Monday, December 26, 2011

Feelin' Grinch-y (alternatively, Hooray! Christmas is DONE!!!)

Thank Gawd that's over with!! <sigh> I am a terrible cynic. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in the sense that I don't make the stupid gullible mistakes that I did when I was younger, but a curse in that I view everything and everyone with suspicion. This trait becomes more pronounced around major holidays - including Christmas. I only get into the Christmas spirit (briefly) when I'm out at Toys R Us, blissfully alone, the night before Chrismas Eve - at midnight (okay, technically Christmas Eve, but I'm not gonna split hairs on this). I think about all the cool stuff that Elliot and Chris would love to receive as gifts, and it does warm my heart a little bit. Then I think about the pouting and potential tantrums that will ensue on Christmas Day when: 1) Elliot's haggard and exhausted parents don't get up at 5:59 am so that he can open his presents. It doesn't matter that we didn't get home from Christmas Eve festivities until 1:30 am. That's no excuse, apparently; and 2) he doesn't get the outrageously expensive 3D game system that he wants - even though he has a perfectly good 2D version. My Christmas spirit kinda starts to evaporate by this point.

On Christmas Eve, we went to Chris's dad's house to celebrate with the Visel side of the family. This year, Chris's dad asked everyone to think of a fond Christmas memory and share it with everyone. I racked my brain all night, but couldn't come up with a decent memory. Now, as I sit here writing, it occurs to me. The one holiday season that I actually enjoyed was in 2003, when I was pregnant with Elliot. Now, I realize that the stereotypical pregnant woman is supposedly a bitch of her formerly nice rational self. This was not the case with me. I went from my ever-pessimistic, moderately dysphoric self to what I considered "normal". I was happy all the time, pleasant and friendly, perhaps a bit weepy (we got a flat tire on my car and I broke out into a big sobbing spell over it), but it was - wonderful. I actually voluntarily went to church with my in-laws around Christmas and enjoyed myself immensely. My dad didn't have Alzheimer's or seven other children at this point, as far as I knew, and all was right with the world. Except for the morning sickness, or rather, the all-freaking-day-for-six-months sickness. I remember spending some portion of Christmas Eve hugging the toilet at my in-law's and trying not to mess up my very first cute red velvet maternity top. But I even felt okay about this because I was just so damned happy. I feel wistful for that Christmas.

This season, I think I'm feeling extra cranky because I'm sorely missing my dad. I never really thought about how just his presence balanced the feeling of my parents' house. I didn't even have to interact with him, the atmosphere just felt "right" when he was there. As much as I love my mom and my brother, going home isn't the same anymore. I thought about this as we drove back to our house and it started to make me cry, much to my surprise. It's been a year without him now - even longer if you count the years with Alzheimer's. When is his absence going to stop hurting so much? My best friend since 4th grade recently lost her father unexpectedly. She texted me the other day expressing that this holiday has been difficult for her and I wanted to text her back with something comforting, but I found that I couldn't. It isn't much easier this year than it was last year. What can I say to help her when I am struggling myself? Ugh. Not a day goes by that I don't think about him. This past Monday, I finally garnered up the courage to visit him at the cemetery for the first time since his funeral last November. I managed to find the plot where he's buried and I just stood there, staring at his headstone. I felt numb just the way I did the night he died - a very strange feeling.

I've forgotten what the point of this post was supposed to have been. I don't like being a Debbie Downer, but that seems to be my frame of mind pretty often lately. Things will get better and I'll be okay. The whole PhD thing will get better soon too. When I stop and think about my life, I realize just how fortunate I am - we have enough money, we have a home, we have decent health (and health insurance!), I have family and friends whom I love very much and who love me back, I have an awesome son who will probably whip my ass at Trivial Pursuit before too long. In the greater scheme of things, I've got it pretty good - and I know it. I guess it just helps to be able to take a few moments to reflect and be grateful. If you've made it this far, thanks for indulging me. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The semester is over. So, why do I still feel so crappy?

I had two final exams this week: cell biology on Wednesday and molecular/biochem today. My end-game strategy was to devote pretty much all of my resources to getting a decent grade on the cell biology test. As many of you know, I bombed the last two exams, so I really needed to pull my head out of my ass for this last one. I feel like I did reasonably well on it, but my gut feeling on these sorts of things has been way off for the entire semester. Very unsettling.

With all my time spent studying for cell, there were only 24 hours left to prepare for molecular. Initially, I didn't have a coherent strategy for it. I've done well enough (mid-80% range) on each of the previous three exams, so I knew that I had some wiggle room on this last one. The topics included 3 hours of bioinformatics, 2 hours of protein synthesis, 5 hours of glycolysis, gluconeogenesis, glycogenesis, glycogenolysis, hormones of metabolism, and diabetes (types I and II), 4 hours of electron transport chain and ATP synthesis, 1 hour of modes of genetic inheritance/pedigree analysis, 2 hours of epigenetics in health and disease, 2 hours of genetic testing and complex disease - Alzheimer's, and 1 very lame hour of cancer genetics. 20 hours of instruction; one stupid test.

I did a lot of fruitless panicking over this exam and a whole lot of number crunching to see how poorly I could do and still probably pass. I say probably because the pass/fail line has not yet been determined. I think it depends on the class cumulative exam average and the standard deviation. If your test average is below the standard deviation of the class average, you're in danger of failing the course. This is what I've pieced together from cryptic emails and conversations with higher ups who aren't telling me everything. I think I may have done more number crunching and analysis of "what if" scenarios than I did actual studying.

The strategy that I finally settled on was one that I've never really put into action before - a plan to selectively fail. I decided that the module on diabetes, hormones, and sugar metabolism that normal people don't give a shit about - was unlearnable. The PowerPoint slides and textbook chapters may as well have been written in cuneiform script as far as I was concerned. I figured that it was better to cut off the rotten limb than to sacrifice the life of the individual. I tried to devote what little time I had left to the topics I thought I could remember long enough to regurgitate onto the exam. There were still some things that I just didn't have time to adequately review - cancer genetics (only worth 10 points, so fuck it), genetic testing (didn't stick in my head well and I didn't care much), and pedigree stuff. I was totally unconcerned with pedigree analysis since genealogy has been a hobby of mine since before the internet came along and made things easy. I can take a five-second look at a plot of circles and squares connected by a bunch of crazy lines and point out who is your second cousin once removed and which one of your great-grandparents married their first cousin and had a couple of messed up kids as a result of some autosomal recessiveness. At least I've got that skill to be proud of, I guess.

I completed the test to the best of my ability in 2.5 hours and left with no sense of relief or accomplishment - only the notion that I was glad to be leaving without having to come back until next year. I crawled along in bumper to bumper traffic with all the other people trying to flee Detroit before dark, and went straight to the Corner to meet Mary. We didn't really get invited to go camping with the rest of the GA/lecturer "cool" crowd who likes that kind of punishment (a whole lot of people in a bare bones cabin that's supposed to sleep 8. In the middle of December. In Michigan. I'm not that kind of masochist, but I can't really begrudge the people who are - too much). Mary and I had an "anti-camping" party at the bar and it was fun.  And I'm sure that was way more fun for everyone involved than having me pout and bitch about how camping sucks all night. Such a humanitarian, I am!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is this all my own fault?

Tonight I had someone whose opinion I greatly value insinuate that my problems acclimating to life at Wayne State are primarily of my own creation. "You're just having a brain fart over there for some reason," was the approximate statement that I recall. Initially I totally discounted this idea, but as I drove home I kept thinking about it and it really started to eat at me. Could this be true? Is he right? If so, what do I do now?? He says I have the intellectual ability to get through a PhD there. I have finally (mostly) come to believe that this is true. Paradoxically, despite my two failed cell biology tests - which are highly uncharacteristic of me - the difficultly of the courses is not the problem. Not at all. I could learn the hell out of the material if I wanted to. That's the key phrase - if I wanted to. The problem is that I don't. I don't have to be the best in my classes; I don't even really have to be good in my classes. All I have to do in order to move on is pass. But why should I want to move on when I hate what I'm doing? My passion for bench work is gone. I'm questioning everything I thought I wanted to do with my life now. I don't have any program cohorts to study with or confide in or complain to. The graduate coordinator is awkward as all get out, so talking to him did not help. I don't belong to a lab either. I'm in a no man's land that is not of my own creation. What do I do? How do you socialize if there is no one to socialize with? How am I supposed to deal with being thrown into a completely different culture with people I only tangentially interact with and have no classes or labs or anything in common with? I deal by going back to what I know and the people who have been my surrogate family for the last several years - at Eastern. But I'm beginning to feel like I don't belong there either. Because really, I don't. I should be bonding with my new peers at Wayne, but I'm not. How can I? Is this all my own fault? Is it simply circumstance? Should I have applied to U of Toledo? Does any of it really matter now?

Monday, December 5, 2011

The great (departmental) divide

The Immunology & Microbiology Department at Wayne State, to which I now ostensibly belong, is having a Christmas party this Thursday at noon in the department lounge/library - complete with a "White Elephant" gift exchange. Given only the facts I have just laid out for you in the previous sentence, I did not need to be informed by the very gossipy secretary that the party would be pretty lame, though I did appreciate the validation of my gut feeling. First of all, it's being held on Thursday. In the middle of the day. With no alcohol allowed. A "party" in the middle of the day on a Thursday without booze just screams lameness. I'm very grateful to have Brenna's thesis defense at 3:00 that day as my out.

All of that aside, the secretary also confirmed my assessment of the department that I had gleaned just from sitting back and observing how the other students and faculty interacted - or didn't - during seminars. Students and faculty apparently don't mix. Even during the new student welcome lunch thingy near the beginning of the semester, faculty segregated themselves to one side of the room, while students went to the opposite side - and never the twain shall meet. She said that Dr. N (whose lab I just finished rotating in) was one of the good faculty and I got an idea of which faculty members did not impress her with their graciousness, to put it nicely. She said she was telling me all of this because, "you're one of the nicest graduate students and I like you." A few weeks ago, she was talking with me about different TV shows she likes and mentioned how she would never talk about that kind of stuff with "the doctors" because I guess she felt as though they fancied themselves too highbrow for things like TV. That was a big red flag. If the department secretary doesn't feel comfortable talking to many of these faculty members, in my opinion, there's a serious problem within the department. I suppose that everything she told me could simply be her own paranoia at work, but I highly doubt that. This woman doesn't have a shy bone in her body, and I find her likable and quite pleasant. She may be a person that an introvert like me can only take in small doses, but there's nothing inherently wrong with that. I'm trying not to let my imagination run wild with worst case scenarios (which is extremely difficult for me), but this whole departmental dynamic worries me. I'm also very concerned about finding the right mentor and lab environment (slim pickings since hardly anyone has funding), but I realize it's kind of early to get too worked up about it. I also recognize that I will probably get too worked up about it too soon in spite of myself.

As for how I'm doing in my classes, I'm doing okay in molecular biology, but not so hot in cell biology. I scored a 68% on each of my last two exams - and there are only four exams in the course, so I freaked out thinking that I was going to get kicked out of the program. I emailed the graduate coordinator, who told me that I wasn't doing as badly as I thought I was. He said that usually the pass/fail line is somewhere in the low 60% range. Since my mean exam score is 75%, while I have room to improve on the final exam, I should be fine overall. Instantly, I went from feeling like a moron who probably deserved to be given the boot to being disgusted by how low the program standards are. It would almost be funny if it wasn't true. What the hell is wrong with me?! Why can't I just be happy that I'm probably not going to fail and stop there? Nope, I've got to muddle it all up with some horror sprinkled with disgust. Christ, I should just be shot and sent off to the glue factory.