Monday, November 11, 2013

Seduction Arabia

If you've read my posts in order, in the life-chronicling format I never intended for this site, you may have been wondering if I've gone the way of Lawrence... striding self-assuredly over hazy dunes, seeking secrets among the sands...  For when I left you, nine months ago, I was on a train to a plane to fly back to that desert land, Saudi Arabia.

Out to sea, off a tiny island north of the Farasan Banks that drops to 700m.
Processing Opisthobranchs collected from the Red Sea
Survived?  A sigh; but of course!  Tempered by months back in my homeland's more civil clime (I returned to Massachusetts, USA from Arabia in early April), I must grudgingly recount that indeed I did not succumb to any of those dashingly fatal outcomes known to befall adventurers of yore.  Personally, it is danger's very romantic appeal that makes the adventure worth having - and the story worth telling.   But for my career, to interviewers and potential employers, the tale dries up from its gelatinous reality; time and professionalism subvert it to an account of pre-determined, calculated uncertainties, and finally, to a 12 pt Times New Roman list of achieved goals - as if there were never any difficulties to tackle in the first place.  So it is now months afterwards that I am left dryly touting the bureaucratic successes and the value of the short visit to science, my career, and the public domain!  A paper machismo; ha, and bully, and yawp!

Phidiana indica, from Farasan Banks
Nevertheless, attempts were made at more colorful summaries; if you'd like to know more about that trip, you can read my description of it (with pictures) on the Florida Museum of Natural History's blog, Adventures in Spineless Science; here.  For an executive summary of the field work I was responsible for on that trip, click here.  Photos from the trip illustrate the rest of this post, though they are little more than a backdrop for my esoteric rant...

A fascinating stowaway for a boatful of biologists
Back to the main thrust of this post, it should by now be evident that what you hear about my adventures is a subsampled snapshot of the reality.  Sometimes the process of sharing the story can dull my awareness to the events around me; storytelling forces me to acknowledge, contextualize, and arrange events into a more objective sequence as new experiences are whizzing past unexamined.  I can only imagine what a roller coaster ride it is for my friends who receive the live, unfiltered stream of experiences and events via haphazard voice, text, and photo messages.  Indeed, I can barely keep up with myself.

Slug spp. six pack: NoaldaOdontoglaja, & asst. Sacoglossans
For this reason I feel I must pause mid-journey, as the toxic smog swirls outside my 36th floor apartment in Manila, and hammer down a disclaimer for the sake of my future stability and that of my writing before diving in (ha) to tales that catch up to my current location.  In my humble experience, the secret to producing good writing is practice, regularity, occasional brutal honesty, and a necessary distinction between the adventure and the self.  Compiling a tale of the self is easier accomplished by composing an anthology of the events, adventures, and teachings in one's periphery.  To tackle the tale directly, narrating live autobiographically as the uncertain and frank protagonist, is dangerous, daringly public, overly deterministic, and grossly egotistical.  When I attempt to turn my adventure writing towards a personal account of my destinations and decisions, I operate slowly - possibly for fear of solidifying one reputation from the many possibilities within the private sphere of fluid existence.  Each of the meetings, hikes, buses, projects, etc. one encounters and attempts must have their worth carefully considered before their inclusion in one's public tale.  We all know growth comes from failures, but their halting nature makes it difficult to sell stories and oneself while experiencing them.

The beauty of KAUST at night

A larval Diodontid collected during my light trap sampling
Regardless, returning to Saudi Arabia was such a refreshing re-awakening to the joy of doing natural science.  After a few hours back in the Kingdom, surrounded by my fellow professional nature enquirers, I had responsibilities, meetings, collaborations, data collection, and writing to do.  (I got so caught up when I was there, that on return to Massachusetts I thought the rain was a miracle.  The desert bug bites hard!)  It was thus unfortunate that the visit did not result in employment.  While several very creative offers were stitched together for a PhD at KAUST, their outcomes failed to seduce me.  Fully funded field work is a beautiful thing, but would I receive the education I wanted?  After four years, would I be closer to my goals?  I was concerned that I would not be sufficiently exposed to conservation and management initiatives, that I would not gain sufficient grant writing experience, and that I would not receive sufficient guidance during the process.  Whether this was a deeper grudge with doctoral education in general, a complete misunderstanding of it, or my negative perception of some aspects of the KAUST environment, I could not say.  (Certainly, being overly picky has burned me before; I bombed my chances at a Research Associate position at UMaine during my third interview in November 2012 because I said I "wanted to get back to the tropics at some point.")  Still, would it be better to experience my current sense of loss before or after four years of fantastic field work and growth?  I'd say before, because (and many friends insist I am mistaken in this assumption) I'd rather spend four years studying something I plan on using to achieve societal change, and I need to figure out where my outlet is for that change.  Regardless, I was willing to stay on as a technician, to observe the progress of scientific inquiry around me while helping researchers answer their queries, but sadly my enquiries of several PIs on board the ship this past March (we lived on a boat for two weeks, recall) regarding such a position were answered with laments of insufficient funding - and no future postings in sight I could apply for.  I did not wish to leave again, but there did not seem to be an opportunity for me to stay.  Damn the American military budget!

Sunset at PetroRabigh
Returning stateside was once again painful; and just as in 2011, I came back asking myself where to go next.  Applying for work and getting zero response gets taxing (what happened to etiquette?); eventually, I take whatever opportunity I have in front of me to survive and shrug at its uncertainties (doubtless a method by which many of my peers have chosen their doctoral programs, for which my snarky disdain has injured numerous friendships, despite being a method I use myself).  Tackling the real world (i.e., the world outside academia's coddling) often means facing this uncertainty and feeling unprepared; the world does not offer opportunities based on your ideals unless your ideals align with the flow of money.  Thus, risks must be taken and new directions explored until this intersection is found.  But how can one know what new directions will be fruitful when they include unfamiliar territory, unknown industries, and an overextension of skills?

PetroRabigh's eery Martian landscape; with natural gas spire
This is why the blog halted after I wrote about leaving for Saudi Arabia.  Returning to unemployment rather than a snazzy portrait of professionalism dead-ended the narrative I built my audience up for; I confused the tale of the adventure with the tale of the self.  The purpose of this blog was originally to use my unique voice to share my perspective on the nature around me as I experience it, not to chronicle the risks I've made in chasing after those experiences.  The overlap is tempting, but telling the story of self requires me to narrativize life, its moments both glorious and soul-sucking; an art form for which I am vastly unprepared and uninterested in tackling.  (Remember: I am an ocean nerd.)  Dwelling so much on this subject feels like so much narcissism - especially as the death toll in my new home is estimated over 10,000 today - but I believe closure to my past story will help me move myself and my image forward in this new land, which is why I'm telling the falling action of that adventure; I'm setting up the rising action of the next.

PetroRabigh, a decades older compound, has a beautiful beach
So, to conclude - when making the boldest moves possible, is publicizing one's risk a necessary commitment to the path of success?  Certainly business owners are familiar with this feeling; you have to commit all your resources, hopes, dreams, and even beliefs if you want to hope to succeed in redirecting the flow of money out of established channels and into new ones.  Seduction Arabia was just a catchy title.  The siren song is rather for adventure itself, a quality which Arabia possesses in amounts as vast as its dunes of red-orange sand, and probably the reason why I returned there instead of giving a local fish store more than a few months of a chance.  Though I've never had to openly acknowledge adventure's fatalistic allure before, it makes sense now.  After spending my summer working at a Florida nonprofit aimed at getting people outdoors and guiding them through nature, I've spent my fall preparing for yet another uncertain adventure overseas, whose outcomes are unknown, but for which I will be directing all my attention - or at least battling my psyche to allow me to.

July after Arabia, teaching teens how to guide in Florida
I call it my "last hurrah," which is a bit embarrassingly juvenile - but I perceive it as my last free chance at fulfilling my dreams by finally - and publicly - making the documentary film that has haunted my mind for six years.  That's enough of a teaser for now, you'll have to wait for the next post for the details.  But I will say that this morning, while running on a treadmill and looking out across Metro Manila through the glass panes of a 40th floor penthouse gym (don't worry, it's not costing me a penny thanks to CouchSurfing), that I had to consider whether or not I had really made progress towards life goals.  Have I been selfish and ignorant of life's true meaning?  Am I merely conniving my peers worldwide into enabling a farce?  Am I further ahead than I was years ago?  Have I just run away again, a prodigal scientist, opening myself up for change in a new land?  For the first time, as I listened to Weezer and rocked out on my treadmill, I felt I may not have to change who I am; to allow my new home to alter my dreams.  I may be able to instead come as I am.  Nevertheless, I will certainly be aware; as a citizen of Earth, the point is to pick and chose.  Mab├║hay, Philippines.

Sad that I'll be curtailing my personal details in future posts?  Click here for a photographic timeline of my journeys in America between my Saudi Arabian March and my move to the Philippines in November.