One of those days

Make that one of those months. Some things are not going the way I want them to. At all. So if you are in the mood for some complaining, do read on. It is all self-centred drivel, but that comes with the privilege of hosting your own blog. Where to start? Well, there are a couple of things in my life that are not moving forward how I had hoped: The PhD. The job. The health. The future house.

Let’s take that list backwards. The Future house is a concept. It might be the house I am living in. The idea is, that we need to look making the house elderly-proof, if we want to stay here like forever, or even 20 years. Or we need to move. In either case, we need to do something. My husband is considerably older than I am, and my health (next paragraph) is not great in some respects. So we must not leave decisions until too late. Start some long overdue maintenance on the house and check if a stairlift can be fitted at some point. Or look seriously for another house. We slanted towards the latter (because a wonderful option came along), but recently, with the housing market and the uncertainty introduced by the war in Ukraine, it looks like we will stay put. But we have not decided definitely on anything, and I hate that. I want to know where I am going.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is defined as six months or more of persistent fatigue that disrupts life and doesn’t get better with rest. Photograph: Dominic McKenzie/The Observer. Taken from the Guardian.

Health – now I know where I am going with that. Nowhere. If I am lucky and careful and diligent, I might well keep my CFS at bay. I am getting more pains and more minor impediments, but slowly. Sometimes I hate the way I have to live – no room for adventure of even straying from my schedule. Only feeling energetic in the morning or after a glass of wine in the evening to get the blood flowing again (I get colder as the day progresses). Two weeks ago, my son came over, and we spent three late nights in the kitchen, just talking and not even that late. It took me a week to feel ok again.

Next I got corona. I am just getting out of that now. I know I should be grateful, only a mild case, coz of all the vaccines and boosters. Also, I feel bad about complaining because one of my dearest friends got diagnosed with something aggressive. I cannot stand to lose him and desperately hope I won’t. Meanwhile, I just want my old energy and flexibility back. From when I was 45. Ain’t going to happen. But sometimes I forget.

Work was truly terrible the first few months of this year. So bad that I seriously considered changing jobs. So I opened up my LinkedIn Profile and wrote some emails. Since then, I am bombarded with jobs, some very attractive and all very well paying. But I am no longer sure that I want to change jobs at all. I managed to change some things at work, my colleagues are helping, and I am wondering what the point is of changing just 7 years before I get pensioned off. Is that sensible of just cowardly? I don’t know. Mind you, I hardly have time to think about it, because it is a madhouse out there. The social and political climate is such that we are bombarded with questions about security – and just answering those questions seems to take more time than actually doing the work.

The PhD got off to a false start. There, I have said it. There was some delay after I finished my research master, which I did not quite understand, wrote about it a bit in a previous post, here. Then, after this winter, I felt was not really making much progress. Also, I could not make sense of what my supervisor was asking me to do: to research general misunderstandings, which are only vaguely connected to my research topic. However, that caused me to do a lot of work which I now know will not go into my PhD research. Hence also the form for collecting misunderstandings on this site, which I will take down soon, because it is far too general for my purposes.

Anyway, I finally figured out that my supervisor might not remember or perhaps had never fully understood the details of the problem I want to solve. So I created a presentation with lots of pictures and used that in the next meeting to talk him through it. It worked, which was a great relief. He even talked to another professor about it (who was doing his own second PhD in our faculty and turned out to be a great guy with lots of interesting ideas). At my supervisor’s suggestion, I wrote up my presentation as a problem description with a bit context. It was difficult, because I had to digest a lot of academic articles on IT security and then summarise them to be understandable to a general public. The connection to cyberwar and the war in Ukraine did not help, as the gift from my stepfather (2nd generation camp syndrome) got in the way pretty badly until I decided to watch no more television to avoid images. But I completed it. My supervisor said my text was perfectly understandable, so mission accomplished. I thought.

Other than that, neither my supervisor nor I seem to have much idea yet about how I am going to find other academics to support my research. This is required , but as my research involves or touches several other disciplines, this is also requires careful thinking. These other academics will want to their pound of flesh, corresponding to their own academic interests, so inevitably they will interfere with my work, steering me in other directions, wanting more or less detail, etc. I must admit, I am worried about this. I have now experimented with telling my research story to people from various disciplines, and every time it takes a great deal of time and effort to explain what the problem is and how I want to tackle it.

There are quite a few disciplines touching on my research question, but it is difficult to find someone to talk to. Philosophers tend not to be interested in real-world problems, that is not their job. In Psychology, there is so much useless research, it is extremely difficult to find what you are looking for, alone find a kindred spirit. The IT world still thinks of words and data as components of a logical language, i.e. that everything can be programmed or otherwise made predictable. In IT security, there is virtually no academic tradition, nor much natural inclination to look beyond itself. I believe that “business” or “management” is an academic field nowadays, but from what I can see, it is merely an industry of hypes and market opportunities (I might have to eat my words, but this is how it looks to me at the moment). I am not familiar with linguistics or communication as academic disciplines, but I am touching upon those as well, and I have no academic connections there.

I was not going to worry about this, thinking these problems would solve themselves as I went along, but then I had an unpleasant experience. I asked an IT security professor at my university to validate a few pages of text, in which I had tried to explain the context of my research- the very text I had created following the presentation to my supervisor. I just wanted him to check that I had not written nonsense, as I am knowledgeable but don’t have an academic degree in Information Science. Did not exist when I grew up 🙂 But for some reason – perhaps in haste – this professor read my text as if it were my research proposal, and then proceeded to hate it, even correcting the odd spelling mistake in the process. This was expressed by scribbling across my document, making remarks as they occurred to him, without even waiting to read the next sentence, as if I were a nine-year-old being graded for a school project. My husband shook his head upon hearing this, and said it should have been perfectly clear this was not a research proposal, it did not tick any of the boxes, and also I had said it was not. But it happened anyway. My supervisor, however, said it was my fault for doing this by mail. I should have arranged a face-to-face meeting, and this is how I should make contact in the future. Yes. Of course. I agree. But even if I made a communication mistake, there is a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this is not ok. Academic professors probably think this normal behaviour, but I hope I do not act in this condescending manner when, in my day job, I am asked for help or advice.

Chimps grooming

The trouble is, I might be making an implicit and possibly unfair comparison between two worlds: one I know well, where these things don’t go wrong because I the rules so well; and the academic environment which I don’t know well enough, so I have to be extra careful. Which I will do in the future. It is just more good old stakeholder management, which in this bright and clear academic world I naively had hoped to do without – endless grooming for the sake of building beneficial relationships. I know how to do it, but I hate it. There are days where I don’t mind too much, thinking that this is how the world works. Other days, I get nauseated listening to these academics thanking each other profusely for their interesting talks, just before baring their teeth and going for the kill. I detest articles that seem to be written for the sole purpose of putting someone else down. The problem is, I am much too vulnerable myself. If anyone says something purposely scathing to me, particularly if it is about something I have done my very best for, it may take me days, even weeks, to get over it. Not a very efficient way to be, I concur. A character trait which renders me totally unsuited to an academic career. But an academic career is not what I want. I want to understand something more than I do now, and if possible, share that understanding to make things better. The rest is not so important. There. This thought helps. It quietens me down.

I have just read back what I have written so far. I suppose I just wanted to say to myself that it is ok, sometimes, to lose heart. For a few minutes, that is all. It is allowed. And also, perhaps, that sometimes I might take a break. Watch a silly movie with Husband, which he lovingly selects for me from the 6+or 12+ range because I cannot handle anything more adult. Bake a cake. Plant herbs. Slow down. Complain. Drink chai. Commiserate with my few remaining girlfriends and lovely, wise, nearly priest sister who I am proud of. Natter with my son about every topic under the sun. Fondly remember some people I have lost. Reconnect with some friends that seem to drift away. Listen to my favourite noir detectives. Take mini breaks. Enjoy the wood fire at night, again courtesy of Husband. Wait for my Sunday mails on blogs that I really like. “Life is like a box of chocolates”, says Forrest Gump in the movie that we are watching, “you never know what is inside”.

I will leave you with this hopeful ending – the temporary end of my complaining. I wish you a box of chocolates too.

PS (The next day) This is perhaps some weird reverse psychology I am subjecting myself too, but this morning I woke up thinking I should kick myself into action and take charge. Nobody is going to do it for me. So I checked out on what other Dutch universities are researching on information security. Found two very interesting top professors who are interested in governance and behaviour, and who do or supervise actual research. I wrote to both of them, not bombarding them with information, but explaining I need advice on how to integrate my IT security literature study in a language philosophy dissertation, and would they be prepared to talk to me about this? Yes, I have taken my supervisor’s advice to go for a face-to-face meeting. Has to be a digital meeting, though. I cannot manage the travelling, well, not much. First, see if they respond. And if not, there is an entire world out there.

PPS (a week later) I periodically check for new CFS research. A useful perk of my studies, because I can access all the medical journals too. I came across into a whole new line of thinking that seems to fit my condition exactly. The hypothesis CFS patients cannot burn carbs (well) and therefore their starving cells switch to whatever fuel is at hand. Which is ineffective (tiredness), depletes some important amino acids (long recovery) and saddles the muscles with lactic acid (pain). Exactly, that is how it feels. The same is found in healthy people after intensive exercise. The medical articles are difficult to read, but there is a beautiful write up here. Some comments make for an interesting read – people get angry because the article describes how they feel without providing a solution. But I think these researchers are well underway to solve the mystery – perhaps another 5 years? Here is hoping ..

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