I have a toy on my desk. Romp – a slender plastic pendulum has a magnet on the free end. There are concentric circles painted on the silver base, and little magnets that I can move around – make the pendulum move in different directions.
I don’t play with it very often. Pulled it out of its corner today as I lost focus on work and flicked it to set it in motion. Watched it blankly for a few minutes, nudging the magnets on the base to see if it would swing a bit longer before coming to rest.
I noticed it was dusty, so I pulled the magnets off and held them in one hand. I rubbed the other hand across the silver metal, then placed it back on my desk. Let gravity alone control the swinging magnet for a moment. But I wasn’t going to carry the base magnets around with me, so I started to put them back.
My knowledge of Physics should give me some plan in placing these magnets, I think. But I had none. Staring at the system, I decided to create a repellent zone in front of the support structure. It’s noisy when the pendulum hits the larger support bar and I don’t like noise. Three magnets created what I thought would be sufficient force to avoid that collision.
Then I stared at the six magnets left in my hand, tempted to just leave them stacked on the corner of my little toy. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with them. So I set them down, watched the swinging magnet drift rapidly toward them then quiver, attracted but unable to reach its goal.
I returned to my papers and sighed heavily. I’m beginning to think it’s rather common – at least in my little field – to leave grad school with some things left to do. Move on, start something new, but we’re trained to multi-task. As I try (and fail) to become hyper-productive in my new work, creating opportunities for future publication, I should also be writing up old work, revising, dealing with the rejections, trying to find new journals, facing the terror that if my old work isn’t good enough, my new work likely won’t be either. Winnie and I talked about that too. Looking miserably at our CVs and wondering how this was all going to come together.
I’m grateful I have the chance to finish more work. I really am. While I’m often bored – think it’s tedious and frustrating and get lost in details that seem important yet overwhelming – I think my work has the potential to be quite important. That’s why I do it. It doesn’t feed my soul. It provides an income – not a trivial component. But it also could help people who need help. If some combination of knowledge – mine, my collaborators, authors of papers I read and mimic – can increase their time with family or quality of life, can decrease the risk of recurrence, can predict the initial occurrence of disease so the misery that is cancer treatment can be avoided… That’s a good enough reason to work.
But the truth is that there’s a large selfish component for me. I’d like to say that my only motivation is patient outcome. That might make me a pretty good person. Instead, I’m battling for authorship order. Holding some papers that should have been published – that might play a small role in providing some insight to people who are working faster than I am. I make sure collaborators have a good idea of time commitments so that when author order is decided, I have an argument for why I should be higher. I spend time – significant time lately – poring over a proof for one paper and tweaking wording on another. Work that’s long since been completed and isn’t, in all likelihood, all that important. Well, to anyone but me. I crave those lines on my CV. Need the validation of seeing my name, my words and figures, in print.
I didn’t want to feel selfish, so I turned away from my pretty monitor and neatly stacked paper, and returned to my little toy, pushing the pendulum to watch it swing. I pulled the stack of magnets apart – they’re pretty strong – and placed them around the outside in a loose ring. Then I pushed the stick to the left and noticed the pattern wasn’t very interesting. No sudden swings or unexpected turns. Just a gentle circle as it swung easily, feeling the pull from the various magnets, but not overly attracted to any specific direction. I nudged one closer to the center and watched the swinging magnet react dramatically.
I watched it for a long time, occasionally pushing it one direction or another when it slowed. Pulling or pushing the magnets on the silver base to see what happened. Let my thoughts drift, thinking about nothing in particular, acknowledging I ached with sadness and accepting that it was appropriate for now. It should hurt. Losing Winnie – regardless of how close we were, how much I liked and admired her, her potential, her current feelings about her academic life – is a truly sad event. I’m deeply sorry over it.
But it doesn’t seem to matter enough. People continue to smile at each other in the hall. I return greetings and respond with a “Fine, and you?” when people outside the department ask how I am. They don’t know about Winnie, and I feel too fragile to inform them. Is that wrong? Should they know so they can feel sorry too? I found myself blinking back tears several times today though, didn’t want to end up wiping at my eyes in the hallway while someone was trying to do their own work. Have thoughts that we should care more – stop for a moment and acknowledge the awful event in some profound way. But we continue, do what we do. Revise papers and look over consent forms. Schedule meetings, talk to people, have a vague idea of some lofty goal that sometimes gets lost in my competitive urge to make my CV a bit prettier.
The pendulum is held to the base by a piece of fishing line. Flexible and rather sturdy. Yet transparent and somehow fragile. I remember reading the directions when I first got the toy years ago. The line will eventually snap. Even if you do your best to place the magnets carefully, set the swinging magnet into motion gently and with great care, at some point – no way to tell when – that slender thread will break.
The thought that it would break during a bad time. One with erratic motion – the swinging magnet feels ugly and confused and has no idea where it’s going next. The hope is that this postdoctoral angst is worthwhile. That these papers are going to be published, pages will be added to the CV, we’ll learn and grow and figure ourselves out. Get some semblance of a social life. Find a husband, or if one has been obtained, find time to spend with him. Have children and teach them. Sing songs, read stories, watch silly cartoons. I picture the swinging magnet moving gracefully as the base magnets pull gently in a more balanced pattern. So the goal for now is to nudge those magnets. Try to find a pattern that works. Understand that while it sucks for now – there are periods of depression or anxiety, loneliness or inadequacies I sometimes wonder desperately if I’ll overcome - I hope I'm working toward something amazing.
We, as academics or professionals or parents or just people, accept that sometimes life is hard. There are times when it’s painful but you hope you’re learning and making progress and that eventually it will get better. That I’ll eventually arrange my magnets in a more pleasant pattern.
Winnie deserved a beautiful pattern. I hate that she didn’t get to see her work come together. Wanted to cry when I got my proof via email because it was a lovely feeling for me. She should have had it as well. Feel somehow guilty that I continue to make progress, am busy trying to nudge these magnets around, when I feel I should be doing something to indicate that her loss matters to me.