Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On reading Fiction

Nonfiction English writing in a professional setting is one of my unrealized dreams. It is not with bitterness that I say it, though, but certainly with longing and regret. On the bright side my future in science will involve a significant amount of writing, but I'm afraid it will never come close to the carefully crafted, entertaining and provocative prose like that of Ben Yagoda, Bill Deresiweicz or Mario Vargas Llosa. Even more so knowing that scientific writing in the natural sciences has become, in the light of climate and environmental pressures, a new form of marketing campaign.

Long story short: I like reading and writing in English— and look forward to exploring new venues to improve such skills. What I know is that both reading and writing take a lot of work. In particular, reading is a very demanding activity. I don't think someone can make the most out of reading unless they develop the skill of finding patterns between the lines.

I know some people who consume podcasts, read books from cover to cover, and are happy to recite to you, in vivid detail, what they have learned. My case is often the opposite: I don't finish the book because I find a tangent so early in the reading that I lose track of the rest of the story or the argument. In reading the 2015 essay Notes on the Death of Culture by Vargas-Llosa, for example, I could not help taking a leap towards the work of George Steiner who is heavily cited in the book. Then, after briefly skimming Steiner's The Lessons of the Masters, I leaped on to re-read essays by Bill Deresiewicz on education in search of patterns both in content and style. "Reading [just] one book," wrote Diane Duane, "is like eating one potato chip". But my habit of riffling through titles without actually delving in the material —an activity one can grow deft at in graduate school— suggests that I don't get any of the chips, or rather, that I wasn't even looking for chips in the first place. Then comes the question on whether the 'reader' label I like to carry on like a canvas backpack is actually accurate or an overstatement. Being a good reader, I imagined, consisted in making it to the last page and being able to recall —to recite— all the major points. This definition, though arguably flawed and outdated, lets me arrive at the same conclusion: I am not much of a reader but a networker, a researcher.

Part of such 'research activities' (read: perusing nonfiction and avoiding fiction) are founded in my own sheer pragmatism: I often read to find something I, in advance, desire to learn. This of course isn't the right mindset to read fiction because you never know what you're going to find. So what happens is that I read a book on English style (like Ben Yagoda's The Sound on the Page) and he shows examples of style, or voice, across a number of genres. Then that's when I want to read fiction - but the pragmatic focus never faded away: I am now looking for different styles, structure, syntax, grammar. And that may well be a good excuse to bring myself closer to a vast world of books I didn't even consider.

Friday, October 23, 2015

It's that time of the year (when I write)

Not that many people read my ramblings here-- but I have been posting here at a glacial frequency.

Anyway, I guess that the time to write again has come. First, it always surprises me how things have changed since I started this blog. But I don't want to do a comparison of different locations on a timeline right now or write about my work, or whine about how different I am or about how society pushes me in one direction or the other. No bureaucracy, no countries, no complaints.

At this point there's honestly no red tape to worry about, my job is on track and secure, nobody is pushing me and I am comfortable where I live right now. I make sure to stop every now and then to be grateful for all this - like really meaning that gratitude.

I do want to write (read: ruminate) about other stuff I have been thinking about, which involves more of my non-work being. Removing myself from the pressure of family and country has helped me get to know myself a little better, especially in terms of who I am and what I really want. Here is what I found:

-I needed to do some serious work with my boundaries. This helped me move from apparently helpless, uncomfortable situations to being comfortable with my own choices. Therefore I have become more confident in doing what I need to do to better take care of myself. In other words, I started to operate more like: I'm ok, you're ok -- we can be together but I have these limits. We teach people how to treat us. Saying no and not feel guilty about is is pretty fucking fabulous.

-Stopped believing that the world must operate in a certain, idealized way. I did a lot of resilience work for this one and the result is that I stopped ranting.

-I was a bit of your overachiever, somewhat entitled golden millenial: it never occurred to me that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself by expecting to have 'all figured out' by 25 - and with 'all' I mean literally 'all': Education: zero loans, full rides and a PhD in the northeastern United States. Relationships? Yep, a smooth, lead-by-example, long-term one with a smart, beautiful woman. Travel? Indeed, to Europe, Central America and United States. Family? All going smoothly. My own self: passion found, work I loved, volunteering, exotic hobbies, healthy, independent, assertive, etc. Wow, what the fuck?. Only when I really detached from that insane train of thought I realized that it was ridiculous pressure for no reason. And in this one I have no one to blame - at this point the only pressure I have is the one I put on myself. So I had to loosen up a little bit, take a whole new perspective and just try to live in the moment. This took many self help books (I believe in those), many advice from friends (often online friends) and lots of emotional work, group support and the eventual therapy. It was hectic on my brain and heart, but so worth it.

-I consciously started to think about relationships from the very scratch, which is great when the pressure is no longer there. I had never really done this. All I knew was that I was some sort of prince who could be entitled to things, and that I had to pursue what people thought made sense. No wonder I was always angry or stuck. I went out with women who were too intense, unavailable or crazy only to confirm my bias that dating sucked. But even though I was considered successful and accomplished, I was not sure why a more serious and responsible woman would be interested in me. Oh, I was wrong in so many levels and believed that I had to be in one to prove that I was, in fact, a decent man. In other words, I was what some people call 'A nice guy'. Now I'm not much more of that, which is great. But even though this is a good thing, dating still goes very slowly. I asked someone out and by the second time I saw her, I noticed that things were not going anywhere. Some time ago I would have freaked out - it never occurred to me that it's ok for things not to work and that I needed to date more in order to see what holds water in the long term. So I expected to be in a state of pure bliss on every date and this high expectation sort of killed me every time. On the other side the meaningless way or the casual sex way didn't quite work for me either, so I'm looking for the real deal now. I think this is the rockiest part of life at this point.

-Whether I should go back to being catholic or not. Oh boy that's a good question. It's not that I gave up on being a catholic - I just sort of branched out, focused on what I could or couldn't do without the rituals and the like. I used to be very religious in the past until it changed in college. Key point here is that I still have some if not all of the values which have shaped the man I've become today. I need to think more about this.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The so called 'fear of missing out'

When I tell people that I have been to Russia, I automatically become 'more interesting'. In their heads there seems to be an association between 'far' and 'important'. And, to me, a trip to Russia only means that I went to Russia. In other words --and this is not for the humblebrag--, I don't know very clearly how travel makes me, in the eyes of others, a better person.

Admittedly, I haven't traveled to a lot of places outside of Colombia. I have been to three countries (Mexico, Rusia and where I now live, the US). And while traveling is a good experience, there are too many assumptions about people who travel. I, for one, am not and have never been wealthy. My advantage is that I am neck deep in academia and if one is savvy and knows where to look and how to do networking, travel opportunities may arise. I went to Russia because my undergraduate university sponsored it. And I went to Mexico because I was invited to do an internship. I embody the saying of 'being nerd pays', if the saying actually exists.

So it's all good and I'm grateful - but now these trips sort of became a default, hackneyed introduction letter that I use when I go to one of those upper-class 'laid-back' events with some of my colleagues here. Anytime they start getting to know people and the travel theme comes up, I have my three cards ready to play. Then if you have had international experience, you're sort of like 'in the club' of nice, special people. Because it is just so cool to share what your last night in Paris was like. A lot of narcissism and a lot of careerism can be seen around here --both borderline pathological.

The fear of missing out is also driven by a strong desire to be fabulous - in everything. No wonder this is, to agree with Brené Brown the most obese and medicated cohort in America. My core impression of America is that the vast majority of people don't know what they want - and even worse, they can't easily see through the distractions and figure out what they really want. They're both fiercely independent and not at the same time.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Brief note—

Back in 2008, and specifically before I first got out of the joyous puddle that Colombia is, I used to be a bit into the new age thing. I was pretty much an INFPish, or at least had the traits of one. All was about organic stuff, colors, music, the arts and so on. I was the sunlight-absorbing type, grew my hair much longer and was often in a mesmerized state with respect to nature and music. The future didn't bother me as much and I had the passion flames of a train in full throttle. I listened to Yes and Jon Anderson and Vangelis while being softhearted and, ironically, ignoring the world at the same time. I would also pay attention to mushroom-eating topics such as the 'planetary transition' or the 'fifth season' while swimming in sheer idealism (now I don't do these things). However eccentric, those days had a sense of inner calm that nowadays is so difficult to get -- and we're only talking about seven to eight years ago. Sometimes it feels like it's been a hundred years. Now the general feeling is that of a train —a fancy train, that is, since that I have become— running at high speed into, who knows, a flatland? a promontory?