Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Polar Bear Maze

Remember how I was a polar bear? Let’s do that again.

Now I have a nice pool for swimming, so I splash in it occasionally. I have a little snowy hill, so I remember sliding down it. There are polar bear friends and they used to be fun. But now it just seems lame. I’m a bored polar bear. And a bored bear is a sad bear. People who visit my little area are disappointed - I don't do anything all that interesting and they were hoping for more from their trip to the zoo.

So when I was asleep (because I sleep a lot), the keeper built a maze. So I woke up and cocked my head at this new structure. Then I wondered what the keeper expected me to do with these new walls and doorways and tiny spaces between them. Eventually my polar bear friends started to enter the maze, so I shrugged and waddled in myself.

The problem with the maze is that it’s rather fluid. Once I choose a particular path, I can’t backtrack and find what existed in the beginning. Everything is different as it changes over time. And I find that I keep moving forward – turning left, then taking that path. Finding a door and passing through it. Walking along with a friend and then turning right to head off on my own again.

Now at first the maze seems fun. I find neat little toys – a tiny, yellow ball that I can carry in my mouth. A soft green blanket I use when I find a nice corner in which to nap. A floppy gray bow I can wear around my paw. Just to be pretty.

So it’s worth it – the maze. Eventually there’s more space between the walls. I feel safe moving through it, though I’m not sure where I’m going or what I’m working toward. But I decide that a blue ball would be good. A big blue ball. One that bounces and rolls and I could lie on top of while I floated in my pool. I could chase it down my hill or play catch with my friends. I could look at my ball and marvel at how pretty it is. The ball starts to represent true happiness.

But at some point the maze feels a bit restrictive. I miss what was. I start to wonder what would have happened had I turned left instead of right. Sometimes I think about the last decision I made. Other times I go back to the beginning and wonder why I took the first door rather than waiting to find the second one. But when I turn to look back the way I came, it’s different than I remember. Because the maze is dynamic and I can’t go back. Rather, I can go back, but it’ll be different now than it would have been then. Or I could continue to go forward.

I’m confused about where the big blue ball is. I know I want the big blue ball, but I’m not sure how to find it.

For some reason, I think it’s down the second path from the left. So I start down that way, shuffling along on my big, black paw pads and lifting my snout proudly because I’m strangely certain that I’ve selected the right path. But then someone yells at me.

I’m startled because I’m not used to being scolded. But I try again – head down that same path – because certainly it was an aberration. The last time was just a little mistake. Maybe I was walking too close to the wall. I’ll try to walk down exactly the center of the path, nose to the ground as I focus on placing my big paws.

But someone yells again. And I look around and it’s directed at me. I’m wrong. Inadequate. “No, no, no!” I’m still confused, so I turn around and scurry away. I’ve covered the fact that turning around is strange – things are different than they were before, though I’m still looking at the same path once I return to where I think I started. But this time, the other paths are gone. There’s only this one road to take. And I think the big blue ball is at the other end.

But now I wonder if I want the big blue ball all that badly.

So I go to a friend – an older bear. And I say that I want to quit. I’m tired of the rejection. There are beings down that path I need – faceless, nameless beings – that don’t like me at all. So he listens while I tell him about my previous strategies, offers encouragement and advice. So we plan and plan and plan.

And I eventually close my eyes, put my big nose down, and run forward as fast as my bulky body will allow.

When I open my eyes, I’m past the bad point. Nobody yelled. In fact, those faceless beings offered some advice of their own on how to get better. Maybe I could open my eyes on the next path – watch where I’m going. Moving quickly was good. But eyes open – that would be better.

For the next section of the path, I dutifully kept my eyes open. They liked that I did that - good progress for me! - but would also like to see my nose up. They thinking sniffing as I move quickly along will help make me a better bear. More capable of moving through this one last section. And they offer me a squeaky toy as a reward for making it this far.

So I take the squeaky toy and squeeze it to hear the happy sound. And I smile because that was nice of the beings. They weren’t so bad after all. I just needed to find the right group of beings! I’m glad I found a good mentor bear - he guided me in the right direction and offered a good starting point for navigating that section of maze.

I’m going to hone this plan tonight, then discuss it with mentor bear later this week. If I make it past this point – through the faceless beings’ tentative acceptance into full in-press-ness, I get a special squeaky toy. One that’s a medium-sized blue ball. It looks like the big blue ball I want so badly! It’s just smaller and squeaky. But that’s good! It will certainly make me happy!

And after I get that prize, I can start on the path to the next one. Mentor bear has ideas on how to re-plan our next route. Fix the mistakes of the first time. Eyes open, nose up, moving quickly, but with a bit of a prance. He’s good at what he does – mentor bear. And I’m learning. It’s easier to run with eyes open. I can work on the 'nose up' part. And I’ve seen prancing done – I could probably pull it off. But there will likely be rejections and hurt feelings along the way.

“My paper was tentatively accepted.” I told Boss today. “But I don’t want to write the grant again. I know I should. And I will. But I don’t want to. I’m so tired of feeling badly about myself.”

So he offered a pep talk and said he’d nudge me toward the grant. It’s important, he noted. We were going to do it. He would help me. It’d be fine.

I was thinking about it – the maze, my prizes so far, the promise of the medium-sized, squeaky, blue ball. And I was – and have been – oddly numb about all of it. The changes are easy – I can probably finish learning to run with my nose up tonight. But the medium-sized, squeaky, blue ball seems a bit lame. All that work, all those rejections (16 months of them - really), all that time. For this? Really?

What am I doing? I asked the keeper on my way home. What’s the point of this particular maze? Can I just quit? Why won’t you just give me the big blue ball?! If I accept I may not get a partner, why can’t I have professional satisfaction and success? Why won’t you give me happiness? Just give me the big blue ball!

And I suddenly realized – with a gentle, yet disturbing thought – that the keeper never said anything about the big blue ball. That idea came from me. The ball may not exist – at least not in the form I expect. The point may not be the end at all, but how I choose to spend my time in the maze. If I help the other bears. If I share the blanket I earned when I see a bear that looks too cold. If I offer my squeaky toy to a cub because I don’t play with it very often. If I ease my focus on the big blue ball to stop and talk to another bear who might be lost. If I offer my shoulder and pat with my paw when another bear is sad. I want to be gentle and hopeful, happy and gracious, attentive and loving.

I really do want that and should spend some time figuring out how to be that bear.

Instead, I’m going to go create a figure that displays how well I can run with my nose in the air so I can get that medium-sized, squeaky blue ball.

Because that’s what I do.

But at least I think I might see it for what it is.



post-doc said...

Sometimes I write something and wonder if it makes sense. Tonight is one of those nights. So if you don't get it, that's OK. I don't think this post is very clear and it's not the sort of thing I can ask Boss to edit for me. But it means something to me - I understand it - so I'm posting it anyway.

But I remain grateful nobody here yells at me or makes me feel inadequate or wrong. It's a good feeling, actually, despite my relative triumph in the publishing battle today.

Lucy said...

I'm not sure I understood the whole thing, but I got something out of it. I love polar bear stories.
I hope you get your ball, or something equally rewarding.

ScienceWoman said...

I think I understood every detail of this polar bear story. And I can relate. Just remember that in addition to being about helping other bears out, it is about helping yourself (post-doc polar bear) out. By taking time to swim in the pool and slide down the hill and not spending all of your time and energy worrying about the maze. At least that's the part I need to keep reminding myself about. Thanks for this post!

Anonymous said...

i love your stories!

i hear so often that its about the maze, not the ball or whatever we imagine is at the end. but its hard to remember that.

i'm glad your paper was accepted and that you were able to get through that section of the maze.

things will get better once we are used to being in mazes. at least that's what i'm hoping.

take care.

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