Since starting a degree in chemistry, I haven’t had too many terrific things to say about it. I haven’t had a lot to say in general, here at least, as the effort of organizing my thoughts in any sort of coherent way is just asking way too much on top of all these damn hexagons I gotta draw.
Backtracking for a second, when my cat used to do something outrageously naughty, unabashedly, I used to look at him quizzically and ask, “Oh, so this is what we do now?” He’d usually respond with disarming eye contact and a defiant double-meow to confirm, “Yes, this is what we do now.”
When I started at Pace last fall, I just had to accept that “what I did” had to shift. I could not as easily justify staying up all night reading about architecture, claiming it had some tangential educational value (it did), or obsessing over music (good for the soul), without also accepting the foggy, number-inverting slogging in my brain the next day. I started to choose a good night’s sleep over the things I loved, and while I was really proud of myself for getting an A- in Calculus, I kind of had to wonder at what cost I achieved that goal.
Now I am just plain wallowing in my own inadequacy in chemistry, and while I’ve got a whole fistful of excuses at the breathless ready, what I’m doing now is failing, atrociously. For the most part, anything I’ve studied in the past has basically made sense to me. I could organize my thoughts in a way that contained the information and allowed for further insights. With chemistry, most days, I feel like I showed up to the wrong class, and no matter how much I read or review my notes, it doesn’t stop looking like hieroglyphics to me.
(This picture does not really relate to this post yet, but I needed cheering up.)
I took an exam that I thought I’d prepared for. I made this meticulous study guide translating a couple hundred pages down into what I thought were the important details and reactions. I felt I really understood what was significant about the particular types of molecules (aldehydes and ketones, amines, and carboxylic acids and derivatives, if you care), and that when I came across a problem on the exam, I’d be able to see what was happening.
(Still unrelated, but deliciously so.)
Since I imagine few people are less interested in mechanisms than I am, let me give an analogy by way of food. If you understand a recipe, you know that you can add ingredients in the right sequence and conditions to get the desired food item you’re trying to produce. If you’re making caramel and your milk curdles, you can intuit that you skipped a step in tempering the milk, and you know what to fix after you’ve thrown out that gooey and smelly mess. With each step of the preparation, you can see the ingredients gradually transforming into something more closely resembling your beautiful pear tarte tatin until voilà, c’est magnifique!
I am not like this in chemistry. I think I see what’s happening, as I’m copying down all the stupid steps and fretting every atom, but where I think I’m working toward a pineapple upside down cake, nodding and saying “mmhmm, pineapples go on the bottom, where they caramelize, and it’s okay because you flip it over at the end,” I am astonished to learn, quelle horreur, that I’m supposed to have made sea urchin ceviche. Why did I add sugar and flour to my ceviche?? Aye me, are these tomatoes? I thought they were maraschino cherries! And so forth.
Except in chemistry, I don’t even know what I’ve done wrong, until I find myself sitting at an exam, as I did today, not only making countless mistakes, but panicking and full on blanking on everything I’ve studied. I mean, if my life depended on it, I couldn’t draw out a single mechanism.
I guess where I’m going with this is… when do you decide that what you’re doing now is a mistake? How long do you drive down the wrong road before you turn around and check your directions?
(This image is finally relevant.)
I’m taking this one-credit Hiking elective, to fill out my schedule, because I though it would be relaxing and fun. Mostly, it’s wonderful because we get to go to these beautiful places outside on Sundays. But I have learned that what I call hiking, my professor calls “walking in the woods,” and that his definition is more like… climbing up big rocks and scrambling around boulders on all fours. The picture above is a view from the top of a frighteningly steep rock – you can’t actually see the person below, to whom I was shouting back, “The trail is right in the center. Just climb up that rock, yeah, the one in the middle.”
At some point along the hikes, my body gives out, and I have a moment where my mind is too weak or my thighs are too tired to overcome the challenge ahead. “That’s it,” I declare breathlessly, “I live here now. I live on this stupid rock, where I will have squirrel-bear hybrid children ashamed of their feeble college dropout mom.” I convince myself that I can’t go another step, as I keep dragging my feet ploddingly, that any moment now, I’ll just collapse. Thankfully, my attention span is short enough that I reach a level spot or I catch my breath, I stop scrambling for just long enough to get distracted by the feeling of sunshine on my scraped-up hand, and I decide, “This is kind of lovely, though,” and persevere.
I think that as much as I underestimated 1200-foot+ elevation hikes as “easy enough, if they’re spread out over a couple miles and not so steep all at once,” I had no idea what I was getting into with chemistry. And so far, I’ve gotten nary a glimpse of the scenic view or exhilarating breeze at the top that makes it worthwhile.
I thought I had this great plan worked out for a fascinating integration of science and the arts, that I was carving out a special little niche in conservation science that would make me happy all my life. I did what I considered the challenging part, in sorting out master’s degrees in painting and art history, and now I just needed to get the science out of the way. Easy as pie, because I love science!
But I suck at chemistry. I suck spectacularly, in inventive and elaborate ways. I suck so badly that I wonder how I’ve ever passed a single exam, let alone the prerequisite for this course, and as page after page of mysteries remain steadfast in their refusal to unravel in understanding, I’m perplexed at why I ever thought this was something I could do now.
Odds are very high that I will fail this class and have to retake it over the summer. I need to pass it, both for my degree, and as a prerequisite of the Biochemistry class I’m registered to take in the fall. When I glibly talk about it with my mother and say I’ll probably be retaking advanced orgo over the summer, she asks earnestly, “Vic, what’s going to change between now and then?” and I have no answer.
I know that this semester has been unusually tough. Instead of the usual cold to throw me off my game, I had a month of bronchitis and pneumonia. That is the tip of the poor health iceberg, as I’ve also developed baffling allergies to everything I touch, eat, or think about, and my system seems to be in a constant stress response of one kind or another. I’ve worried terribly about family and friends who are sick, having problems with their babies, or dying. I got in a car accident. I had crises of conscience with friends and relationships. I fretted too much about the things that don’t matter because I was overwhelmed by the things that really do. I’ve spent weeks at a time a hair’s breadth from bursting into tears, while bottling everything up and insisting I “don’t have the time” to think about it. I got so good at distracting myself that I went full-circle and didn’t worry as much as I should, prioritizing the things that transported me away from my reality instead of those that would improve it.
In the meantime, it’s spring. I want to be exuberant at the sheer audacity of flowers returning to bloom and trees bursting into colors that radiate joy. I want to feel happy to be alive, instead of dismal and frustrated because I’m dumb. I want to spend time with the people I care about, with whom – I am crushingly and distressingly reminded – I don’t have infinities. I want to stop dreading days, or regretting how I’ve spent them.
So I don’t know what I do now. However much my confidence or ability has faltered in the past, I could still get behind the big picture and make sense of what I was doing. I think about the way I feel, when I am utterly clueless and blind-sided by the vast expanse of Stuff I Don’t Understand About Chemistry, and I don’t know that I want to spend the rest of my twenties (and probably a good portion of my thirties) pursuing such a cruel mistress. I’ve had enough destructive relationships in my life that I don’t need my education and career path to become another.
I honestly don’t know if this is a big rock I’ve got to get over, or if it’s time to admit this path is too hard and I need to turn back. I know I’m supposed to keep picking my feet up and putting them down, but I have no idea where that should be. It feels plainly precarious.