Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lessons Left Unlearned

I was looking for jobs in Spring, 2005. We happen to have a large conference when the weather begins to warm, so there are few better opportunities to network, read job boards, and begin initial conversations with people who should definitely want to hire me.

I tracked down one such individual, not completely focused on finding a job, but rather on getting a question answered so I could finish the last section of my dissertation. His papers using a particular technique in a disease state that was semi-related to my own were vital to defining some of my validation project. Except I couldn’t get the validation to work. At all. Armed with a carefully worded question and lists of solutions tried and failed, I approached Mike timidly and waited for his conversation when an older scientist to end.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” I began when he glanced over at me and smiled. “I actually have a quick question for you when you're finished.”

“We’re just catching up.” He said with a quick shake of his head that matched the insane speed of his speech. “I always have time for questions.”

So we volleyed back and forth for a couple minutes, alternating questions and answers and ideas. He finally smiled, admitted he knew what my problem was, but they hadn’t finished the paper yet. Leaning closer to confide the secret, he told me exactly how to fix the very issue I faced. It worked perfectly, and I was pleased that I had been polite yet prepared enough to get what information I needed.

“We got scooped before.” He said on a sigh as we started to walk away from the session room to head toward coffee. “Did you read Jones? In Journal 1?”

“Oh.” I said, smiling sympathetically. “With the different distance algorithm? I did read it. Good idea.”

“It is a good idea. We had it too, but we didn’t jump on it fast enough. Damn it all.” But he shrugged good-naturedly. It happens. “You know what else you should read? With your specific interest? Smith – Journal 2.”

“From last month? I saw that! Their specificity was insane – nearly 100%, right? But that dataset is nearly impossible to get. Do you think it’d work if I acquired at a different time point?”

And I basked in how impressed he looked. I knew the literature! I had a good discussion where not once did I have to say, “I haven’t seen that. I’ll have to do some reading and check back with you. Thanks for the tip.” Instead I had searched, printed and carefully read. Understood and memorized facts, authors and journals so when someone asked a question – whether in a meeting with a committee member or in an interview or in a random discussion at a conference – I knew the answer. Not just from my work, but from major contributors to the field.

In that moment, I realized that keeping up with reading was vital. My impression of my particular field is that many ideas are out there already – they just need to be found and applied. So I try to attend seminars across disciplines, collaborate in disparate areas of interest, listen when people talk because I can’t predict when your knowledge will magically apply to my problem. But the major lesson? Read. Keep up with lit searches, don’t get buried in old stacks of papers, make sure I'm at least vaguely familiar with what’s going on so I can keep moving forward in knowledge if not original work.

So I do read. Blogs, mostly. What you guys think and feel and worry over. And it helps me figure some things out personally. And my writing has developed appropriately (though it’s hit or miss) in terms of articulating emotions, being honest about who I am and who I hope to be. I’ve learned a lot writing this blog – will likely continue to do so.

But professional reading? Not so much. In fact, rarely do I even search to see what’s up. Read tables of contents to see what I’m missing. Unless I have a very specific problem or am writing an abstract or polishing one of my years-old papers, I’m not doing the reading. I’m bringing out excuses and thanking people for citations because I can’t do much discussing. I probably haven’t read whatever it is you’re talking about. Which sucks. I learned this already! But as I went through a stack of papers today (slowly. Painfully slowly. With breaks for TV and a nap and much moaning about how hard it is to read technical papers), I realized that the valuable lesson on keeping on top of the most relevant literature had been lost on me.*

I don’t want to write this next part because it’s rather embarrassing. But, OK. On a more personal note, I was talking to Unnamed Friend as she frowned at me from my couch as I perched on my loveseat.

“I’m still trying to make it work in my mind.” I said.

“How so?”

“I still want it to be right. I want to figure out a way that it was OK that he lied. That he didn’t really care about me very much at all. That there’s a way that I wasn’t really wrong and that it can work out in the end.”

“Work out how?”

“I get to have him.” I said boldly, then ducked my head. “I know. I do. But it’s him or nobody. And I don’t want to end up alone. I’d rather have someone who’s not quite right. A part of something rather than nothing. Because there won’t be anyone else.”

I think she shook her head at me, not unkindly. Probably told me that there was someone else out there for me. I don’t believe her – I’m not capable of it right now. In my mind, it’s still him. I’m so used to hoping and thinking and wishing that it’s hard to stop in some moments.

I didn’t quickly get over Gabe – my undergrad crush that started something like 8 years ago. Though I dated extensively after he was gone, even had a relationship that was quite serious, I was always aware that nobody quite measured up to him. Was as smart, sensitive or sexy. Made me feel as much trembling hope that someone that amazing existed and if I could find him, perhaps I’d get to keep him. I still dreamed about him years later. Immediately broke up with a guy I’d dated for a couple months when Gabe sent a casual email after two years without contact. I wanted that – those feelings, the intensity – and I’d only found it with Gabe. It's not that I expected him to suddenly decide to leave his wife and move to be with me – it was never a consideration at all. But I couldn’t settle for someone who couldn’t inspire such passionate hope, and despaired that I’d grow old, still wishing for a young man I knew for a couple years in college.

I remember reading an alumni magazine in my current home within the past year or so – far after the time I felt any feelings for Gabe should have died – and closing my eyes against tears when I read he’d had a child. It was, for me, the final end. The time when any hope or fleeting fantasy became unforgivably inappropriate. I missed that though – the idea that maybe she was wrong for him, that perhaps I’d been right all along and had found my partner and not having him was just a mistake. Because the terror that I wouldn’t get to feel like that again, the pain that I’d had a sense of what could be but would never know the complete sensation – it was sad. Really lonely and achingly sad.

So it’s not like I’ve never felt my current feelings before. Thought that it was that guy and the loss of him was terribly hard, even when it was perfectly clear that things had to work out this way. The lesson – I think – is that when I gave myself over to the next love, the old one was gone. I’m happy for Gabe – remember thinking that I was so grateful that he found his wife so that I was open to meet this guy who was better for me. So much more of what I wanted. That had I ended up with Gabe, I’d have unwittingly settled for someone – something – that was less than the possible happiness I’d found from a man who read my blog.

But, well, that didn’t turn out so well. But the feelings for Gabe remain gone. There is greater happiness out there for me than he could have provided. I’m more without him than I would have been with him. And I know that I’ll eventually say the same of Peter. I am grateful that I know the truth – it’s forced the process of letting go. Anything valid that might have otherwise remained – hope or questions or fantasies of which I was so fond – has shattered. I wrinkle my nose over it sometimes – try to work some reasonable scenario around the facts I’ve accepted that indicates there’s still something over which to think. There isn’t. I know that.

But in moments where I close my eyes in sadness – feeling certain that there’s nobody out there who could be honest and still make me feel like that? I wonder if that’s really true. If this is just Gabe, redux. If the next man who comes along might be the right one – the one who makes me wish the other men very well, leaves me profoundly grateful that I waited for the man who was really right, and gives me the sense that there is a complete love – one that makes me feel safe, happy, part of something true, strong and enduring.


I still want the last one to have worked. Still feel inadequate and pathetic when I think of the other women with whom he was involved. Wonder what I did wrong and my motivation for doing so – in choosing him, hanging on for so long, and not being enough to hold his interest. And though I know professional literature provides motivation, answers to vital questions, topics of conversation, I have fallen woefully behind.

There’s rarely an alternative to going on from here. Reminding myself of things I know - because I've already learned them - yet still don’t completely believe. Relying on my understanding of the past to shape my future in a smarter way. Accepting that when I screw up – repeat the same freaking mistakes and insanely expect different results – perhaps the most recent lesson will be the one that sticks.

*Unnamed Friend taught me the coolest trick, and I wanted to share it. Since I do enjoy bloglines so much, she suggested I put lit searches in there as well. A bit of a "I love bloglines!" + "I don't love lit searches" = "OK, I'll read stuff for work." So if you use PubMed, you'll want to create a good list of search terms, then click go. From the page that lists citations, you'll see a pull-down menu that says "Send to" and if you pick "RSS feed" you'll get a page where you can set some limits and name your fancy new friend. After you "Create feed" then click on the XML button, you can copy and paste that address into your feed reader of choice or use the little "Sub with Bloglines" button. I set up about 10 of these this morning in hopes that I'll at least be familiar with what I should be reading. This is, after all, a thrilling development of which I was unaware until recently. We'll have to see how it goes.


TitleTroubles said...

I didn't just *probably* say it, I really did say it. More than once, I think. Somewhere out there is someone who actually deserves what you have to give. And you deserve to find the one who completes you, loves you, truly cares for you. Don't fixate on the wrong one so that you miss the chance to even see the right one walk past.

And, really, set up those RSS pubmed searches! At least make finding the articles easy. (Won't make reading them any easier, sadly.)

JustMe said...

you will not end up alone. there is right person there for you, who deserves you! i know it doesn't seem like it now, but he is out there. it just sucks waiting for him ;o)

Lucy said...

I've just been trying to catch up on some reading, too, since I haven't done any in a long, long time. I'm impressed at how well you could remember what you've read! Reading doesn't seem to pay off for me very well, since I immediately forget/confuse what I've read.

And the others are right. You don't need to settle for this guy who didn't appreciate you. You'll find the right one. Just keep doing your searches :)

ScienceWoman said...

That pubmed trick sounds pretty neat - my method is to have the tables of contents of certain journals emailed to me by the publisher when the issues come out. I scan the titles and maybe read an abstract or two. That way when somebody mentions an article I can at least say I've seen it if not read it.

You can't settle on this guy - just as you didn't on Gabe. someone much much better is waiting for you to find him.

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