Of the weekend

We hadn’t had a sunny weekend in a long while here in Bloomington, and so I took full advantage of the weather by going on long walks with friends and enjoying the warmer weather.

Mother’s day was Sunday, and to get myself in the spirit, a friend and I hung out at Cafe Django and indulged in classic Indian chai (seriously, it is just like my mother makes), we also were lucky enough to catch some tunes being played by a local jazz band.

I spent some of Sunday afternoon at the pottery studio, hanging out with newly acquired friends and practicing centering on the wheel. I’m actually getting quite good at this; my cups/bowls are actually becoming symmetrical!

I’m really trying to focus on wrapping up my Master’s degree so I can move on to grander things!
Wish me luck!

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Happy Mother’s day

No love is more powerful than the unconditional love my mother has for me.
Words cannot describe how blessed I am to have this woman in my life.

Such a beautiful lady inside and out.
I love you mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

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Thank you friends.

I was sitting in my room chatting with my cousin Saket via facetime back in March with the window open and cold air filling my room. Earlier in the day, I had suffered the most awkward conversation with my research adviser.

I was full of emotion. Tired, sad, upset, angry, relieved and yet anxious all at the same time. The idea of leaving grad school had been in my mind for a long time (since passing my candidacy exam), but I couldn’t do it. And then earlier that week, I finally realized I couldn’t stay. Nothing could keep me in the academy.

I shared my sentiments with Saket (who incidentally is a top-notch engineer with an extremely pragmatic and optimistic view of life). He basically reacted by saying, ‘Get out, grad school isn’t making you happy, this is the best decision you will ever make’

Other people I talked to said one of 3 things:

My parents: “I support you in whatever you decide”

Higher-ups in academia: DO NOT QUIT. Try this or that, change programs, take a break, talk to the adviser, and write a dissertation, you’ll be glad you did. Don’t live with regret. Don’t quit.

Fellow grad students: “Do you think I should leave too?”

And then I realized that almost everyone was trying to work their own issues out through my own decision-making. It wasn’t until I made the decision to leave the program that I realized how enmeshed my own identity was in academia.

In any case, it seems as though the people who love me the most and understand me the best are most ‘okay’ with my decision. Most of these people have no idea what grad school is like. I checked in with my parents, cousins, mentors, and numerous friend-colleagues before I gave myself permission to quit. It amazed me, but it really was true: They loved me for who I am, not for what I do. They would still love me, even if I quit graduate school.

Quitting is thrilling. I think of the books I’ll finally have time to read just-for-fun. The marathons I will be able to run. I think of the creative projects that have lied dormant that I now have time to finish: I can finish that half-knitted shawl, start that podcast the Freakonomics team put out about the Upside of Quitting, and hang out with friends. It is like I finally have freedom.

But, freedom is terrifying. Freedom is so formless. I’m so used to the stress, the pressure. I feel like I need to be doing something, anything, more than whatever it is I’m doing. Even though I’m plenty busy with applying for jobs, meetings, cleaning, and finishing up my thesis, I’m convinced I am not doing worthy work unless I’m maxed out and exhausted in every way.

Although I want to enjoy the little things, the quiet and still moments of spring and warmth of tea in my hands, I am often grouchy and irritable. There’s terrible whiplash when you go from grad school time to regular time. You invent enormous tasks to undertake. You feel a need to fill the void with something as comparably Significant and Meaningful and Important as grad school, like running marathons, or climbing Mt. Everest. Newly turned from the womb of grad school, we flail like newborns, seeking those firm and reassuring boundaries. We squint in the bright light and turn away, grunting.

As difficult as it is, I am trying very hard not to fill the void. I am resisting the urge to replace the work and stress of grad school with new work and new stress. I am forcing myself to adjust to regular time, regular life, the quotidian rhythms most people take for granted.

Grad school drills from you the ability to stay in the present. You always have to think ahead: from coursework to candidacy, from candidacy to dissertation, from dissertation to post-doc, etc. Do you ever savor the moment in grad school? I can’t think of a single, quiet, triumphant moment. I don’t want to miss out on those anymore, so I am sitting in this discomfort and letting my body and mind get used to the expanse.

For now, I’m thinking about today, not tomorrow or next year (ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES I LIE AWAKE AT 4 AM THINKING WHAT DID I JUST DO). But I trust that this will pass. I trust that by this summer, I’ll be able to sit on a park bench in the evening and just listen to the cicadas and talk to my friends about harmonicas and picnics, and be totally there. Even if it’s a Saturday.

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Gearing up

Hello darlings!

I had quite the weekend. My friend J-C came into town from New York for old times sake and hang out. We ended up eating dinner at Siam house and then headed over to the Spoon for tea (and to escape the madness of Little 5 weekend that took place). It was nice catching up with everyone and odd to see everyone moving on.

In addition to getting acclimated to the idea of ‘changes to come’, I’ve been gearing up for interviews. I’ve been making headway in the job application process and things have been promising thus far. I spent the better half of the weekend preparing my job talk. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that something pulls through soon!

In the meantime, I’m cleaning up the house, listing it this coming week, and baking cookies to give to my friends who are still suffering through finals.

My new mantra: This too shall pass.

My theme anthem for the next few months:

Two Door Cinema Club “Something Good can work” from Ross McLennan on Vimeo.

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Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem”

It is Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday, so naturally, my friend Eric (who happens to be a classical music aficionado) filled me in on a free public concert of the Italian composer’s “Requiem”.

The concert was absolutely spectacular and included a 75-member concert orchestra in addition to a 130-member Oratorio Chorus!

Written by the agnostic composer in honor of the death of a man he admired, Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi’s “Requiem” is a musical setting of a Roman Catholic funeral Mass. It employs the text of the Mass as a dramatization of the soul’s questions and feelings about dying, death and the afterlife. It can be considered an opera, though it is not staged with costumes.

Verdi’s Requiem
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My friend Catherine is an avid iconographer. Yesterday evening, she invited me to check out the monastic community where she learned how to paint icons (by an extremely gifted nun who teaches classes there). In particular, I found the use of naturally derived pigments to be intriguing! The painting studio has a myriad of books on the subject (may as well be a library); many of which are incredibly informative and unfortunately probably out-of-print.

For my friends not familiar with the tradition, in Eastern Orthodoxy and other icon-painting Christian traditions, the icon is generally a flat panel (generally of wood) painting depicting a holy being or object.

The iconography studio where classes have been taught for over 2 decades!
Myriad of pigments (all various earth/rare-earth metals)
Hand-painted icons in various stages of the icon-making process
Iconographers in action!

Watching the slow and meditative art was a really cool experience.
It is truly impressive to see how much theology and art have managed to build upon each other!

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Announcement : Off the beaten path

March 18th 2013.
Today I told my research adviser I was leaving my PhD program.

It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, and I’ve got to thank my friends, mom and dad for their advice, support and love.

I could have gone to pharmacy school, or medical school, or law school, or gotten a job straight out of undergrad but I chose to go to graduate school at one of the top analytical chemistry programs in the world. And now, I’m walking away from it. I had been tossing the idea of leaving my program since passing my candidacy exam, but I could never bring myself to actually do it until today.

I initially came to graduate school because I wanted to be a research professor. Over the last few years, my views of the academy have changed and I’m now finding myself wanting balance above all things. I’m no longer seeking a position as a professor and as a result, I no longer need a PhD.

We are in the midst of an ‘education bubble’ in which far too many people are far too educated. Nature magazine likens the trend of higher education to a ‘Factory’. Currently, there are too many PhDs and no one wants to hire overqualified candidates in this economy. For what I aim to do, industry/real world experience speaks far more than academic titles.

Looking back, I think to myself, ‘why did I stay in the program so long’ (especially after reading this article that was published ~ 2 years ago) and now, it is so clear. I’m not a quitter, and leaving feels like quitting. I’ve jumped through most of the hurdles, teaching, coursework, candidacy exam, and now, all that is left is research. I know some of you are thinking, ‘Puja, this is you! You can do it!’, and I’d agree with you, but it isn’t what I want to do. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.

While I was at the monastery, I thought a lot about my choice to leave. There are prevailing winds that have influenced my decision. First, the obvious one is the economy. As mentioned previously, this job market is not keen on hiring PhDs and so getting one will not ensure that I get a job (though, now that I have resigned from my program, some may say I’m crazy to be leaving my program without having another offer on the table)

The other factor that I can’t help ignore is that I want a life; not in 3 years, not in 10 years, but now. The innumerable hours spent in my current window-less, loud, lab environment, lacking opportunities for social interaction aren’t providing me with balance or happiness in my life. I would also eventually like to have a family that I can spend time with, and the more qualified I become, the less time I will have for family life. It is important to get priorities aligned, the sooner the better.

Finally, the ultimate realization that I needed to move on came to me when I was asked, “Why are you getting a PhD” and my reply was, “To have a PhD”. I’m not the type of person to stick around for titles, and I didn’t go to graduate school to play life safe or to go the easy route. I came to graduate school to enjoy the ride of life.

I’ve always wondered if I had the confidence to veer off the beaten path, I guess now, after much deliberation, I’ve decided that it is time that I make my own.


P.S. friends living in the Boston or San Francisco Bay areas… there is a high chance I may be near you soon! Keep your fingers crossed and contact me so we can be friends in Real Life!

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Monastery weekend

Most students typically head south to the beaches for spring break. This year, my friend Lisa and I headed up to Rives Junction, Michigan to pray and meditate at a monastery. It was beautiful. I was unplugged and without modern distractions. We got to experience the last snowfall of the season and with the end of the winter I got a glimpse of spring and the new beginnings that will come.


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On Specialization

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine sent me the book Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I read it, liked parts of it, and thought other parts were over-the-top. Nevertheless, reading the book has launched me into reading several other books that are tangentially related and have me thinking of the world from a rather different perspective.

Rod Dreher is a writer for The American Conservative and National Review who has fairly counter-cultural views of the world. My friend Richard Barrett has his own take on Dreher’s utopian ideologies noting, ‘Once modern society collapses, I can be a blacksmith’.

My wise friend Hugo has provided me with quite possibly the best advice ever, ‘Life is all about balance.’ I didn’t quite understand what he meant when he said that back in 2009, but now, after becoming overqualified for most any job, I completely understand his sentiment.

I finally finished reading The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry. I hope to write a series of posts on some reflections from the book (since there are many thoughts floating about my mind), but for now, I will focus on specialization, since it is the subject plaguing my mind as of late.

In The Unsettling of America, Berry suggests that the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is “specialization,” which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.

As Adam Smith points out in The Wealth of Nations, division of labor has enabled the birth of civilization. Specialization is allows me to sit in my lab and develop bio-analytical methods. Yet, it is this same division of labor that obscures lines of connection and responsibility making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired plant lighting my computer screen.

Specialization, whenever it arose, has brought us great economic benefits and efficiencies. It should be no surprise that it has also wrought some bad things as well, and Wendell Berry does a good job articulating those.

The modern urbanite is woefully ignorant about practical matters involving agriculture, natural resources and energy, because they can take so much of it for granted. Flip a switch, pump the gas, turn the tap, flush the … you get the point. Everything just “happens”.

What is lost to specialization is the common sense and independence of the generalist. But Berry idealizes that lifestyle as well. His world is best suited to a much less densely populated world where the pressures of feeding billions don’t exist, but the knowledge base is advanced. The rural life is not always the Jeffersonian agrarian paradise, with everyone happily tending their little plot of land and making a comfortable living writing niche books. Farming isn’t all benign, even for the little guys.

If you think of the world as one big marketplace, specialization makes sense. But that brings vulnerability (some call it interdependence, but one side is always more dependent than the other). Knowledge is imperfect, markets can be inefficient, and aggression is oft times rewarded. Sometimes the world is a battlefield, and it’s good to have the ability to go it alone. The trick is in achieving a balance at all scales.

I’m also asking myself, ‘Has modern hyper-specialization gone too far?’
Perhaps it has. I suspect this trend will continue until it reaches a point of diminishing returns (i.e. people become so specialized in their work that they become dysfunctional in other areas of their lives). We may find that the old concept of “the Renaissance Man/Woman” with diverse knowledge is actually more effective.

This is my current experience. Excessive time spent doing one thing. Thinking in a particular uni-dimensional way is taxing. Knitting, cooking, pottery classes, gardening are hobbies I have taken up as fruitful work and serve as a way to employ my brain in other ways. Now, if only there were more time; a way of bringing about a more balanced life. Pity modern society hasn’t collapsed.

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The Feminine Mystique

I was raised to be an independent, self-thinking woman. While my friends were playing with Barbie dolls, and EZ bake ovens, I played with legos, erector sets, and built massive puzzles (my mother has insane stories).

My mother seemed to do it all, and from her example, I thought it was expected of women to go to work 9+ hours/day and then tend to laundry, cooking, and other chores (when asked if men shared in the burdens, the answer was always ‘no’). Of course, this bothered me to no end; why should women have to do it all?

So, when I was 16, I decided to read The Feminine Mystique, and I decided I was going to make a poster that would go to some state history fair competition. Ergo this monstrosity…

My 2002 history fair poster
Sitting in front of the poster with my group at the state history fair competition. Sporting a terrible hairstyle, and wearing a watch designed to survive an apocalypse. Circa 2002

I assumed in the 21st century that men and women were on the same playing field (title IX had been instated long before). In school I did better in math and science than most guys, I could run a mile in under 6 minutes, and all of the first violinists were female. The notion of a level playing field existed until I went to college.

In college, I realized that 75% of the women around me were not focused on attaining their B.S. or B.A, but were primarily in school to get an M.R.S. degree. This was the first time in my life when I had seen women seeking an education for the sake of getting a degree. One of my college roommates was an education major-an admirable vocation if entered into thoughtfully, however this roommate was not terribly interested in childhood development, but instead was very interested in going out on Friday and Saturday nights. It seemed like many of the women I was surrounded by were focusing their energies not on developing their own personalities, but instead were hunting for a spouse. I felt like I had blasted back to the post WWII era.

This all rekindled thoughts of Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (the one I did a project on in 2002). The book (published in 1963) documented for the first time that “problem that has no name,” housewife’s syndrome, where American girls grew up fantasizing about finding their husbands, buying their dream homes and dream appliances, popping out babies and living happily ever after. In truth, happily-ever-after never came. Countless women suffered from depression and breakdowns as they faced the endless meaningless tasks of shopping and driving children around. They never had opportunities to fulfill their highest potential, to challenge themselves, to feel as though they were truly contributing to society beyond wielding the credit card to keep the consumer culture going.

The middle-class American housewife’s life had become, essentially, meaningless. The industrial revolution and subsequent rise of America’s consumer culture had demoted homemaking from a craft tradition to the mindless occupations of primping the house, shopping, and chauffeuring.

So, how does a woman avoid becoming some overly eager to get married person with a full life? Friedan and other feminist scholars suggested that equality, security, and human dignity are impossible to achieve without earning one’s own money. Women had to be economically independent. This sounds great, and easy enough in a post-industrialized society where we frame independence in the context of participation and prevalence in the market economy where personal economic power is the only security. Ideally, this should have enabled women to seek well-rounded/meaningful lifestyles but of course failed to happen (as evidenced by the roommate described previously)

Another point to consider is that post-WWII suburban life left countless housewives isolated in their homes. With family members gone all day, and each home its own island, the loneliness took its toll on these women. This, I believe has been the Achilles heel of the stay-at-home mom; the belief that self-sufficiency exists (it may exist as an illusion with the aid of corporations, but in reality, it doesn’t).

For decades, the American housewife has failed to perform any valuable function in the home except to feed money into the consumer marketplace. The crafts of gardening, preserving food, baking bread, educating the young, or caring for the aging are no longer necessary since we can easily ‘hire it out’. As such, the American household is no longer a unit of production, but of consumption.

It appears as though we have failed to grasp how consumerist “improvements” have failed us. We have failed to anticipate the ecological and health problems associated with processed foods, we didn’t recognize how schools and media were separating children from the earth, and didn’t predict how the health insurance industry would bankrupt us.

Friedan raised a critical point: “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.” What Friedan understood, but what many of us have ultimately forgotten, is that simply landing a job does not guarantee self-actualization. Those who do not seriously challenge themselves with a genuine life plan, with the intent of taking a constructive role in society, will share the same dangers as housewives who suffered under the mystique of feminine fulfillment; they face what Friedan called a “nonexistent future.”

I currently have the freedom and ability to do whatever it is I want to do. In thinking about it all, I’m realizing that feeding into the consumerist cycle will not work for me. So, as I see it I have 2 options:

  1. Finish grad school. Get the highest paying, most meaningful job possible. Work for 10 years (or some period of time) until I have saved up enough to not work for someone else.
  2. Find a job that is fulfilling and enables me to live a balanced life (so no excessive hours), and provides me with enough to live comfortably and support another/save a bit.

Of course, the second option seems the most ‘sane’. I have yet a couple years before I have to decide on anything, and life circumstances will surely motivate my directions. Nevertheless, it is certainly daunting to consider the number of possibilities that lay before me and how many of them I don’t want.

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