, that’s fine. I’m in no hurry.

Research actually is pretty cool.

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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.

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.