Second entry on Wien; Philharmoniker, lab work, and Franz

I was applying mascara in my room this morning when I saw my gray hair. It lives in my bangs and sometimes lies very prominently, right in the middle of my forehead. I like it. To me it implies I’m getting wiser and through this process becoming kinder, to both myself and everyone I meet. I’m also pleased that it doesn’t bother me, that I welcome it to my head.

Somewhat surprisingly, being in Vienna reminds me of my first meditation retreat in Herefordshire, England. The institute where I live and work is adjacent to a hilly forest, and the building where I sleep, drink tea, and eat Mozart Kugel is rather squat and compressed, like it has been here for a long time. The meditation center was also in a little forest and the living quarters used to be for livestock and farm hands long ago. Another similarity is that I often feel alone here, as I did at the center. Although almost everyone here speaks wonderful English, I often feel separate, different, and spend a good deal of time being quiet. “Being quiet” is a firm requirement at the meditation center, so in this way I feel an additional parallel.

(Please stay tuned for how I will link my one gray bang hair with remarks on resemblances between this ecological research institute in Vienna and a silent meditation retreat in rural England).

Due to uncharacteristic bothering and steadfastness, I secured a (free) ticket to the Vienna Philharmonic last Sunday morning. I arrived at the box office a half hour before they opened and waited in the chilly shadow of the building it was housed in. After being admitted, I confidently walked to the counter and said, “Hallo.” (There is always a moment right before initiate a conversation with an Austrian where I get a little nervous that it’s obvious that I won’t be able to go past “Hallo”). The woman also said, “Hallo.” I said, “I don’t know German.” (Very typical conversation starter for me in Vienna).

Ticket lady: Yes, what do you want?
Me: Can I please buy a ticket?
TL: What?! No. There are no tickets.
M: Really? There’s nothing I can do? No standing room tickets?
TL: Sigh…come back five minutes before the concert and see if there are any that weren’t picked up.
M: Okay, danke schön.
TL: You’re welcome.

I wandered around sunny Vienna. It was crisp. I found myself in an antiques show in a mall and little kitschy trinket stores full of Mozart’s face. I also poked my head into the National Library, which I plan to really explore tomorrow.

I meandered back to the box office. The woman told me to sit, that I was too early, so I sat. I was too determined to be put off by her brusque attitude. She probably has to deal with stubborn, naïve Americans all the time…ones who think they can just waltz in and buy a Vienna Philharmonic ticket an hour before the performance!

Right when TL had me come up to get a ticket, a young man dashed in to grab a last-minute standing room ticket as well. TL told me I needed cash, which I was slowly taking out, 20 Euro cent by 20 Euro cent (I was almost out of cash). She finally just gave me the ticket and told me good luck. I walked over to the Musikverein and saw the young man. I asked him what we had to do now. We checked our coats and went to the “standing room only” location, far in the back of the Musikverein. I didn’t have my phone so I took no photos. If I did have my phone, the photos would have been mostly of backs-of-heads, as we were some of the last to arrive. If I scooched about I saw musicians, statues, painted lutes on the ceiling, six huge chandeliers, and, eventually, Maestro Riccardo Muti.

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Muti in his younger days.

The sound was exquisite, the hall was beautiful, and the magical hush that fell over the audience made the whole experience quite ethereal. I had my friend, Alex, to chat with at the break. He’s a conducting student in Vienna so he had all the super cool facts on the hall’s construction, Muti’s techniques, and how the Bruckner symphony was written as the composer was dying. I wish I could say more about the Philharmoniker experience here, but it really must have been heard to be understood. I plan on seeing Alex tomorrow for more Viennese exploits/espresso/cake.

I started work on Monday. I’ve worked in the genetics lab every day since then. My new friend Franz, a post-doc who works with telomeres in Siebenschläfer and Gartenschläfer (edible and garden dormice), is my trainer. He teaches me how to pipet properly; how to make master mixes; how to take care of DNA samples; how to load the pipetting robot; how to run, interpret, and troubleshoot different PCR techniques; and how to calculate telomere length. He also tells me how to make espresso in the fancy machine, translates German for me, tells me about the good restaurants, lets me know that I bought the “not-so-good Mozart balls”, and assures me that my dog is “so so cute” when I show him pictures. It is a rare moment that we are not giggling and/or personifying the pipetting robot. My time in Vienna would not be close to the same without his charming, warm, and patient presence and I am deeply grateful for the time he has taken to train me in essential techniques for my master’s project.

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Siebenschläfer.

I am still getting over my jet lag, and I am still being patient with that. I hope to sleep well tonight so I can take over Vienna tomorrow. I am happy with the progress I’ve made in my project this week but recognize how much more needs to be done in the remaining three work days I have. I hope this isn’t the last time I visit this special institute tucked away in the Viennese woods.

I was last in Europe seven years ago, innocently entering into what continues to be a deeply meaningful journey of self-discovery. It is almost inconceivable to think about all that has happened to me in seven years, yet at the same time it is humbling to realize what is still with me. I didn’t have any gray hairs seven years ago. The simple act of applying mascara and spying the gray hair this morning helped me remember how far I’ve come and reminded me how far I have yet to go.

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The first of several entires on Wien.

“When you get to Vienna, you must eat Mozart’s balls!” my Italian friend Serena enthusiastically suggested. Serena was walking me through the ethanol precipitation procedure, a common method for purifying and concentrating extracted DNA, when she made this somewhat startling statement. A very intelligent and competent molecular biologist, Serena also has a good command of the English language but could occasionally use some fine tuning. I looked to our friend Kyle, we shared a moment of eyebrows-raised, silent confusion, and then all three of us moved on to discuss how much glycogen to use for my purifications.

Two months later, I am in Vienna, Austria, or Wien, Österreich. Yesterday evening I wandered into a grocery store and the first thing that greeted my naïve American eyes was display full of Mozart’s balls, or rather, Mozartkugel, which I can only assume (and hope) that these sweets are what my friend Serena was referring to. Mozartkugel are dark chocolate-covered confections with a nougat-pistachio marzipan interior. They were originally created in 1890 by Paul Fürst, a confectioner in Salzburg (Mozart’s birthplace). If you want the real deal, it’s possible to still find Mozartkugel that are hand-produced by Fürst’s descendants, but from what I’ve seen, industrially-produced imitations are available almost anywhere you can buy chocolate.

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The real deal.

I was just reading an article from The New York Times on jet lag. The author provided an estimate that it takes one day to recover from jet lag for every time zone you cross. This is not encouraging, as I traveled across ten time zones, so I thus surrender myself to the experience of helplessly falling asleep at 21:30, waking up at 2:00, and falling back asleep at 5:00 for another seven hours. The article also recommended that I wake up and go to bed earlier than normal to more quickly align my internal clock, so I arose at 6:00 to make coffee, which I haven’t done yet due to my lightning inspiration to write about Mozart’s balls.

I am in Wien for two weeks to receive training in developing assays for my Master’s thesis. A year and a half ago, in the middle of the Nevada desert, in a place called Las Vegas, I attended the 15th International Hibernation Symposium and heard a talk given by Dr. Thomas Ruf on telomere length change in hibernating edible dormice. A year and a half later, here I am, in my own guest room that has a window overlooking the forest where the dormice live. Briefly, I am here to learn two techniques: the first is how to determine if a gene of interest (in this case, in my arctic ground squirrels) is non-variable in copy number; that is, if all individuals of that species have the same number of copies of that particular gene. Once I find my non-VCN gene I will be able to proceed with the second technique, whereupon I will use that gene as a reference for measuring variable telomere lengths between individuals and between tissue types in arctic ground squirrels. Everyone here at the institute has so far been remarkably kind and generous in their time and accommodations. I hope to come away from this experience with the confidence to accurately and efficiently measure my own samples in the coming spring.

Yesterday I dipped my toes into some Viennese cultural offerings. I arose at 12:30, which was shockingly late for me. It started my day off right; I hadn’t sleep much during the 28-hour trip to get here and I was immensely pleased that I had slept so late. I dressed for the howling snow storm (not exaggerating) that was awaiting me outside and quietly froze for four long minutes waiting for the bus to arrive. As I turned into an icicle I listened to the babbles of German from the others waiting for the bus. I silently wondered if they knew if I was an American, if they knew I had knew no German words, and if they knew that I wouldn’t know whether or not they were concernedly discussing my blue-ish lips (okay, my lips were not blue).

As I did when I was in London, I thoroughly enjoyed taking the public transportation to downtown Vienna. I made it with no mishaps and enjoyed a fine lunch of clear beef broth soup with shredded pancakes (pancakes in soup!) and Tafelspitz (a very traditional Viennese meal of boiled beef and fried potatoes served in broth with sides of sour cream/chives and applesauce/grated horseradish). I also had a cappuccino with a mountain of whipped cream which felt indulgent and perfect. My waiter knew little English but was very kind and helpful. He pointed me in the direction of the Karlplatz Christmas market, located in front one of the most beautiful of Vienna’s baroque churches: the Karlskirche.

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I did not take this beautiful photo of Karlskirche. I have so far only taken photos of Mozartkugel.

Being at the Karlplatz Christmas market was the highlight of my short day. I was full on Tafelspitz, it was pleasantly warm with all the bodies blocking the wind, and I eventually squiggled my way up to the front of an intimidating mob to get a piping hot mug of glühwein, or spiced wine. I sipped and wandered, looking at the beautiful and whimsical art on display in the myriad stalls. It reminded me a bit of the Oregon Country Fair, except completely different. As the glühwein dripped into my veins I felt incredibly happy, inspired, energized, and alive. The setting was gorgeous, the feeling was festive, and everywhere I looked young and old were practically skipping with excitement and cheer. I was happily alone, cupping my steaming mug, and observing it all with a keenness that I rarely feel when at home.

As I left the periphery of the Christmas market I was drawn to a particularly beautiful building just across the main street. When I arrived I saw that I had stumbled upon the Musikverein, the home of the Vienna Philharmonic. I was thrilled! A goal of mine easily realized. A perfect way to end the day.

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The Großer Saal, or Great Hall, of the Musikverein is one of the greatest concert halls in the world. Nevertheless, I see plenty of empty seats. Hoping to put my butt in one of those this morning.

I returned to my room after a quick, wonderful trip to downtown Vienna, mind full of ideas for my next outing, which will commence within the hour. Top of the list is to get a matinee ticket for the Vienna Philharmonic this morning; it is their only performance while I’m here. It looks like standing room tickets started to sell for this concert in April, so I’m sure I have an excellent change of securing one. In case I don’t manage to procure one of these highly-coveted tickets, I have plenty of other things on my to-do list: Mozarthaus (the only preserved Viennese apartment lived in by Mozart. According to the Mozarthaus website, this apartment is “virtually lordly” and it was here that Mozart produced more music than any other residence). I also plan on visiting the Wien Museum, eating schnitzel and pastries, gazing upon the Danube, and finishing my day off at the Österreich Bibliotheken (Austrian National Library), another stunning work of baroque architecture.

(Side note: I will be remarkably disappointed if I don’t see the Wiener Philharmoniker. I plan on shamelessly shedding tears all over Mozart’s impeccably preserved chaise lounges if I miss this opportunity).

As the title of this entry promises, this will be the first on many Wien articles to come. I’m looking forward to having more time to write, and more time to sleep, and more time for Mozartkugel.

Love,
Sara

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum

I was falling asleep the other night, mumbling along about how I’d like to learn to be a good person. My squishy heart becomes very open and soft at night, under the covers, with the warm lamp glow illuminating the cool room. These mumblings and their accompanying thoughts were full of genuine aspirations of goodness…yet (and this brought tears to my eyes), I knew in my heart I was already so good, that all my strivings are towards goodness. My efforts seemed truly meaningful.

Excerpted from an interview with Martha Nussbaum, philosopher, in the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker:

“To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”

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My unicorn family, Halloween 2017

Fixed versus growth mindsets

Sometimes little nuggets of trust and wisdom drop into your life when they are most perfectly appropriate.

I’m taking a course this semester called Mentoring in the Sciences. It is taught by a wonderful woman named Laura. Last week Laura started the class by putting up a slide that asked: “Is it reasonable to expect perfection when attempting something you’ve never done before?”

I smiled inwardly when I saw the slide. Maybe even a bit outwardly. I can be exceedingly unreasonable in this expectation. In graduate school, I often feel that I am balancing the act of pushing myself to achieve/learn/perform while developing acceptance of my own human limits. I believe I have cultivated habits that both encourage achievement and prevent me from really reaching my full potential. Yet attempting to achieve perfection is not the same as achieving mastery, and the narrowness of perfection certainly leaves much to be desired. I’ve been left to believe that attempting to achieve perfection provides safety, yet what it most reliably provides is emotional fragility.

So, no, it is not reasonable to expect perfection in light of trying something new, but, yes, I expect it all the time.

The next concept Laura introduced was the idea of fixed and growth mindsets. If you haven’t heard fixed and growth mindsets before, you might be able to intuitively understand what they are.

A fixed mindset leads to a desire to look intelligent and lends a tendency to…

…avoid challenges, give up easily, see efforts as pointless, ignore useful critical feedback, and feel threatened by the successes of others.

A growth mindset leads to a desire to learn and lends a tendency to…

…embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the successes of others.

The presentation of these two mindsets with the realization that I live much of my life stuck with very fixed, rigid viewpoints was eye-opening, relieving, and a little sad all at once. I had been looking for this information. I had been trying to understand how my mind was keeping me stuck in a place of stagnancy, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. Adopting a growth mindset and relaxing the grip of perfectionism can be an effective balm to life’s stressors and challenges.

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Some of my favorite neural cell sketches from Ramon y Cajal.

 

In the mind.

On my last drive up north I was reading The Sun, a publication that has been in my life since I was a child. Since receiving my very own gift subscription, this magazine has followed me through ten different addresses, nine new tattoos, the time I cut all my hair off, when I met Elizabeth, Patchy Sanders, the time(s) I cut half my hair off, when I returned home after 10 years of being away, when I adopted my dog, and almost every drive north to Toolik.

Although this reflection could open all sorts of interesting paths to write down, I opened this little thought train with The Sun because a reader contributed a quote in this most recent issue that struck me:

“What is heaven? What is hell? In the mind.” – Jack Kerouac

Kerouac very succinctly described a concept I have been considering and turning around and examining for months now. Although this idea was first introduced with my dive into meditation, it has more recently surfaced because of experiences with my current partner.

Jason and I often see situations, conversations, and shared experiences very differently. In brief, he often views an interaction in a practical, logical way, while I see our interactions in an emotional, subjective way. We can be in the same room, having a conversation, holding hands, by all appearances having the “same experience,” yet when we reflect later we may have interpreted that interaction in completely different ways. What is most striking to me is when I have viewed the interaction as incredibly connecting, or incredibly disconnecting, while he may have viewed the interaction in a much more neutral way.

This recurring pattern got me thinking about personal realities. How diverse are the realities we carry with us in our minds? Can we ever really see an experience the same way as someone else? Perhaps most interestingly to me, once we realize how unique and subjective our personal realities are, are we ready to bear the weight of that responsibility? In other words, can we be fully ready to assume all responsibility for how external occurrences affect us? Can we take responsibility to work diligently on altering our personal reality to one that is harmonious, peaceful, content, and serves our community/world? Can we live intelligently?

It can be easy to blame the outside for what’s rising up on the inside, but it leads to a flat, static living. What would happen in your life if you developed full awareness that you are the only one steering your ship? What would happen if you established full certainty that it is only you creating your happiness, your misery?

I suspect a dramatic blossoming!!

Photo credit here.

Some small thoughts, like droplets in my mind.

Certainly, the emotion that most impedes progress in any endeavor is the emotion of fear. When I feel fear, it is a quickening in my heart, a sharpness in my in breath, a closing in of my mind. The world becomes smaller as my fears expand. Lately, I’ve been turning to the trees, looking up to the highest leaves and beyond to the clouds and sky. The world starts to expand again, and my breath slows, and my heart stills.

Certainty is what we seek. The feeling of uncertainty is most, most uncomfortable. When I’m uncertain, it can be incredibly difficult to elucidate 1) what I’m uncertain about, specifically; 2) how to handle myself in my uncertainty; and 3) how to feel certain once more. Maybe it’s impossible to ever really feel certain, but it’s important to attempt.

A realization from last night’s walk: when my dog runs up to me with her tail circling wildly, her eyes bright and wide, and her tongue launching wet gobs of happy saliva, it is briefly impossible to feel uncertain.

Next year I will be thirty. My friend Claire calls it “the magic of turning thirty.” I think I know what she means. There seems to be a noticeable difference between those women still meandering about in their twenties and those regal thirty-something ladies lounging on self-confident sofas. Six more months of aimless wandering before the beautifully consistent straight-and-narrow. Am I being too optimistic?

“The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” – Pema Chödrön

Photo credit here.

A flesh-colored bubble

Imagine you are naked, floating in a peachy flesh-colored bubble. The bubble is tough and strong, like skin stretched tight for a drum head, and is semi-transparent. You are warm and safe in this skin bubble. Nothing can hurt you, there is nothing to do, and you are free of all concerns.

Outside the bubble there is an inviting, soft light. It is irresistible, but you aren’t sure how to experience this light. After some time, the curiosity about the light beckons more and more strongly. You very much want to be in this light, and this desire begins to erode at your immaculate contentment. This peachy bubble is warm and safe, yet it is so small. It is so confined. You know every square centimeter of this bubble, your little womb.

You reach out a finger and press against the bubble. It stretches, yet it is very strong, so you pull your finger back after a minute of resistance. You look at the wall of the bubble, you focus beyond to the enveloping light, and you poke your curious finger again into the wall.

This time, you push harder. The urgency of leaving this small world grows with the pressure against your finger. It hurts. Your finger feels as if it might break, yet the light grows ever more brilliant, and your bubble ever smaller. Tears stream down your face as you apply more and more pressure, and when you can’t bear the pain and the confine of the bubble any longer, your finger breaks through.

It feels So Good. The feeling of your finger, such a small part of you, out in the light is so pleasurable that you almost can’t bear it! You feel as if your entire hand must escape into the light, followed by your arm, shoulder, head, belly and back, other arm, butt, legs, feet, and toes. Each body part takes an incredible amount of effort and pain to push through the bubble womb, but the feeling of goodness makes it all worth it, the whole thing, until your entire naked body is in the light! You are free in this bath of delicious light.

After floating around in ecstasy for some time, you see something in the distance. It looks familiar. As you come closer, you realize it is another peachy flesh-colored wall, another bubble. Another distant, brilliant light. You look down at your finger, then at the wall.

This is how I experience life. Happy within the confines of my experience until I see such a larger world I can participate in. The pain of reaching that place can be intense, but it is necessary to escape and expand. Bubbles will always be reached, and breached, ever expanding.