July 2009 Archives

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I have a lot of things I have to take care of, and then we'll have an epic catch-up. Meanwhile, I leave you in the very capable hands of Billy Corgan:




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After sailing this afternoon we had a great dinner at a restaurant near the marina. My father had soft shell crabs, and we were talking about the best method for cooking them, which involved dredging them in flour and sauteing. He mentioned that friends of his in Maryland pronounce dredge as "drudge," and this cracked me up.

Lately I have been dredging up memories of people I haven't thought about in years, and it feels a lot like drudging. It's as if my experiences have crystallized under the surface, like viruses, and they come washing back over me when I drudge them back into solution. I once discussed this phenomenon with a friend of mine, who says he relives embarrassing and uncomfortable situations over and over too, vividly, and we agreed that you cringe with the sensation of wanting to crawl under your bed all over again.

Flashbacks, of necessity, transport you back to the mental state you were in while that experience occurred, and much like the space coyote in my all-time favorite episode of The Simpsons ("El viaje misterioso de nuestro Homer"), "This is just your memory. I can't give you any new information."

This is where drudging is a little different from just plain remembering. On hindsight, I can clearly see people's ulterior motives and interests, I can understand what's caused them to act the way they have. I can see myself, why I treated people the way I did, and sometimes what I was really feeling when I was in utter denial. In drudging, memory is creative and interpretive, but also tedious and frustrating. No amount of learning from my past will allow me to change the way things happened, nor who I've become as a consequence.

I know that just as my journey has been many-pronged and complicated, so has everyone else's. We are all different people as we transform throughout time, but sometimes that's not good enough. There are some people I see, and even though I've had many interactions with them over the years since then, I can't shake the image of them relentlessly and viciously teasing a neighbor. Sometimes high school friends will add me on Facebook, and every time I see their profile picture, I remember the nastiest thing they ever said to me. It becomes intensely appealing to remove them from my life yet again.

I used to think that the people who drifted out of your life did so for a reason, that it was the universe settling into a natural order where you gravitate toward the people who are best for you and move away from the repellent ones. Then I started losing touch with people I genuinely adore, and I started to see that happenstance and logistics plays a much greater part than I'd like.

When faced with the occasion to see old friends and acquaintances (as I have this weekend), it can either be a fresh start to encounter them as adults, whom I barely know except in passing, or it could be straight-up drudging. Because I am feeling entirely too cynical for my own good, I am betting on the latter, but the universe has a funny way of surprising me when I really need it.

All I can say is I'm glad there's plenty of alcohol involved.

Parent all your life

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I'm a member of a knitting and crochet website that has pretty active forums (isn't this the source from which all great modern intellectual debate arises?), and I came across a thread where a woman asked if she was a horrible mother for wanting her grown children to move out. Obviously I'm sensitive about this topic, so I read with much interest as people went on about how she should charge them rent, or how she shouldn't worry about just kicking them to the curb; some mothers bragged about how quickly they got their kids out, and I became increasingly astonished at the tone.

To me, having children is a lifelong commitment. You don't stop being a parent the day your child turns 18 or when you feel you've "done enough" for them. There aren't rules or guidelines to how much money you must spend or what amount of guidance is sufficient, so I'm not sure from where these arbitrary definitions of acceptable parenting arise.

Moreover, as I read through the tone in the thread, I kept asking myself "Why the hell did these women have children?!" Posters talked about needing their space and privacy, wanting to pursue hobbies and interests (which they blamed their children for preventing them from doing), and openly resenting their children for, it seemed, being in their way. They talked about how happy they were to get their kids out, to go back to having the house alone with their husband, and so on, and it seemed glaringly obvious to me that maybe they didn't ever want kids. Maybe it was just something they did because they were married and that was the social expectation.

There are groups on this same site of people who are "child-free by choice" and similar, and I used to get uncomfortable reading some of the posts bashing breeders and desecrating the family system without which they would not exist. As with most knee-jerk responses of mine, I considered the question further, and I asked myself why I was so fast to think of them as "selfish" or "unloving" people. Is it selfish to realize you're not interested in creating another life, so you abstain from it? No, not at all. Is it instead more selfish to have a child as a walking signifier of your social status and wealth, all the while resenting him and counting down the days until it's acceptable to throw him out? Decidedly so.

I'm certain it's not surprising to recognize that the people who claim to stand for "family values" are often the ones doing the most to undermine them. To me, a woman realizing she does not have room in her life for a child is much more respectful of the actual responsibility and commitment involved in raising a family than a woman who pops out a few kids because "that's what you do when you're married." Of course, I can't be sure anyone could go on, in good conscience, to have children if they were truly cognizant of the incredible demand it is to create and maintain life. I'm quite sure this is why babies are so cute and we're biologically programmed to get melty at the idea of making green-eyed ones with the boys we love.

I have always felt that I wanted to have children, but not because I particularly like babies or children. Most of the time I'm terrified of them or find them intensely annoying. The thing is, though, I see the way that having children, creating and raising people, has affected my own parents. Because they listened to us and considered what we said (and encouraged us to have original thoughts and opinions), my brother and I have contributed to discussions from a young age. We have asked questions that other people in my parents' lives never thought to ask, we've provided feedback, a fresh perspective, and we've synthesized their viewpoints with our own to come up with unique approaches to problems and experiences. I think that having us around has allowed my parents to test and understand themselves, their relationship, and life, in fascinating and rewarding ways... and if not, I really hope we haven't been too much of a hassle.

In this way, my interest in having children is similar to my interest in gardening or painting. Kind of a scenario to challenge myself and ideas, to nurture something and give it everything I have, then see how it responds.

I often misquote him, but my friend Andrew once told me about the Minbari race from the TV showBabylon 5. Their religion really jived with me, for reasons which should become obvious once I shamelessly quote Wikipedia:

The Minbari have a belief that the universe itself is sentient, and that the universe has the ability to break itself into many pieces and invests itself in every form of life. Consequently, every being is a projection of a part of the universal soul. They believe that the universe uses the perspective of individual sentient beings in a process of self-examination and a search for meaning (similar to the real-life belief of pantheism).

I fell in love with this idea that we are all little fragments of the universe, coming together in the ways we do through time, in an attempt for the universe to make sense of itself. Parents, I felt, were units of transmission, creating children who made sense of the generations that came before and brought up new questions for the next. In this view, no one talks about free-loading because there are mystical and important things going on, and even if the whole universe is not at stake, each child (and parent) has a pretty hefty investment in their own lives, and it's important to remain sensitive to that.

No one asks to be born, though I think most people are happy they were (notwithstanding some massive curmudgeons who act like it was a shitty thing for their parents to have done to them). I'm not sure many people like having to work to support themselves or having to pay bills, but it's one of those things we accept, like hunger or the need to pee, as a fact of existence which is more or less tolerable when kept in check.

People do have a choice in whether or not they have children, though, and I do wish that decision were taken more seriously. I hear friends talk about wanting to "have a baby," but they rarely speak about "creating a person," and that worries me. Children don't stop at 18, and whether your decision was a good idea or not, they're the ones who have to live out its consequences as adult people for the rest of their lives.

I feel like the least we can do, as fellow humans, short of giving them the best start possible and doing everything in our power to fill their lives with light and love, is to at least be kind to them and not bash them on the internet. (I say this now, but let's see how I feel after the buggers keep me up all night and do all the things I've done).


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Even though I'm pretty terrible at sailing still, I often use it as a metaphor when thinking about life. When changing from the MFA to the dual degree I'm doing now, I wrote my application essay about knowing when it's time to change tack and adjust the way you go on your course.

There are basically two ways to change direction in sailing: to tack, or to jibe. In tacking, the wind comes across the front of the boat, and in jibing, it comes across the back. I say that, but it's comparative to the fact that in knitting, you either knit or purl... yet there are much more complex stitch patterns, cables, etc that can be created with two simple maneuvers.

I've always asked people about the relative advantages and disadvantages of tacking versus jibing, and in which circumstances you would use one over another. I get vague answers, mostly that tacking is preferred, and there is often mention of jibing being rough on the equipment. My brother gave a slightly clearer answer related to tall ship rigging, but I'll just accept it that jibing can be rougher.

In changing my own course, I always look to the future, moving the wind across my bow, as it were, and tacking here and there trying to best get at it. It's very rare that I really look at my past as a guide for what to do next, and I've even argued it with myself, "Would you look at your wake to determine your trim?"

What I realize lately, though, is that I'm a lot more experienced with making mistakes than with predicting a favorable outcome. In fact, I am perhaps an expert at running headlong into disaster with a gust of unparalleled enthusiasm, utterly unprepared, and changing my mind fifteen times instead of turning back. Letting the wind come from behind is too rough on my psychic equipment (please just go with this metaphor), and I find a lot of the things I've done entirely too painful to revisit, which keeps me from learning from them.

Often when arguing with people about what I'm going to do (why do I always give other people a say in my decisions?), I either focus exclusively on the course without addressing logistics (I'm going to grad school, I'm going to Italy, I'm going to conservation school, I'm getting married and having kids, I'm becoming happy in life), or I focus only on tending the jib or screwing with the tiller, obsessing over day to day without considering the overall direction in which I am headed (money, food, car, relationships, being held hostage on NJ Transit, sleep, health, a paper I've been procrastinating for months). I get stuck on little luffing points instead of taking all factors into consideration, and I end up adrift, stressed all the time, and unhappy.

I put deadlines on myself and insist on working with the rigging I have, instead of considering that perhaps I need to take a moment and fix it. Maybe the mainsail just isn't up high enough, and no matter how high I point into the wind, it's not getting filled adequately if I start off with it in the wrong place. On the Kermit, the jib tends from a weird place, and one of the jam-cleats kept catching. No amount of frustration or bashing myself is going to change that: I just have to move the lines and change the cleats.

So in life, I am trying to force myself to be ready to apply for conservation school in January. I'm cart-before-horsing all over the place, since I don't even have my master's yet, and I was freaking out, preempting writing my thesis with internships I need to do and extra coursework for which I must register.

When it comes down to it, I don't think I want to clean paintings or futz around in a museum. I want to be a conservation scientist and do research on site, as we've been doing on these trips to Italy. I realize that the people I am working with are not graduates of a conservation program - they are chemists and physicists. To work alongside them, it's not going to be enough to go to a school that teaches me conservation methodology. I actually need to understand science.

I was hesitant to apply for the master's at conservation school in the first place. I would say "Why a third master's when I can get the PhD?" and everyone around me was quick to point out that I still only have a bachelor's and no master's degrees right now. I want to be qualified enough to apply for the PhD, which means more science and research, more work experience, and generally applying myself instead of half-assing my way into yet another expensive and time-consuming academic endeavor (albeit with tuition remission and a stipend).

In this instance, I am both jibing and changing course a bit. I am finishing my master's before anything else. I suspect I can get better internships, jobs etc with two master's degrees than with none, and I can deal with retaking GREs and fulfilling the rest of my admissions requirements when I am ready. It won't kill me to work and have some semblance of a personal life for a while.

My whole life, I've been in this big rush to sort out my career, get married, have kids, etc "before it's too late," and I haven't been enjoying myself in the meantime. Supposedly I have been pursuing these goals since I was 21, and I've made shockingly little progress in any of these regards. If anything, relentlessly pushing forward has only caused psychological and spiritual regression, most tangibly evidenced by moving back into my parents' house and sabotaging relationships and friendships again.

So screw it. I'm taking my damn time, waiting on a good breeze. I'm tired of being unhappy in a sucker wind.


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I *think* that I fixed my computer. I managed to recover the majority of my documents, with the sort of painful exception of all my music (I had about 10,500 songs). I restored my computer to its factory defaults, and it... seems to be working just fine. (I say this with some trepidation because I'm afraid to tempt fate).

In a way it's like having a new computer, in that I have to adjust every single setting and reinstall all my programs (some of which will be much more difficult than others), but it's also like a new computer in that it behaves in expected ways and yknow, runs.

I have learned way more than I wanted to in this process, and I have a pretty sexy new external hard drive (my other one is pretty fickle and couldn't be recognized without drivers that I couldn't access from the recovery program). I plan to use it to back up my data like, every week, obsessively. I never want to go through something like this again!

Sad Mac

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So like, this is me now:

That's from an episode of Sex and the City, where Carrie's laptop gives up the ghost and she sees a Sad Mac. She takes her computer to Tekserve in Manhattan, wrapped in a pashmina, and she's just the very picture of helplessness. I'm like that, except a little worse because I'm crying so much about it, and I knew damn well how to back up my stuff but didn't do it while I still could because I was soooo convinced I could fix it myself.

I used to live with a computer genius type person who seemed able to fix everything. I think to an extent, this allowed me to fool myself that perhaps I too knew anything at all about computers and should be able to handle whatever problems might arise. Or that my ignorance didn't really matter because when it got beyond me, I'd be able to hand it over to someone who knew what to do.

My mother suggested calling someone, like a professional computer genius type person, and I don't even know where you find those. I was positively ecstatic when, on the third try, I got the BIOS thing to go at startup and I was able to run the hard drive diagnostics program. As I'm anxiously waiting for it to finish, I'm sitting here crying, remembering the good times my computer and I shared. In my head, it's a ridiculous montage of carrying it in my purse in Venice, which I think is as close as you can get to waltzing on the Zattere with a piece of electronics. I'm recalling all the places I've taken it, all the great things it did, and I'm like... preemptively mourning what I fear is its imminent demise.

I just want my kitty photos (and research data and thesis drafts and oh God a manuscript I traveled to Italy for...). GAH.

Technical difficulties

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Weird things are happening with everything computer-related that I touch lately. My laptop stopped recognizing the mouse, would make awful noises and crash at the most inconvenient possible times. I think I fixed it by updating the drivers and then, when that didn't work, doing a full system update from Lenovo. I'm kind of afraid to turn it on to check.

And here on this blog, things are getting unsettling. My last post just mysteriously vanished, having been replaced online and in my RSS feed as a blank page. I recovered it from a Google cached version of the page, but that was strange. In attempting to find it in Google reader, I also saw this huge string of spammy ad links that had been attached to the post before that. Not as a comment, but somehow just tacked on to the end of the post. WTF??

Also, my header keeps getting over-written with a blank page, which is constantly annoying and mystifying, and I'm getting tired of fixing it.

I hate when stuff goes wrong with computers and web stuff because it underscores how vastly ignorant I am in these regards. What should be simple fixes take me untold hours, and I am never quite certain I've gotten it right.

I guess this post is a head's up that you may see additional flukey things around here, until I get it all sorted out. Please do let me know what you see though, and even better, if you know how to fix it.

A pinch which was matter

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From Grimus by Salman Rushdie (current obsessive reading), p.91-92:

Certain kinds of science aspire to the condition of poetry; and on the planet of the Spiral Dancers, a long tradition of scientist-poets had elevated a branch of physics until it became a high symbolist religion. They had probed matter, dividing it into ever-smaller units, until they found at its very roots the pure, beautiful dance of life. This was a harmony of the infinitesimal, where energy and matter moved like fluids. Energy forces came gracefully together to create at their point of union a pinch which was matter. The pinches came together into larger pinches; or else fell away again into pure energy, according to the rules of a highly formal, spiral rhythm. When they came together, they were dancing the Strongdance. When they fell back into the Primal, they were dancing the Weakdance.

From this discovery came the religion of Spiral Unity. If everything was energy, everything was the same. A thinking being and a table were only aspects of the same force. It had been proven scientifically.

(I love this book so very much.)

Dare to defy Venus

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I have an absolute weakness for romantic comedies. I realize they're silly, contrived, unrealistic, rely on implausible scenarios, and frankly insult the intelligence of the viewer... but any time I see 13 Going on 30 or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days on television, I'm watching it.

I've watched Shakespeare in LoveSleepless in SeattlePillow TalkNotting HillBridget Jones's Diary(and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), Great ExpectationsStealing BeautyEternal Sunshine, and dozens of others way more times than could possibly be healthy. That I intersperse these viewings with Kubrick, James Bond flicks, really intense dramas, and the like, doesn't really mitigate my mental saturation with the rom-com genre (that is the first, and I assure you, last time I'll ever say "rom-com".)

It is not surprising that my love life frequently resembles a completely eye-rollingly predictable romantic comedy. I cannot count the amount of times a guy who's broken my heart has shown up all repentent right as I realize I'm in love with my sweet supportive friend who's been there along. Or somehow, in a convoluted sequence of wild coincidences, I find myself with the unlikeliest, yet oh-so-fated person I seem meant to be with. You know, for a while.

I used to joke with a friend in college that life seems scripted for my amusement, especially regarding guys. They just do these seemingly ridiculous things, exactly when you think they will, and I am constantly proven both right and wrong for believing in these totally out-there romantic arcs.

But then I started thinking: is it really so ridiculous? I mean... when I like someone, I don't tend to just forget about them once we have a set-back. More likely, I'll think about them a lot more, trying to figure out what went wrong or hoping for an occasion to sort things out. When you think about the social circles most people inhabit, it's not entirely improbable to run into a person again, or to meet someone who knows them (and believe it's fate), or to see the same pop culture thing they did and have them on your subconscious until you both decide to pick up the phone at the same minute to call one another about it (this last point is hypothetical - I'm still not likely to call someone, but "send a drunken text" doesn't have the same ring to it).

I think we're attracted to the people we are because we have a lot in common, whether we know it or not. There are demographic, social, and personal forces that bring compatible people together, and those forces don't go away just because you got a weird vibe on a date or stumbled into an awkward conversation.

So I wonder, when I have one of those "Oh, of COURSE!" romantic comedy moments in my life, is it fate, destiny, some power bigger than myself? Or is just people, being utterly, nakedly predictable, in everything we do?

I always talk about wanting to follow my heart, and I realize that this is putting my faith in some higher power to bring me toward happiness. Whether that higher power is my innate sense of self-preservation guiding me to make better decisions, or it's as literal as a pagan priestess of Venus (I watched Tha├»s  on PBS last night), the idea is the same.

I just hope that these madcap, absurd scenarios are adding up toward something, and that that something is worth it. If my life is truly a romantic comedy, now might be a nice time for that handsome heart-of-gold guy to show up and sweep me off my feet.

I'm actually going to miss it

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2. No, seriously, WOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

3. I didn't post right away because I was off having fun with some of my wonderful classmates. (Photo set here).

After our brutal final, we went to the beach for what turned out to be a damn near perfect day. I swam in the ocean with my feet facing into the waves and kicked as hard as I possibly could while laughing and looking up at the cloudless sky. I was finally FREE.

We took the party to a nearby apartment and I can't remember the last time I've laughed so hard or so much. I'm genuinely sad that I won't see these guys every day, but I'm so happy to have made such great friends.

My classmates were so wonderful and funny and delightful to be around - they actually made the whole Organic chemistry experience rather... pleasant. I was even sad that I wasn't taking Organic II, because I wouldn't have their company through lectures and lab.

Then I woke up Tuesday morning without the feeling of a 500-pound boulder on my chest and achy, fuzzy-minded, sleep-deprived dread that has dominated the past six weeks. It's good to be human again and to get back in touch with the rest of my life.

4. That includes work! And all the projects I've completely abandoned while taking this class! I have a LOT of stuff to do!

5. Also, thesis. Still does not write itself! Who knew??

Blow it all up

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Yesterday I woke from what I'm pretty sure was a dreamless sleep, thinking about Eugene Andolsek, an artist whose work I saw in that phenomenal Obsessive Drawing show at the American Folk Art Museum back in 2005.

Eugene Andolsek was that classic "outsider artist" who made obsessive ink compositions on graph paper every night as a means to cope with his anxiety. He hated his job as a stenographer for the railroad, but he was constantly terrified that he would lose it. Drawing was not an art form for him - in fact he didn't even consider his work art - it was just somehing he needed to do to survive. (This is, I'm sure, part of why it resonates so strongly with people, but that is a digression for another day.)

I remember feeling a lot of comisery when I first saw his work and read his bio, as I understand all too well how easy it is to fixate on one source of worry and allow it to occupy your entire experience. What Eugene Andolsek didn't realize (I think) is that losing his job wouldn't have been the end of the world. In fact, it might have been an incredible opportunity for him... but he focused all his energy on keeping his job, and so that's all he did in life. I don't really want to do the same with mine.

So I am stressed about this class. I'm sleeping terribly (and infrequently) and fretting every waking hour about my final on Monday. I'm all upset with myself because I know I should have tried harder, worked more, gotten my act together somehow, and done better with this class. I don't know if I'm going to pass it or not, and I guess the worst case scenario is that I fail, have to retake it in the fall, and am out six weeks and a little more $5000 for a tediously overwrought life lesson learned. But... they can't take away my birthday. They don't get to come to my house and yell at me. No one gets to punish me any more than I punish myself, and there certainly won't be scary clowns involved.

With that in mind, and knowing I wasn't going to be productive anyway, I decided to go to the Red Bank fireworks with my family last night, to drink overly sweet coconut rum (I kept calling my mom a sorority girl and by the end had my father asking for "another sorority drink please" instead of a rum and pineapple), and to chill the eff out and relax a little. I watched the sunset on the Navesink, I had fun conversation, I took tons of photos, and I watched a whole lot of fireworks.

It should have occurred to me earlier that watching things explode would have been tremendously cathartic.

I have a Flickr set of Fireworks photos, which I'd encourage you to check out. Not because I think fireworks photos are inherently interesting, but because frankly, I think I took some seriously bitchin' ones that look like space explosions.

And if you would like the ooh and aah experience, here, have a slideshow!

I felt so much more relaxed about life, just being on the water (even if it was in our slip), thinking about anything except chemistry.

I love that river with all my heart.

(You can see non-fireworks photos in an Independence Day set, also on Flickr).

In other news, I bought a green bikini (no, there will not be photos), my cat is the most wonderful, soft, squishy, Smokey-panted creature alive, our boat slip comes with membership to an outdoor pool we didn't know about, and... I have a lot of sobering up and work to do.

Happy Independence Day!!! Drink beer and blow things up for me!

Lashing In

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I can feel myself growing increasingly irritable and short-tempered with people who, by all rights, I should treat better than ever. I'm being passive-aggressive, cold-hearted, judgmental, and really quite unkind. I'm making hasty decisions that I know I will regret. I have abstract and amorphous thunderclouds of fury oppressing daily interactions, and at any moment I know I'm prone for lightning strikes.

This irrational, senseless anger is generally a ready indicator that something's not right in Camp Vicki. It's usually not until after I've acted hateful and burned a bunch of bridges that I recognize that my lashing out is almost always a direct mechanism related to frustration and disappointment with myself.

The constantly demoralizing experience of this chemistry class has not really taught me how to accept failure, but it's gotten me acclimated to six weeks straight of feeling utterly stupid and incapable. Perhaps because I am now so used to sudden flashes of violent emotion devolving into self-loathing tears, I know this energy needs to be directed inward and addressed rather than stomped all over the rest of my life, so... I'm lashing in.

One way or another, this class ends on Monday. I have a finite amount of time to go through back homework assignments and prepare for a scary-ass comprehensive final. I'll either perform well enough to pass the class, or not. And then, for now, it's done. Monday afternoon, I can go swimming and sailing if I want, and all I have to worry about is work and thesis (and all my stupid personal drama) for the rest of the summer.

With that perspective in mind, I still keep falling apart. I realize that getting so emotional about something that really is just a question of mechanisms and points is fogging my ability to reason through things, and I'm certain that the constant sleep deprivation and stress is screwing with my ability to remember things. When I finished undergrad, I remember being stunned that I could suddenly read and retain information from books I read for pleasure. I cannot wait for this haze to lift, when everything in my life is relatively easy compared with those six weeks I lost my mind in organic chemistry.

I keep making blindingly stupid mistakes, flubbing up incredibly obvious things, and surprising even myself with my ability to completely forget material in the span of twelve hours. I'm just so tired of being this person whose brain doesn't work, and the more upset I get about it, the worse it gets. I can feel higher-order thinking processes evaporating along with alkene reactions and rules of stereochemistry. I can see myself making increasingly foolish decisions in my personal life and doing reckless things with my heart - I can literally see my mind going, in everything I do, this hysterical domino effect that scatters across everything I touch.

I know I will laugh about this. Or beat myself up for a while because I failed miserably, have to retake the class, and eventually laugh about it. I'll recall it in a bemused tone and smile knowingly when I see other people going through this experience. I just have to find the way from here to there and keep some semblance of my wits about me.

It probably doesn't help that I cried the whole way home today.

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