Dislocation

Too old to rock’n’roll: Too young to die. The name of Jethro Tull’s album evokes in me a sense of misfit. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong there, either. This feeling of not belonging has been with me since my highschool days.  Too “western” to live in Istanbul, too “eastern” to live elsewhere. The funny thing is I did not feel “eastern” when I was living in the US. But now, in Switzerland, I do. Is it the Swiss? Is it because I am more aware? Is it related to the rise of nationalism throughout the world?

I just finished reading Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comic novel about her childhood in Tehran, followed by (lonely) teenage years in Austria then her return to Iran to live through her twenties. The story begins in 1980, the year after the Islamic Revolution, when she is 10 years old and ends in 1994, when she leaves Tehran for the second time.

It’s 1980. Coming from a forward thinking family, Marji finds it very hard to conform to the new rules of the Islamic Revolution: wear a veil, don’t walk with anybody of the opposite sex, don’t wear lipstick or any other makeup. She even has a few brushes with the Guardians of the Revolution. Even though she portrays these events as if she talks her way out of them, I thought that her family, which has influence, got her out of these. In any case, her life is confined to house parties and hanging a Michael Jackson poster is a big act of rebellion under this pressure. Worried about their daughter’s well-being, her parents send her to Vienna. She goes to school there but is never accepted by her friends and, furthermore, she never feels like she belongs there. She is so lost that she goes through a phase where she deals drugs and then stays on the street for two months and gets bronchitis. In the end, she returns to Tehran, feeling like a failure. She was too “western” to live in Tehran. Unlike many of her friends who went to fight in the war (boys) or who had to live under complete oppression (girls), she was one of the few lucky ones that got out. Yet, when she finally gets a chance to live in Europe, she feels out of place. She does not fit in. Granted she is a teenager and which teenager has an easy time at high school? She is all alone in a city where she does not know the language. No family, no friends. Limited money. I don’t know how she does it but she survives those years and then makes her way back to Tehran.

Survival. Survival when dislocated. Survival is an instinct but thriving is a decision. A conscious decision.

Marji thrives in her years in Tehran. Despite the oppression that surrounds her, she is protected by her upbringing, her family’s connections and even her family’s old heritage. Her grandmother’s wisdom protects her. Her family’s resistance in the form of optimism and persistence protects her. The feeling of being at home, familiarity with her friends protect her. Once she gets out of that cocoon, she loses her sense of self. Her sense of belonging. She is dislocated. Even though she knows the western life style,  she has a hard time adjusting because her sense of self is defined by her lifestyle in Tehran.

Do exiles ever talk about their previous life as a bad life? I think not. It’s usually a wonderful life that they leave behind. Especially at the beginning of their new life, their past life is much more wonderful than the new life they try to (re-)build. Back home, they thrived despite all the hardship or, even sometimes, because of all the hardship. They have their own network, own neighborhood and their whole network and support structure keep them afloat in their home country.

If it’s all so wonderful, what pushes them to move away from this lovely network? Circumstances. War. Hope of a safe future. This is what we need to appreciate about the refugees. Most would not be refugees if they had a choice. They were violin players, astronomers, pilots, teachers, doctors. Dislocation meant that they lost everything of value but most importantly their self identity. Some will survive. Will they thrive?

 

 

 

 

 

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Wonder and optimism

I just read a book called Wonder. I know it’s been around for a while, and I learned after finishing it that it will be a movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. I am usually not too fast in picking up the latest book. So many good classics to finish first. Anyway.

The book is about a boy, Auggie, who has a facial deformity: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse“. He has been home-schooled until now and the book picks up the story when he is about to start 5th grade. It takes tremendous effort and determination on his part as well as that of his parents, sister and few friends, but by the time the school year is over Auggie is a popular, well-liked kid at his school and goes on to win the “Henry Ward Beecher Medal” that “honours students who have been notable or exemplary in certain areas throughout the school year.” The book starts out as a complete tear jerker, sorry for using that word but I cried and cried through the first part as Auggie was settling into his school life. But after about two thirds of the way into the book, everything starts to turn sunny. Auggie makes friends, his schoolmates bond with Auggie and with each other, everyone (except the one villain whose story is appended to the end of the book) becomes understanding, empathic and friendly. Even Auggie’s sister makes her big break onto the stage when her former-bff-current-enemy gives up the role on opening night. All cheer, optimism. A Hollywood ending. Happy and well adjusted is one thing but a medal at the end? Come on. I smell screenplay. Let’s get some ice cream.

I am happy that things turned out OK for Auggie. He is a sweet, likeable kid and I rooted for him from start to finish. The character is fleshed out in detail, and other characters take turns throughout the different chapters so we get to find out about their perspective, too. The sister was my favorite character, she is supportive but has a bitter and angry side to her. So the character development is powerful, the premise is interesting and the story is captivating as it unfolds. But I was utterly disappointed by the anticlimatic ending.

The story is a sad one, mandibulofacial dysostosis and cleft palate are two disorders that can (and do) cause severe health issues for children. It is not easy to have this disorder nor to be in the same family/school with someone who has it. Why would the author turn everything around to make sure EVERYONE in the book is happy and cheerful at the end and that the one villain decides to change schools? There are good days and bad days; not only for them, but for everybody. Why does everybody need to be happy all the time? Why is it not ok to be sad sometimes?

 

 

Reading

Reading is solitary. Readers are not. Readers find each other. I just joined a book club. The idea is similar to all other book clubs (I assume). You read a book, and then you meet at a member’s house and discuss the book for about an hour.

We used to have journal club every other week when I was a graduate student. The idea there was to share the latest findings with fellow group members. Each member was responsible for one journal and would bring 2-3 interesting articles to share with the group. This was great to keep the group up to date on the latest articles and there would always be one or two articles that were really interesting. Here is what happened though: 1. “Oh I should read this paper.” 2. File under “must read”. 3. Forget that paper exists 4. Read that paper if and when you need it for your thesis/paper/research and not remember it from journal club. A more ideal journal club would be one where everybody comes to the table having read one interesting article in detail. The keyword here is detail. Depth is what science is all about. You need breadth, so keep up the journal club. But read that one article, discuss it, dissect it in detail. Go over its outline, the language, the flow. What is strong about it, what makes it a good paper, what makes it a bad paper? What is the major contribution, is it significant, is it interesting, would you like to continue that research, if so how?

If there is one occupation in which reading should take more time than the occupation itself, that occupation is writing. A writer must read more than she writes. I just made that up and not because I am a bookworm or an avid scientific article reader. In fact, I am not, and to be perfectly honest, I have not been for some time. Too much on my plate. Life got in the way. But low reading, I found, is a surefire recipe for my well to dry up. I cannot write. I cannot write because I have not been reading enough. (Boy am I glad my blog is hidden in obscurity and my students are not reading these words.) The one thing this sabbatical is helping me get back to is reading. All reading. Reading books, reading fiction, reading scientific articles.

I just read about the daily habits of wealthy people and it turns out they do a lot of reading, too. I don’t buy it. There are many readers that don’t make money. I know that the fact that those wealthy people read a lot is simple selection bias. But it gives me hope to hear that readers are cool. Reading is cool. I really look forward to more reading this year.

Lab Girl

Lab Girl is a memoir by the plant scientist Hope Jahren. Hope Jahren sure can write. Indeed, her website is https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com/. Not only can she write, you can tell when you read the book or her blog or her twitter feed that she must. She is a superstar communicator. You should stop reading this and go and read the book. But, here goes…

Writing. Most of a scientist’s day is spent writing. Writing grant proposals, writing journal articles, writing references for students. It is a lot of work. You don’t just write, you edit manuscripts written by students and colleagues. I’m telling you; it’s a LOT of work. Yet, some scientists can’t get enough. They write blog posts, they write popular science articles and some even write books. I wish even more scientists would write for the public. The scientific approach applied to world affairs, to politics, and to policy formulation would be such a welcome change from all the hand waving, the populism that drives hate speech, and the fake news we are experiencing today.

Wit. Hope Jahren is a funny and witty author. She is, nonetheless, dead serious about her research and will not tolerate any horsing around. She has a hard time in the lab as well as in life and she shares all of her troubles with us in a most heartfelt way. Her description of her failures are both self deprecating and encouraging. I felt like she wants to make sure the reader loves the science through the witticism despite the hardship.

Grit. While reading this book, I could not help but think about my favorite (fiction) book in the past 5-10 years: The Signature of All Things. Yes, it is by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray and Love fame. The Signature of All Things is an epic saga about Alba, who is a moss scientist. Like any moss scientist, Alba is patient. Alba has grit. Alba is in it for the long haul. Not only is Alba curious and asks questions, but she also knows that she must wait until all questions are answered. Alba perseveres. Sometimes, I think this is a trait of women scientist. We nurture our science. Hope Jahren is very patient, too. She says at the beginning of Chapter 8 “Establishing yourself as a scientist takes an awfully long time.” (This chapter is worth the admission price so I will ask you to go and read the book again.) To make sure her students learn to be patient, too, her first assignment to them is to label empty vials. Then, with Bill (read the book), they tell the new recruit that he did it all wrong. She sees two ways out for when you run into major obstacles: Come back the next day and start over. Or you can work an extra hour longer and “stay in the moment of what went wrong”. Clearly, Hope Jahren always chooses the second option and wants her students to do the same.

Science. It’s all about the science, you know. When all is said and done, Hope Jahren is a plant scientist. Her main goal in life and in writing this book is to understand (and explain) how plants communicate, how they grow, why they grow, how they sometimes don’t grow and wait and survive, why they sometimes don’t grow. The how and the why keep Hope Jahren going. The how and the why keep all of us going. Once you start asking the how and the why, you are a scientist. She says it best: “What comes first is a question, and you’re already there”.