Bricks and clay

I set to build myself anew,
I tore old walls apart to trade
Crumbling brick for moving clay 
And shape honest to the core. 

I shaped myself a shallow bowl,
I erred to craft a solid plate.
I passed success and took 
Such a mangled clump apart. 

I tried to shape one, 
but no better than another,
Oh! to stand tall. 
But now it stands to fall. 

Wicked devils eager work
Lump to cut with string. 
Pieces come apart a brick,
Shapes all to drown in slip. 

But what is worth 
in making after all?

It’s been a while since I felt like writing anything creative. Lately I’ve felt like doing nothing much, I missed direction, occupation and enthusiasm. It’s a terrible state in which I desperately need something to do, but don’t feel like doing anything. It’s a vicious circle with boredom and apathy feeding each other.

Today I am happy to have written this poem. I’m happy with it now, so here it is.

The value of trying and failing

I tried working a copywriter job. I wasn’t good enough, so I was let go. It was a positive experience because it was the first time I could accept rejection. My qualities were acknowledged alongside my failings. It was a balanced evaluation, it was based on evidence, and that is why I accepted it.

This was the first time I got sacked, but not the first time I failed. In the past I interviewed for patent attorney and consultant jobs. I didn’t even get hired. Some other things I interviewed for, got rejected and was very bitter over: undergrad student accommodation supervisor (or something along those lines), prestigious PhD studentship working on cancer research, posh doctoral training programme. There’s also all the things I applied for and never heard back, or only much later. If you send me a rejection email after two months without any other contact, I wasn’t really holding my breath at that point really. But thanks, better late than never.

I think this is good proof on the value of honest feedback. Not the ‘we’ve had a very strong selection of candidates.’ Not the ‘you’re good, but not good enough.’ Empty encouragement is wasting people’s time. Telling them what they can and cannot do right now will set them on the right track.

Looking at my puzzle of experience and its missing piece finally found I can write these three lessons:

  1. I like chemistry the way a nerd does, not like a professor or like an entrepeneur.
  2. I don’t care for lofty ideals. I care about a job well done.
  3. I’m not good at saying what needs saying, the way it needs saying. It’s bad for me whenever I do it.

I’m happy I tried doing all the things that are not for me, I failed with, I stopped caring for, or never cared for at all. I have a better idea what is for me, what I can do and what I like.

I am a bit more confident. Maybe I can make some better choices.

On and off topic – the disconnect between sodium ammonium tartrate and Gantt charts

Can I talk about chemistry? Can I be nerdy, veer off course and ramble?

Yes, I can. Unfortunately, it took me more than 15 years to learn this. In fact, I only had this revelation about 10 minutes before I started writing this post. The wonderful topic I was investigating was how could I make racemic sodium ammonium tartrate at home, crystallise it and separate the enantiomers the way Louis Pasteur did to make his way into history books in 1848. (Note: the series of reports made by Pasteur started in 1848 and culminated with this discovery in 1853. A list is available here)

My cause is not noble – I just wanted to make a Youtube video. But the flashback I had was of Proust eating his madeleine with jasmine tea proportions. Don’t worry, my prose is far more modest.

I was somewhat of a weirdo even in the chemistry enclave. My interests never lined up with those of others. Scientists, as you expect, tend to be pragmatic and think about the future, the next discovery. This is great, and necessary for their survival in today’s scientific environment. I, on the other hand, have always been inclined towards the past. I got excited about the stories of discovery usually reserved for textbooks and other materials made for the public.

If you’re not a scientist you might be thinking what is wrong with that? We learn from the past – that’s what history tells us. Scientists generally appreciate the teachings and will go searching the literature for information, but they don’t care that much about who did what and how they got there (not beyond the requirements of referencing anyway). And if the information is now common knowledge, any attempts to uncover the murky, distant past are scoffed at. This makes an onerous task a shameful one. Scientists don’t care much for the history of science.

Back to my experience; I remember working on my master’s project thesis. I had an intro that was a bit like a herpetologist touching on the likely anatomy of the biblical snake in the garden of Eden. Needless to say, it wasn’t well received by my supervisor. I had to cut out a lot of the work which made me so proud.

I was heartbroken and furious. That maybe some points were valid (the page count for example) is irrelevant. Always getting our work edited and aligned with the standards and interests of the majority is damaging. Yes, that is how we learn and improve. But in my case, that is how I completely lost direction.

I ended up being unhappy doing what I liked. I hated what I was doing because it was what someone else wanted. I always got told they wanted to help me. I eventually gave up on chemistry and tried doing something else.

I failed so far. I recently got sacked from a new job (not a chemistry one) after two weeks. But I am not bitter about it. I think it was actually the most honourable rejection I’ve ever received. There was objective evidence I couldn’t do it. I got given a chance for what I had to offer and for my dedication. This is opposite to what I had experienced in chemistry where what I had to offer and who I was never mattered. The only thing that mattered was whether I delivered exactly what was expected.

I am obviously being emotional and still bitter about my chemistry past. I can’t think of anything clever to say here to balance this statement. And the only problem is I feel I should. Here it comes (after hours of mulling). Part of being a scientist is seeing black and white at the same time. But no one cares about dull, grey complexities – Not even scientists.

And that’s a shame. I think part of the problem with modern science is that it’s focused on delivering scientific ‘products’ rather than knowledge. It’s focused on the future, on achievement. It’s creating solutions to predicted problems rather than current ones.

Problems are solved by experimentation, by study, by reflection. Solutions are always serendipitous. Asking scientists to plan their work and their discoveries is absolutely ridiculous. I remember I had to make a Gantt chart at the beginning of my PhD. I hadn’t even heard of one before – which is to say that the study experience doesn’t quite prepare you for this. What is worse, the work was planned around ideas that were already in place for my project. Ideas which were written before I had arrived.

How can you expect young scientists to develop the skill of coming up with ideas, if you waste all their time researching someone else’s ideas? Pasteur is famous for his statement: ‘In the field of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.’ I don’t think Gantt charts was what he had in mind.

Why is this relevant? Because scientists should care about what they are doing. If you kill their interest and their passion, you are losing your biggest asset: the scientist. I cared. I still want to care. It just bothers me seeing how few people care.

I probably can’t change that. I just hope I can find the strength and ability to convince other people how exciting science can be. To make them appreciate the story of sodium ammonium tartrate.

Information makes me quiet

Imagine you believed your entire life the primary colours are red, blue, and yellow. Then you find out they are cyan, magenta, and yellow. There is also red, green, and blue. But you can also create a palette with any three colours you choose. But you might want to include more for a larger space and more accurate reproduction.

Sustained learning makes me unwilling to talk. It also makes me angry.

I am a simple creature, and like all humans, I like to share my thoughts and feelings. I thought until now that the value is in being acknowledged and, hopefully, appreciated. It made me happy, but it also caused me trouble when I didn’t get the response I hoped for. Now I understand why.

Keeping my mind busy with a constant flow of information gives me comfort. It does a good job, but not perfect, of keeping me from feeling lonely. If I feel less lonely, I have less motivation to talk. Being in company does the same thing: I listen and say less. And if a book or person is not talking, I talk to myself.

That is the value of sharing: it sets the scene for others to talk, providing me with the information flow I crave. I am not angry for not sharing what I’ve learned, or what I wanted to share before knowing better. I am angry because an information overflow is followed by a dry spell.

The quality of what I have to say becomes more important to me as I learn more. The problem is, of course, the more I learn I come to realise how nothing I say can possibly be of much value. I then don’t say anything. And I get angry.

So then, why was I seeking approval? I wanted the new information to build on or agree with what I had already learned. Not to disagree. I got angry when I learnt cyan, magenta, yellow are the primary colours. Maybe so did you when you read that.

Frozen fingers – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Winter that year had a strong bite, punishing people by freezing their cars solid and pushing needles in their bones through insulation, feeble house heating, and layers of woollen personal protection. Snow didn’t come. Most in the area had to decide between having a full stomach or feeling their toes and fingers at least once in a while. Freya’s parents made no exception, but unfortunately they were inclined differently: her dad kept warm on cheap beer and her mother plugged in the electric heater whenever he’d fall asleep.

Freya had just turned thirteen the day they opened the pond to skating. She had always loved to skate, but never got any good at it. Having two left feet would have been less of a problem than hers for skating, assuming the ice skates would fit. Her problem was functional rather than conformational as something in her brain stopped her balancing on one leg and pushing with the other. Her ability never improved and she was stuck awkwardly shuffling on the sides with the beginners every time she skated, every year the pond froze.

Her disappointment turned to desolation and, for this particular birthday, to resentment. She went to the pond with her run-of-the-mill skates in her bag, but on the way threw them in the bin. She climbed the small hill found next to the pond, sat on the frozen ground and looked down on the cheerful throng. The sun was setting behind, leaving her observation point in the shadows.

A lilac haze started slowly perspiring from between the frigid blades of grass, oozing like dense droplets out of the hill’s pores. Something started tensing deep within, something which was out of place, vast, much too large for the physical dimensions of the modest relief. For minutes dripping like spoiled honey from a dying hive, this vague curdling of the earth’s marrow was spreading with a precise rate, not so much up, but out. It grew out of the perimeter and started dawdling towards the pond. Immense but somehow lacking will, it was heading that way reluctantly. A sharp gust of wind marked a shift in growth from size to kind. It was now pulsating, ripples spreading from an epicentre of blood drops hitting an impregnable but malleable resin. The earth was losing control, something else was dictating, prescribing evolutionary course. The hill was growing taller, rising, escaping the sedimentary, ancient foundation it used to stand on. It was drawing back from the inchoate creation, yielding to what it seemed to want. The growing darkness was lit by the wispy lilac tendrils surrounding and permeating the frozen pond. They were somehow growing backward in that direction, like an entangled sillage left by the throng of skaters. Time passed slowly. The hill became enormous, a mountain. The pond grew deeper, the ice insubstantial. The air warmer, thicker, heavier. The mass of curious but reluctant tendrils grew so dense it congealed, it became solid, having no choice but to yield to pulsating. Pulsating with no clear purpose or intention.

An hour passed. Freya’s heart was beating with a strong thump, the echo resounding in her painful temples. She was frozen solid, but her fingers were screaming in pain, still alive. It was dark. She then wandered with lilac-glowing embers of hate tucked away between the folds in her mind.

Lady in waiting

What is better suited to this fantastical art style potpourri than a cringy play on words? A lady-in-waiting was the aristocratic version of a lady’s personal assistant. The lady in my painting is waiting, the poem is about waiting, you see where this is going:

A windswept emptiness
Fills my restless body,
Prodding corners of my mind 
For leftovers of peace. 

Nights come early and grow short 
Days are scattered,
Fallen leaves under a barren tree
Waiting for rhythm. 

Waiting casts its spell
Parting patient from impatient. 
Waiting matters more than
What, whom, or why. 

Patience turns children old
And vulgar into virtuous. 
Impatience demands sacrifice
And gives it to the wind. 

Art making-of

The cover image is another painting I’ve put a lot of effort into (~3 days work). The positive with these longer works is that having plenty of time for my mind to wander while painting, I keep changing the idea; alone working on something for more than a day almost guarantees the way I feel about it will change. I call it exploratory painting: first I want to identify what it is I want to paint, then I can think about structuring my study to gain necessary skills.

This way of working shows clearly in this piece in more than just the mistakes, impulse decisions, and leftovers from previous versions: the head of the lady I’ve left in a simplified style resembling Japanese art, mostly because attempts to put detail on that scale got me nowhere. I aimed for a reasonably accurate anatomical construction, I tried to paint the body with some volume, and after all that work I mostly covered it up in an attempt at mythical, entrapping garment design. To add the third piece to this concoction, I constructed the setting with a fairly accurate representation of a reddish sky, a distant darkened landscape, and a foreground affected by the supernatural, rendered with a decent amount of solidity, but perhaps questionable colour matching with the background – I was aiming for supernatural after all.

The joy of waiting

I can thank the Bob Ross shows for title inspiration here.

I am an impatient person. It’s a double-edged sword: it pushes me to do a lot, try new things, cut corners if I have to, but it also works against me: poorly thought out decisions, less than polished work, and just a waste of energy at times. Striving to make some better quality paintings requires patience, dedicating enough time to work on them to achieve decent results. And investing that time apparently pays off, although I’ve previously argued it probably wouldn’t. I think the value in finding this patience is the time it opens up to thought, as mentioned above. The idea evolves, even if the execution is only going to be as good as my ability at this time.

And that’s how I am beginning to find the joy of waiting. Active waiting (in this case meticulously applying paint) seems to be the way forward.

Lady New Year

A thousand times she's threaded
Needle eye on frayed yarn of time.
Now she toasts a flute to sun's
Ludic chase of cousin moon. 

Popes, heads, and states have
Charted her passing in clay,
On hide and beyond the ether
In sand and flame and flow. 

She cares little and hopes
People would once seek
Her company and clink
Not celebrate her passing, blink.

Happy New Year, everyone! I got the idea for this painting only on the 30th of December and it turned out to be more difficult and ambitious than I expected.

I am not a fan of making resolutions, but here is one which seems appropriate to the subject: in 2022 I want to make more of these (distantly) Mucha inspired works.

Alphonse Mucha was a painter, illustrator, and designer (and much more), perhaps best known for his famous Art Nouveau posters he produced at the end of the 19th century in Paris, which helped launch his fruitful career. He is one of the artists I discovered in 2021 and who has impressed me the most with his ability to combine realism with fantastical beauty.

Stop burning fossil fuels to warm up your car

Three times a day I witness a long column of traffic form outside my house, stretching as far as I can see to both ends of the road. I suspect by now locals will know of bad traffic times/areas. Why do they choose to travel anyway?

For this article I am not going to try to uncover some great wisdom. In fact, I am sure it will make most readers think I am stupid. I still have to write it. I am baffled.

I understand people have to go to work in the morning and get back in the evening (are people with desk jobs actually more productive at work?). But what about lunchtime? Where is everyone going? Does spending that much time in your car not defeat the purpose of having a car in the first place: so you can quickly cover short distances and save time?

Are they just going out for lunch? Where I live is really not the kind of place full of fancy restaurants catering to wealthy people having power lunches. Are they getting lunch from the supermarket? Is that not just a waste of time and (fuel) money, and not to mention bad for the environment?

Are they running errands? Well then, why choose the busy hours?

I suspect the car-loving, driving fananatics head out for a drive just to satisfy their craving. It is beyond me why travelling one metre at a time counts as satisfying.

And really, my only problem with this nonsense is that it causes so much pollution for nothing. I believe that the air pollution we cause as a species could be easily mitigated if people weren’t so lazy and selfish and didn’t drive when they shouldn’t. It seems like this won’t be so much of a problem anymore once electric cars become the norm. But we are far from achieving that goal.

I am sure some car lovers will say: ‘But modern cars have the engine cut off automatically when stationary.’ Yes, but most people don’t drive modern cars.

Another option that comes to mind is public transport. Unfortunately, the service really is bad in general. And here I can’t do anymore than point out the stalemate in the debate between users and providers: authorities don’t offer more service because people don’t use it; and people don’t use public transport because the service is bad. Also, because they’re posh.

If there’s a sidewalk, use it. Walking a mile will make you feel better.

Growing up in three months

Three months ago I left my chemist job. I had been working there for two years. This was my first employment after having studied chemistry for eight years formally and many more informally. I posted an opinion shortly after talking about what the more conservative would describe as a childish impulse.

I had no good idea of what I could or wanted to do. I had dreams carried with me from childhood and lessons learnt as to what I didn’t want to do. I don’t regret my decision, but it is reasonable to say I have growing up to do in some regards. This is my three-month update on the process. During this period, I produced a smorgasbord of content, spurred on by the frustration of not having had a chance to before and seeing others apparently breezing through and being successful. I had a go at many things, strategy just as sensible as it often is in experimental science. There is a lot of failure, but you learn and maybe discover some things with potential.

What have I learnt or understood that might be of use to other people?

  1. Anything can become boring when turned into a routine. Even the task of trying something new is a chore if you have to do it everyday. The saying ‘Do what you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life’ is just absolute nonsense. Work, like anything else, is enjoyable only if you don’t stop to think about what you are doing. And if you never stop to think you are missing out.
  2. Working alone is not fun. You come to realise the problem with working with people is whether they match your character or not. Unfortunately, it can be almost impossible to end up working with just the right people, or ones that are at least tolerable. It is, however, interesting to note how certain jobs seem to collect the same kinds of people. It would be helpful if career advising looked at personality compatibility, rather than solely what kind of work you like or are able to perform.
  3. What you’re good at and what people appreciate are different things. There is no substitute for hard work. I value it and I think everyone should. However, it is rather frustrating to see people mistake achievement for inclination or suitability. It negates both: you get patted on the back for being good at something without having your hard work acknowledged and it denies you the chance of developing those things you would be good at without breaking your back.
  4. We shouldn’t live by other people’s standards. Back when I was in uni, I asked one of my tutor’s something along the lines of..what should I do? I find this just ridiculous. His answer at the time was infuriating, but actually brilliant: ‘You can do whatever you like.’ This might have been phrased differently, and I’ve heard it from other people in the meantime, but only now I appreciate and understand. At the time I thought this to be an easy way out, a way of saying a lot without saying anything. I don’t know if these people hold the same position for family and friends. But if they do, I now have the wisdom to appreciate them. Unfortunately, people do in general like to tell others what to do, especially children or younger ones. They probably mean well and feel they are entitled and compelled. But they should just stop. Two people’s lives are not the same. I hope I never make this mistake. If I have, I apologise.
  5. It’s awful chasing success. I have not reached full enlightenment on this point yet. I am still chasing and I blame my upbringing for it. Perhaps, I will make progress in time for the next update.
  6. Being fickle is not shameful. One thing that is paradoxical in the modern world is the craving for consistency and novelty. We consider everything that is not immediate progress a failure, but we forbid any experiments that are not solidly justified and edit any variation in form. We prize content and originality, but we find gratification in criticising format. We want the same thing as yesterday, but we want it to be new and exciting. Changing your opinions and ways seems like a recipe for disaster. I am learning to be proud of my attempts and failures. This is perhaps the true value of not living on someone else’s money (e.g. parents) or being on the payroll (employed). This brings me to the final point.
  7. Being your own boss. Whether I still want to or whether I would succeed, it is too soon to tell. The value I find is, as mentioned above, in the freedom to make mistakes. Three months ago I used to believe I wanted to be my own boss so that I wouldn’t have to do as I am told. I don’t think I would have ended up having this thought if it wasn’t for number 4 on this list. I am actually sensible and I like following rules as long as they’re not moronic.

TLDR

My main argument three months ago for leaving my job was that I shouldn’t be doing something that is turning me into a worse person than I actually am. My main argument now for having made a good choice is that I feel I’ve grown up more in three months than in ten years.

Asphalt cravings – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Irene’s voice was discovered because she couldn’t help singing along with the choir whenever she was taken to church. From nine years of age she didn’t miss a single practice session (Tuesday morning and Friday evening). From twelve years of age she was singing centre stage on every occasion, so popular was she and high the demand the growing church attendance made for her performance. She cared little for anything outside choir. She wasn’t anymore religious than required and never showed interest in singing any other style of music.

She attended get-togethers, but showed little interest in ball game and other childish nonsense. At first the teasing was growing with her choir girl reputation, but when she consistently failed to care, it eventually levelled off and the attention she received was diverted towards other insult avenues deemed appropriate in the name of social anointment: her puny stature, greasy hair, one ear bigger than the other and the eyes of a husky dog.

Irene spent long hours in the summer months lying on her back on the hot asphalt: in the road behind her house, on the side of the skate park, in the school parking area on a weekend, and her favourite, in the little alley behind the church. If people stopped to stare at her, asking whether she was alright, she would blink in an understanding and reassuring way until they gave up, called her mad, or both, and then left. In winter she would cover the floor of her bedroom in hot water bottles, throw a blanket over and, with arms splayed, practise her melismata until her voice went out or she started shivering, whichever came first.

Growing up brought into sharp focus that nature had not given Irene much beside her prodigious voice and dogged determination to passively endure existence. She turned sixteen and having failed all essential exams she could not apply for vocational school. The day her results arrived, she read the letter and then went to the skate park. For Irene it was just another summer afternoon.

The hot July sun softened the asphalt making it tacky to the sweaty touch of Irene’s back covered with a white tank top. The broken shade of a pine tree protected her enough so she wouldn’t end up peeling her skin off to the flesh. She had her eyes focused on the cold bluish green of the pine needles above her, not on their shape just on their colour. Her ability to completely disregard one feature and obsess over another had been her blessing and curse. She was so absorbed she did not observ the lanky boy staring at her for the best part of five minutes. His look was not dirty, but reverential, fascinated, and for a moment worried, checking her chest for the unlikely reason of making sure she wasn’t dead.

He stretched his hand holding his skateboard above her, forcing her to give him attention. She looked at him and spoke with her empty gaze.
‘I thought some extra shade would do you good, looks like you were burning your neck’ he said while still holding the skateboard above her. Irene had the corner of her mouth curl up, in what appeared to be her returning blonde-haired Dylan’s smile.

Irene had bypassed the torment of feeling adolescent shivers of love and had made her own the resentment of unrequited love. She had someone’s attention, and that was the only thing she wanted. She didn’t say a word and allowed two-years-younger Dylan to stare at will.

When his arms started to tire, he turned the skateboard round to show its bottom side, and having had plenty of time to gather courage, proceeded to talk about its custom paint job. Irene’s eyes were flicking open occasionally, looking past and through the eagle craddling a skull, set on a background of flames painted in the only style the guy at the skate shop knew of.

Irene attended the pine asphalt while Dylan was pining on the asphalt. He was actually a pretty talented skateboarder in spite of not being quite built for it, but with his mind somewhere else, but not very far, he failed more often than he should have and forgot about landing in a self-preserving manner. He only took a break when successful, and then he didn’t care for the cheer of fellow skaters and love-stricken girls. He would strut, mostly out of pain, over to the pine tree. The tree had become more welcoming that Irene, greeting him with its invariable sway in the hot wind. Irene would smile, Dylan would assume approval, and then go back for more. This ritual took place while pine needles grew slightly less blue and slightly more yellow, the scrapes and loose thuds of skateboard wheels hitting asphalt providing a fitting soundtrack to Irene’s wicked idleness.

When Dylan finally mastered a gazelle flip, he felt he had earned the right to Irene’s full attention. Irene was done for the day and proceeded to slowly peel herself off hot asphalt. She headed off, the back of her tank top stained in layers of sweat and bituminous matter providing ample opportunity for crowd entertainment. Dylan followed her, at first about 30 m back, but then he rapidly grew impatient and being wildly more fit than Irene he closed the gap in an instant. He wasn’t trying to stalk her, he wanted her to notice him, and when she finally did, she didn’t frighten. She spoke to him for the first time: ‘I’m going to church.’
‘Looking like that? It’s Wednesday. There’s no church today. Who goes to church anyway?’ said a befuddled Dylan.
‘I’m singing.’
‘I..I like music.’ mumbled Dylan.
By this point Irene was no longer a member of the choir. She didn’t fit the innocent child look the choir was built on. In an immature display of power, she plonked down under the open practice room window and outsang the poor choir children with every opportunity. When the choir leader had finally had enough, he came storming out, knowing well what he would find. He didn’t expect a lanky blonde skater boy standing dazed outside his window, staring at a sweaty, greasy Irene, who was, for the first time since he had known her, smiling. He found the scene so utterly surreal he couldn’t find a way of acting, not even one of the ones he had prepared on his way out. He went back in, closed the window, and tried once again for a Kyrie eleison.

The next day Irene didn’t turn up to the skate park. She never turned up again.

From the Little Blue Marbles Series: