Monday, September 27, 2010

the besting of Hell Month

August was wretched.  Full of deadlines and uncertainties, and brimming with uncontrollable outcomes -- many of them broken or bad.  August was Hell Month.  And what's worse: Hell Month so viciously consuming the soul of your humble narrator, there was no relief to be had (not that there were not opportunities; there were plenty begging for attention, but despair would not yield).  Poor H.K. knowing not what to do with the sack of melancholic potato that had replaced his wife, did his very utmost to provide rejuvenating intervention.  How he survived, I will never know.  'Patient' doesn't begin to do him justice.

September.  We both held out for September.  That beautiful transitional month where all students withdrew to their various institutions of edification.  When all manuscripts would be submitted, new projects begun and peaceful nights at home would ensue.  September failed me, and with manuscript rejections compounding the anxiety over That Test and the extemporaneous decision to apply for a massively competitive grant, I wobbled, and then collapsed.

But as September closes, Hell Month Part II is daring to show only its last fading embers.  There are still projects, manuscripts, grant writing and applications, but these are what I live for.  Well, I mostly live for H.K., but secondarily I live for science.  With That Test out of the way, 99% of my burden is alleviated, and the rest is more than manageable.  In fact, there is even time for Experimental Cooking and playing outside.  And so it would seem that Hell Month has finally been bested.

 This is Toby.  Toby resides above the shrub adjacent to our front door, and has greeted us every morning and evening with his magnificently large web, which is consistently inhabited by some poor large insect about to be devoured by this disconcertingly large spider.

 This is Toby snacking on a giant grasshopper.

Currently, there is only the growing nausea and this four-month drawn out allergy disaster to hold me back -- and they are weak contenders if ever there were any.  Remicade has given my immune system a startle, and it did not remember how to handle allergens when they came about this season.  Since June, I have had a nasal exoskeleton and a nasal cavity effervescent with green mucous.  For two weeks, I even developed an aversion to mice (a career-ending obstacle if permanent; please appreciate the potential gravity).  The most recent diagnosis last week was "you clearly do not have an infection, so take everything together, and if it still doesn't work we'll give you an allergy shot!"  Brilliant.  To clarify, three weeks of Allegra, Sudafed, Flonase and sinus irrigation (otherwise known as drowning without involving the lungs) should do the trick.  In theory, I should be sleeping again, not nauseous and not having post-void residual problems like a man who just underwent prostate surgery.  We're a third of the way there, folks (because I am now sleeping from 11pm-5am!)! (!)

This evening: my attempt at Falafel Waffles.  Though a half-failure, my chickpea-lima-chive concoction was also half delicious.  It was very dry and crumbly, but would have been oh-so delicious with the appropriate sauce.  Inevitably, no matter how crucial to the recipe, I forget about the sauce.

 You can already tell how dry...

Falafel were meant to be deep-fried balls of internal soft moistness, and had I tossed them in a vat of boiling oil, they may have been just that.  Although I followed Lisa's recipe to the last detail (excepting the cilantro and parsley... and the sauce), I could not make them puff in the soft way that Black Bean Cakes or Polenta do.  I'll get you next time, Fawaffle... NEXT TIME!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

on reclaimng life

Having gotten through the most terrifying aspect of this season (the GRE), and having experienced the worst case scenario (not only unimproved, but slightly lower scores than last year... when I was high, nauseous and in pain), I am successfully emerged on the other side of doom.

Oddly, I am less bothered by average scores than I expected to be.  The relief of its being over with is much more potent than the disappointment with my performance on this particular exam.  Frankly -- and I'm not alone here -- I regard that test as far more highly referred to by graduate school admissions committees than is wise.  That said, I am acutely aware of how biased, political and funding-based the admissions process is in general and, therefore, am aware that average test scores will not be my undoing.

That is, of course, unless my average scores prevent me from being invited to interviews.  The thing is that highly prestigious schools will triage applications to the discard pile if they are not at a particular level.  Here is why I think that is a complete bullshit filter for applications:

This summer, I had the privilege of teaching several intern students.  Two of them were at he high school level, and were very fun to teach because they were fledgling scientists with lots of interesting questions and a flare for the work.  At least by the end of the summer, when the results of their month-long project started trickling in, their enthusiasm was wonderful.  This is why I love teaching.

In another vein, however, I had the privilege of teaching some biochemical techniques to one of our veteran students who has been doing analysis in another part of our lab for three years, and whom we had come to regard as a genius.  This student happened to be entering his senior year as a Biochemistry major, was applying to graduate programs, and was using his last summer month with us to buffer his resume by learning some new techniques.  He was, for all intents and purposes, my peer.

He was also a complete dolt in the lab -- more clumsy, less interested and with the worst memory I had ever seen in a person, scientist or otherwise.  I was completely taken aback by his lack of apt for deduction (read: common sense).  Please understand that this is not an exaggeration; I was shocked and befuddled that teaching my peer was like teaching a kindergartner.  I had to cut in half what I had planned on teaching him in that month because he could barely handle what he was initially tasked with.

How this boy could possibly be an academic genius became more and more puzzling.  Yet, his GRE scores trumped mine.  And he will be invited to interview at Stanford (yes, he is applying to the exact same programs that I am), and I will not, because his scores are higher than mine.  He will bomb his interview, because he knows almost nothing about what he's been doing for the last three years, and has very poor social skills (for which I do feel bad for him), but he will get them, and a small part of me dies whenever I think about that.  Despite this, he may actually be admitted to programs that I am rejected from because the more prestigious the school, the more weight is put on his exam scores.  I have effectively buffered the resume of a boy who, for all his pompous yet oblivious innocence, will never be a decent research scientist much less a Stanford-grade one.  What's more, he has no idea why he wants a PhD; it's just another step in the academic achievement track.  And this, as I studied for my own second-go at the GRE, was infuriating. 

However!, having faced my worst fear and come out the other side, I am happy with whatever school I am accepted to because I know what I want and what I'm doing, and will be a huge asset wherever I end up.  Whatever I want to make happen with what I'm given will happen, because that is something I've consistently been good at.  Getting into an amazing school instead of an average one, however, would be much welcomed reassurance that I belong in this field.

I could write volumes on how to best approach finding a graduate school, preparing yourself, exploring options, what the GRE actually says about your scientific potential, and negotiating the politics of science, but this data dump is dry enough as it is.

To end on a pleasant note -- and I must, because I feel better now than I have felt in two months -- this weekend was beautiful!  I worked on my grant while being infused for four hours on Saturday, stopped at New Seasons to pick up special sandwiches on the way home, and took the bikes and Frisbee out for some exercise at the park for the afternoon.  It was freeing, and wonderful to be able to throw myself back into real life. 


Today, I will finish my next manuscript and make some progress on applications having filled my tummeh with my new favorite Lisa-inspired breakfast: waffled eggs with chive Tofutti and onion bagel.
I feel good.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

on waffling

One of my most favorite wedding gifts was from Lovely Lisa.  Leave it to the Waffle Wizard to bestow upon me a waffle maker of my very own.

Not only does my fancy new culinary instrument occupy perfectly that-one-shelf-space-in-the-kitchen-into-which-nothing-else-fits; there is just no topping the ultimate design of the waffle in terms of entree base.

This is one of my favorites.

Last night, I conducted my first experiment: waffled polenta.  It was simple, speedy and surprisingly delicious -- delicious in a reliable way, as if I could make this thing well more than one fluke time in my life.

Next up, "Fawafles".

  yes, this is, indeed, Tapatio sauce.

Protest all you like about how terrible corn is for the Crohn tract.  While cornbread, polenta, grits, hominy and cornmeal soup are all reproved in the common Crohn's or IBS diet, these are also gluten free foods, so if your reactions tend to be more volatile with wheats, polenta can be a benign substitute.  Cornmeal is also higher in fiber than wheat, and can be very helpful with Obdurate Throughput.  With Crohn's the clinical studies never cease to reveal that what is beneficial to one case is likely to be harmful to another, and there is no universally harmful food in Crohn's disease (Triggs et al 2010).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Of nasal exoskeletons and forcible exhaustion

It may be surprising to my viewers that I am awake at 3am.  The typing kind of awake.  Shed your marvel, my friends, for this has been my habit for a month, now.

In June, when the allergy bug settled in my sinuses, this was just a regular infection, and I treated it as such with saline, my trusted Nasal Crom, and even hopped on the Neti Pot wagon.  By mid-July, when none of these therapies worked, I threw up my hands and called it in.  By this time, I have developed inner nasal scabs which made mucous expulsion quite the bother.  A prescription of Flonase was bestowed without even an appointment.  Beautiful.

Fifteen dollars and three glorious weeks of regular breathing later, it was time to abandon the steroids and hope that their effect would be sustainable.  Fat chance.  So I called it in again, asking my doctor what the next step might be.  "Try saline washes and using the Neti Pot," says my doctor's replacement.

"Are... are you serious?" I wanted to respond, but refrained in the interest of actually getting some help on the stagnant-green-pool-harboring nasal exoskeleton front.  So I actually tried these saline treatments again, hoping that with the steroids having brought me back to stage one, they might work.  Negative.  A month later, the scabbing and green mucous flow are worse than ever, so I call it in again.

"Hi, I've been having some problems with my nose and may need antibotics."

"Well, why don't you give me an idea of what's been going on, sweetheart," says the Southern Bell on the other end of the line, who I must trust to translate my story to my doctor.

"Well, three months ago I just had what appeared to be a regular sinus infection.  I treated with all the different saline washes for a month, was prescribed Flonase for a month, and the infection got worse when the steroid treatment ended.  So now I'm concerned that I might have a more serious infection and be in need of antibiotics.  This is my first allergy season being on Remicade, so I'm susceptible to infection.  This is the first time in my life I've had a sinus problem nearly this severe and that may have something to do with it."

"Well bless your heart, you poor thing.  Let me send this message to the doctor and call you right back!"  I've spoken to this woman many a time. She is, if not effective, very sweet.

[Time lapse of three hours, Southern Bell calls me back]

"The doctor says she'd like you to continue using saline washes and wait until the peak season is over in October."

"Excuse me?"

"Yes, she said continue with the saline.  You're doing the right thing."

"Alright, look.  I know this isn't your fault, and I apologize for getting upset, but I'm at my wit's end, here.  Saline has not been anything resembling helpful during this whole situation.  I have gotten progressively worse with the exception of the fast-acting and fast-disappearing effects of Flonase.  I have been expelling green mucous out of my mouth at least ten times a day because my nasal passage has developed an exoskeleton so strong that I can't blow my nose because the mucous has no way to push through.  I bleed every time I sneeze, I now have scabs on the outside of my nostrils, I wake up at 3am every night, and frankly, I can't breathe at all unless I flush my nose with hot water every morning and try to peel away some of the blockage, and to exacerbate this I am in the crux of the most stressful time of my entire life.  Saline nor steroids have been helpful in this matter and have, in fact, allowed things to get much worse, and the doctor doesn't think that I might have an infection that my immune-suppressed body just can't fight on its own?"

"Well honey, I'm sorry.  Let me send a more explicit message to the doctor and get back to you soon."

That was a week ago.  I think I may have scared off poor Bell.

My exoskeleton needs a hot shower.  I'm effing tired.  I'm effing stressed.  Please give me some effing antibiotics.  I am working 50-hour weeks, writing grants, writing graduate school applications and studying for the GRE (something which I can't quite support logically).  I haven't run in two weeks because, well, it makes my sinuses swell.

Anyone have thoughts on just chopping the thing off, going Tycho Brahe style?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

L'shana tova, u'metuka!

If I can't hold to a marriage resolution, perhaps I can cling to a new year's resolution.  My favorite holiday -- at one time, for no other reason than the unassuming joy of casting away my sinful bread crumbs into a flowing body of water -- comes to the rescue.

L'shana tova u-metuka, everyone!  May the new year 5771 be the one during which I finally set sail for graduate school and begin actually working toward my and my husband's future.  And may Gaia accept this Jewish celebration, absorb my bread crumb sins into her bosom and recycle them back to me as renewed opportunity.  May there be abundant apples and honey, and may the Pedant Neuroscientists of the world not get in my way again this year.

Or some such gibberish.