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.

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.

I made the right decision

I used to believe in Fate. I’m not sure if I still do.

I read a book while I was in the Peace Corps called The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In the book, the protagonist was guided virtually every step of the way by people encouraging him to fulfill his destiny. And while he faced many challenges, through the strength of his convictions he was able to overcome them, and in the end he succeeded.

Which is why I think that book is a complete load of crap.

Because it’s easy to pursue your destiny when you know exactly what your destiny is. For me, the greatest challenge I’ve faced in being a writer is my own self-doubt. If someone had come along and told me that Fate had decreed that I was meant to be a writer, that success was a foregone conclusion, I’d probably have several books published by now. Because writing itself comes easy to me, but the fear that my writing sucks is a constant hindrance. So I procrastinate way more than I should, because I’m afraid to confront the possibility that I am simply not good enough of a writer to succeed.

On the other hand, if I knew for a fact that I was destined to succeed, it would take all the satisfaction out of the success. I wouldn’t feel any sense of accomplishment if I knew for certain that I was guaranteed to be successful no matter what. Given the choice, I would definitely prefer not to know.

So yeah, I don’t know if people have a Fate or a Destiny or anything like that, but I definitely am 100% certain that I made the right choice in leaving the field of scientific research to pursue my dream of being a writer.

For one thing, I’m just so much happier now. I feel so much better than I did before. And don’t get me wrong, because my boss was awesome and the people I worked with were really, really cool, but for the past few months every single day  I went to the Institute was a complete fucking drag. I couldn’t make myself interested in what I was doing, and I just felt constantly drained of energy and motivation.

Things are so different now. In the week I’ve been away from work, I’ve written a short story and a nonfiction essay and submitted them to a literary magazine, finished the prologue of my latest novel, designed a cover for my book, learned about various publishing options and formatting guidelines, and uploaded my book for publication as a traditional paperback from Amazon.com, as well as an ebook from Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other retailers. It should be available in various formats within the next couple of weeks.

And like I said before, I don’t expect to make a lot of money from my Peace Corpse memoir. But it is helping me a lot to learn the process of writing, editing, revising, and formatting. And in the near future I expect it’ll help me learn about promoting and marketing. Which should be interesting.

I’m definitely making a lot of mistakes though.

I asked a friend of mine to design the cover because he’s a fantastic artist, but he’s pretty busy at the moment so I went ahead and designed one myself. I showed it to a couple of friends and they said it was kind of ok, but really not that great.

Which means it matches the contents of the book perfectly. So I think I’m going to go ahead and go with it.

Within the next few days I’m going to start a new blog to specifically promote the book, and I’ll be contacting book bloggers and asking them to review it. From what I’ve read this seems to be the best way to promote a self-published book. And who knows, I may get lucky. All it takes is for the right person to like it, and if that happens I’ll be pretty much set.

But the important thing is that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing with my life. Honestly, I can’t think of anything else I could do that would make me happier. And while I may never be good enough of a writer to make a successful career out of it, I really feel like this is the right thing for me to do with my life right now.

This is what I wish for all my friends and family. I hope everyone can find something they truly enjoy; something that they actually look forward to pursuing, engaging, and working on.

And yeah, I do realize that some dreams are unrealistic, and pursuing them will simply result in agonizing and soul-crushing defeat, but that’s just part of the fun of life, right?

so far so good

Technically last Friday wasn’t my official last day of work since I’ll probably still make an appearance at least once a week for the next few weeks (to make sure the student who’s taking over my project doesn’t have any problems), but for all practical purposes I’m done.

And I’m pretty happy about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned, but I’m glad to be done with it. As a friend of mine pointed out, I’m not really into the idea of being a computational chemist. It would be nice, but just not good enough. It’s just not something I could devote my life to.

But I think writing is. I spent all day Saturday researching options for publishing, and I spent all day Sunday formatting my manuscript. I have a good friend who very kindly agreed to design a cover for me, and as soon as that’s finished I’ll be ready to sell it.

I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route. And by “decided” I mean “all 27 literary agents I sent a query to rejected me”. Apparently there just isn’t a booming market for Peace Corps memoirs written by someone who isn’t already notable in some other way. Who knew?

Still, self-publishing isn’t what it used to be, thanks to the internet. There’s actually a growing number of writers having pretty decent success with it. Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath are two notable examples.

With self-publishing you get to have complete creative control over your work and you receive a greater percentage of the profit from sales. Which is pretty cool. But at the same time you have to take full responsibility for promoting and marketing your work yourself. And when you consider how many books come out each month that your work is effectively competing against for a potential reader’s time and money, this is a pretty big deal.

For the record, I don’t expect my first book to be a huge success. Hell, if I sell ten copies, and more then two of those are someone besides my mom secretly buying multiple copies to make me feel better, I’ll be happy. As I said, there just isn’t a big market for Peace Corps memoirs, but if nothing else it’ll be a major learning experience for me. I plan to use this book as a test run to see how the process works, and hopefully I’ll be able to gain the knowledge and experience I need in order to have greater success in the future.

Regardless, I am absolutely certain that I made the right decision in quitting research to pursue a career as a writer. I really enjoy learning everything I can about the process of producing and marketing a book. For the most part, research generally felt like a chore to me. Sure I had moments of enjoyment, but by and large I was doing it because I had to, and not because I wanted to. And while I may end up failing hilariously and spectacularly, at least I’ll be able to say that I gave it my best shot, and I wasn’t afraid to take the chance.

Of course, I’ll still be in pretty big trouble when my student loans come due, but I’m sure I’ll figure out something.

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.

no offense

Have you ever thought about how fucking silly it is to get offended by shit?

Obviously I haven’t.

But seriously, when you allow yourself to be offended by something, you give someone else a power over you that they really shouldn’t have. I mean, if someone can come up with a well-researched, logical, reasonable argument detailing how you’re wrong about something, but you can reduce them to speechlessness and thereby win the argument by default simply by calling them a “fuckwit” or some other such nonsense, isn’t that, well, kinda stupid?

Now for the record, I make a distinction between “hurtful” and “offensive”, because sometimes when someone attacks you verbally you can’t help but be hurt by it. But when I think of the term “offensive”, the image that comes to mind is a small child on a playground, face scrunched up in outrage, foot stamped, accusatory finger pointing, declaring with typically childlike indignation, “You can’t say that!! That’s offensive!!”

To which my response is generally, “………so?”

Which is not to say that I take pleasure in saying (or writing) things purely for the sake of causing offense. I don’t. On the other hand, I do often choose particular words because of the effect I want them to have on the reader. And yeah, I don’t always get it right, but that’s all part of the learning process. The point is that I’m not interested in limiting myself or my vocabulary simply because I’m afraid of offending someone.

Now it may seem like people being overly sensitive and easily offended is something new, but I don’t think that’s the case. I have no doubt that for as long as the human race has contained various permutations of stupid people and assholes we’ve had stupid assholes getting offended by stupid things (like being called stupid assholes, for example) and we’ve doubtless had other assholes who figure out pretty quickly what offends the stupid assholes, and then intentionally do those things to piss them off because it’s funny. Not that I’m condoning such behavior, mind you, but I’m not exactly sympathetic either.

Because there is nothing in this world that offends me. Seriously. Nothing. Now I’m sure plenty of people could find plenty of hurtful things to say to me, but there’s not a single thing anyone can say that would make me so outraged that I would insist that they not be able to say it.

Because I want to know what people are thinking. I want to know who the douchebags are, rather than getting blindsided by them later because I wasn’t able to readily identify their true nature from the start due to their veneer of Political Correctness. I want people to be open and honest and direct, because if nothing else, it makes it a hellova lot easier to know who I’ll want to avoid.

And doubtless there’s at least one or two people out there who feel the same way about me.

But that’s fine. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me about everything. And if someone can explain to me how something I’ve said is truly hurtful, odds are I’ll adapt my language. But if someone were to bitch at me because according to them I’m offensive, odds are I’d just make fun of them.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s the person who claims to be offended who is really trying to take power from someone else, because what they’re actually doing is trying to control what someone else can or can’t say. And I think that’s pretty lame. At worst, it’s an insidious way to try and limit free speech. After all:

“If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed.”

–  St. Jerome (347-420 AD)

So there.

my last month of work

This month is my last month of work. I’m pretty excited about that, despite the fact that this might turn out to be the worst mistake of my life.

The thing is, everything in my life up to this point has just kind of worked out for me without too much effort on my part, and I’ve always felt like I was doing what I was meant to be doing. Fate. Fulfilling my own personal destiny. Swimming with the current of Life, or whatever. Unfortunately, the scientist in me is forced to acknowledge that this feeling is most likely irrational and emotion-based, and has absolutely nothing to do with reality or my future prospects.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because I ran through a busy intersection five times without looking and managed to not get hit by anything, that doesn’t mean that this time I won’t get creamed by a bus.

But that’s ok too if my goal is simply to traumatize people. And it is.

But seriously, I’ve spent a year and a half now working for one of the top guys in my field and in a lot of ways I’ve set myself up pretty well for a future in academia, and now I’m just going to throw all that away?

You’re damn right I am.

Because I hate my job. Honestly, the only way I can make it through this last month is because I know it is my last month. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it for the most part, but now I want to be done with it. For good. And yeah, it kind of sucks that I wasted $65,000 and five and a half years of my life to find out that I don’t really want to do this stuff for a living but hey, at least now I know.

And really, it wasn’t actually a waste. I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had and the knowledge I’ve gained for anything. Especially not five and a half years and $65,000. I definitely got the best end of that deal, I think.

Even aside from the vague concept of “life experiences”, I really feel like I’ve gained valuable skills that’ll serve me well no matter what I do. Things like knowing how to research a topic, how to summarize, how to work independently, how to edit, and especially how to spot when a report on a scientific “discovery” that’s in the news is completely full of shit.

That’s something that’ll be useful no matter what career I end up with.

But now I’m a little less than one month away from embarking on something that’s been a dream of mine for the past sixteen years at least: to be a writer. Like, professionally.

And honestly, it scares the hell out of me.

Because up until now, it’s always just been some far off dream I could use to console myself when I didn’t like what I was doing; a fantasy where I could imagine myself as a successful and well-regarded author who didn’t have to slave away at a job he hated just to survive. Which is not to say I’ve ever actually slaved away at any job I’ve ever done since I’m really not that hard of a worker in general, but the point still stands.

But a month from now the dream will be come a reality, and I’ll potentially be forced to confront the fact that I’m just not that great of a writer, both in terms of style and content. And if that ends up being the case, the dream will never again be possible. And once that dream is forever shattered, I could very well end up a broken shell of a bitter, devastated man.

Ah well. I’ll still always have beer, porn, and video games, anyway.

Honestly though, when it comes down to it I’d rather know for sure than always wonder. And this really is the only way for me to know for sure. And I still have a lot of other plans, and plenty of other things I want to do with my life besides writing, so hopefully I won’t be too disappointed if I end up being a miserable failure at that.

I’ve always wanted to write a book about someone who was a failure as a writer, but the only way for me to know what that truly feels like is for me to be a failure as a writer myself. But if I’m truly a failure as a writer, how will I write the book about being a failure as a writer?

These at the things I’ll be thinking about instead of doing work during my last month of actual work. It’s a good thing I’m quitting, or else I’d probably end up getting fired.

discouraged

I’m feeling kind of discouraged right now.

It’s currently the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, and technically I’m supposed to be on vacation, but instead I’m at my cubicle. The lone person in my office.

Lucky me.

There were three main things I wanted to accomplish during the break: 1) find an agent for my book 2) finish writing the paper on my most recent research 3) find a solution to my anxiety problems.

I failed at all three of these things.

Last Thursday I wrote 17 query emails to literary agents. Friday morning I had three responses—all rejections. Basically, no one is interested in a “Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa” story because it’s been done to death. And even if I think I have a new and unique and interesting take on it, that’s not enough to excite an agent.

I was pretty disappointed, but I did have one tiny ray of hope: one of the agents mentioned that he noticed my credentials, and told me if I had any ideas for a book about science or specifically biology, I should contact him. Well, as a matter of fact I have been thinking about writing a novel about my experience as the only non-Chinese researcher at the top biological institute in China. So I wrote to the agent and asked if this was something he’d be interested in. He responded right away. To tell me that this might be a good topic for a magazine article, but not for a full book.

Dammit.

Alright, on to the next thing: finishing my paper.

I woke up early Saturday morning, fixed myself a pot of coffee, booted up my laptops (yes, plural), and…nothing. I couldn’t even get started. I just couldn’t get my mind to focus. And the harder I tried to motivate myself, the worse I felt.

So I decided to move on to the next thing.

I have been in more or less constant pain since I was 17. It started as a dull burning sensation in my shoulders, then spread to my back when I was in college. When I was in Africa, it spread to my throat and lower abdomen, increasing in intensity as it went along. At first I didn’t even know what it was, until someone pointed out how tense the muscles in my back were.

And yeah, that’s all it is. It’s just muscle tension induced by stress and anxiety. But there is not a God damn thing I can do to make it go away, and it causes me CONSTANT pain. The worst is when it’s in my throat, because it feels like I’m being choked by an invisible hand. That’s where it is right now, as I write this. And the most frustrating thing is the more frustrated I get about it, the worse it gets, and then I get frustrated because I can’t make myself stop being frustrated. And so on.

So I decided to spend the rest of the weekend meditating. I’d read a bunch of stuff on the internet about meditation techniques, and I was cautiously optimistic.

Turns out this optimism was rather unfounded.

Because every time I started to relax a little, my heart started racing, pumping adrenaline into my system. It’s like my body has decided I need to remain at a certain level of alertness at all times, and as soon as I do anything to reduce this level, my body compensates by increasing my anxiety until I’m back where I started. Basically, I spent the whole weekend meditating, and by Sunday night I felt exactly the same as I did Saturday morning.

Fuck me.

So yeah, I’m feeling pretty discouraged right now. And no, I’m not looking for sympathy or anything, but I set myself a goal of writing one blog entry per week, and I don’t have the energy or motivation to write about anything else, so this is it.

But I’ll get over it. I’m moving to Australia in 3 months, and I’m going to visit a good friend in Japan next month. Plus, the cute Chinese girl I met a couple weeks ago called me on Saturday, and she wants to get together with me later this week. She said we could “go play”. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’m really hoping it’s a euphemism for sex.

So yeah, things aren’t all bad.

revision

William Faulkner once famously said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Apparently he meant this metaphorically, and not as an exhortation to go out and perform some sort of bizarre and ritualistic sacrifice of all those you hold dear in life. Seems like he could’ve made that more clear.

But hey, lesson learned.

I’m currently in the process of revising my first novel. It’s a nonfiction account of my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, appropriately entitled, The Peace Corpse: Misadventures in Love and Africa.

I’m trying to do everything like I’m supposed to. In Stephen King’s excellent book on writing, appropriately entitled, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he says that after you finish your first draft, you should set it aside and not even look at it for at least six weeks. So that’s what I did. I even marked six weeks out on my calendar, because I’m just that anal.

Sure enough, the day the six weeks were up I eagerly brought out the manuscript, ready to turn something that was maybe just sort of ok into a literary masterpiece of such magnificence and profundity that it would instantly skyrocket me to such esteem and admiration that my mere presence would cause beautiful women to spontaneously tear off their clothes and enthusiastically wrestle each other for the mere opportunity to talk to me.

Because that would be awesome.

And yeah, if my writing—and especially my editing—ability were as unique and colorful as my imagination, maybe I could approach something close to that level of success. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Because as I read through my manuscript with what were supposed to be “fresh” eyes, I found that while there were parts that I really liked, and parts that I felt could be a lot better, I didn’t have the slightest idea what I could do to actually make any of it better. Which is especially frustrating because there were many times while I was writing it where I was thinking, “Yeah, this part sucks, but I’ll fix it during the revision,” but now I don’t remember exactly which parts those were, and in particular I don’t know how to fix any of it.

Dammit.

What I need is for someone who isn’t me to go through it and tell me which parts don’t work. The problem with this is that it’s hard to find someone who is willing to sit down and read through a 98,000-word manuscript on a computer screen and make critical comments about it. That’s a pretty big request to make of someone.

Of course, the other problem with this is that I’m an arrogant ass who doesn’t take criticism very well. But I’m going to have to get over that.

Regardless, I’m determined to get it published this year. Because 2011 is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and my book has exactly 50 chapters. Plus, I think the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary might make the general public more interested in it than they otherwise might be, and if nothing else, setting the goal of publishing it this year gives me something to motivate myself with.

But the fact that I have to face is that it’s entirely possible that no publisher will want to take it. Plenty of Peace Corps Volunteers write memoirs, and I have no doubt that most of them are better written than mine, with a lot more description and character development, and a lot less random and unnecessary swearing. And that’s cool. If I can’t find a publisher, I’ll self-publish. Which means of course that my Mommy will be the only one to actually buy a copy, but that’s ok. It’s not like this is the only book I ever plan on writing.

Of course, there’s a completely different type of revision I’m doing right now: revising scientific papers. Yeah, in the past few weeks I’ve worked on no less than four separate papers. Hell, if all goes well I’ll have at least five scientific publications this year—two research papers as first author, one as second author, a comment paper as second author, and a chapter of a computational chemistry textbook (first author). That’s actually pretty damn good for a guy who claims he’s not that great of a scientist.

It’s kind of got me thinking that maybe I’m making a horrible, horrible mistake by leaving science. After all, while I’m not exactly the greatest scientist ever, I’m actually pretty good at what I do. If nothing else, I know how to write papers and grants, and I know how to interact with people. And that’s about half of what a scientist does anyway.

What really struck me was something an American researcher I met at the conference in November said: “Doing science is like a hobby.” Now those weren’t his exact words, and I’m just now getting to the edge of being too drunk to type coherently, but the reason this struck me is that I always thought that you had to be passionate about science in order to do it well. But the fact is, you don’t. But at the very least, you have to see it as a hobby. It has to be something you enjoy devoting a good chunk of time to. And I think it’s possible for me to see science that way.

But only if I no longer have the delusion that I could be commercially successful as a writer. And that’s why I’m still planning to move to Australia in May, in order to devote an entire year to nothing but writing. And if I can’t come up with something marketable in that time, if everything I submit to agents and publishers gets rejected, I think I could give up my dream of being a writer and be content to be a scientist.

But only if I know for certain that my dream of being a successful author is just a dream.

Regardless, there’s a third type of revision I’m doing at the moment. I’m 31 years old today. 31 years old and $80,740.20 in debt. I’ve had a great time screwing around these past 31 years, but I think it’s time for me to start taking things seriously. I was loaned that money for college and graduate school in good faith, and I fully intend to pay back every dime that I owe. And if that means I have to take a job that I hate for a while, so be it. I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Of course, this doesn’t in any way change my plan to screw around in Australia for a year. I mean, I’m serious about my responsibilities, but I’m not that serious.