I had a really gross discovery in the glass pot we keep the table salt. On the bottom a black, shrivelled body of a snail was hiding.

I’m not sure if it had an existential crisis and crawled all the way across the kitchen into the salt-pot to end it all, or it was just an exceptionally stupid snail, but what the actual hell… Just why?

At least it made cutting back on calories easy on that day.

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I’ve been thinking about this a long time. If you asked me one thing that I think should be hammered into anyone and everyone -and what took me a while to realize- is to be aware of things around you.(Self-awareness is important, too, but it’s not today’s topic.)

I was about thirty when I realized that things just happen around me, and I’m not exactly aware of them; I don’t pay attention. I let things happen, I let things play out; I’m passive in my own life. My mother is like that to this day; and I suspect many other people are, too. And it’s not necessarily some big revelation, finding god or anything like that. It’s simple things.

How did I end up doing molecular biology? I wanted to be an etologist, after all; a scientist working with animal behavior. I found the lecturer really antagonistic and unpleasant, the department was outside the city, so I gave up on this line. While looking for alternatives I got into plant physiology, because a friend was working in a lab there, and asked me if I was interested, and finally I helped out my then fiancee a couple of time in her lab. She left the lab, I stayed; and hence my career in molecular biology was born. Instead of focusing, instead of figuring out the best way forward I just bounced all over the place, letting things determine how my future will be shaped, and accidentally ending up somewhere. I let my mother bully that particular girl, hoping things will get better; I tried to balance between the two effectively ruining our relationship, her state of mind, and my relationship with my mother at once. I still feel shame for what I’ve done -or rather, what I have not done. My only excuse is that I was young, and had no idea what being a man (and not a child) actually means.

I let time pass by without actually looking at what was happening not realizing I will not get back those years I spend living in a waking dream. (This is the best way I could find to describe this state of mind when you are not making an effort to be consciously aware of what is happening around you.)

It was the same story with my first PhD. My supervisor and his wife who was the lab manager, were horrible. (They haven’t had a PhD graduate in seven years prior…) Instead of drawing the necessary conclusions, and getting the f… well, the hell out of there, I stayed around, hoping it will work out. It did not. I got depression, thought of suicide, I wasted years of my life, and when I left finally, I realized I made my first really conscious decision in my life. I can thank Jenni Fields that much at least. She taught me what matters really in this life.

I also realized I lost friendships, important people from my life, because I let things drift apart. The best case was my high school class… I was in a boarding school in Sopron, a small town in Hungary, and almost all my classmates ended up going to Budapest for their university courses. It would have been trivial to keep touch, to get people together regularly; yet nobody tried and now we did not even hold our 15th anniversary of our graduation. (It’s a custom to do it every five years.) We could have met every week in a pub, and yet we are strangers now. Now I make an effort to keep in touch with people, even if they live on the other part of the world.

Don’t get me wrong: planning will not necessarily get you where you want to go. As the elder Moltke said, plans do not survive the first contact with the enemy. But HAVING a plan is essential. Having it and constantly revising it is important; otherwise you’re just like a driftwood carried by a river.

This happened way back in the winter of 2012 when I was typing up my PhD thesis at home during the Christmas break.

 

I was sitting in the kitchen by my computer on a Saturday morning, when my mother came in, with the groceries and a brand new broom she bought on the market.

 

I looked up briefly, and said: “I thought you took the car to the market”, and went back to typing.

 

There was a brief, stunned silence, then about twenty minutes of laughter.

 

London is a strange place. It’s huge and most of it is just rows of suburban houses with extensions, added levels and all sorts of enlargements to accommodate the still growing population; the interesting parts are actually concentrated within quite a small area of a couple of square miles. (This is going to be a pure rant. I thought it is important to warn people before proceeding.)

The public transport -especially the Tube- reflects this perfectly; you can see that the tunnels, the trains, everything was designed for a much smaller crowd. So what you have now is hundreds of people being crammed into narrow walkways. It’s so dense the crowd would keep you upright even if you tripped and fell.

This is not an ideal situation at all. Enter the “average Londoner” (and I know I’m generalizing, and being unfair to a lot of people), and the situation turns to living hell.

It seems like your average Londoner (see disclaimer above) have no inkling of being surrounded by other human beings, despite of the visual, tactile and olfactory clues that prove otherwise. Just a commute in a busy morning is enough to fill you up with murderous rage if I’m honest. Sure, let’s stand in the opening door, obstructing it, so nobody can get on or off; and let’s be pissed off when people actually try to push past. (But don’t make eye contact.) Let’s stay by the doors, leaving the inside of the train virtually empty so nobody else can get on; after all, I’m good, right? But don’t let the guys in the inside get off at their stations, either. Hey, let’s stand on the platform blocking the door for people trying to get on, because I’m waiting for the next train, and want to wait where its door will open… Oh, but now they can’t get on to their train? Screw them! Wait, is there a two and a half meter wide stairway, and I’m not walking faster than the other two people next to me? Sure, let’s block the whole thing, so other’s can’t walk faster, either. Meanwhile they actively avoid looking at you or engage with you in any way; kind of weird to see this whole passive-aggressive commuting hell.

Quite frankly it’s astonishing how inconsiderate people are in London. And it’s not just the alienating effect of a large city; New York is different. Sure, if you try to stop in the walkway while in a crowd, you will be swept away; however people do not behave in such a rude and inconsiderate manner. And it’s not just the traffic. If you go to Camden to club, you’ll see something similar. People will push you away in the dance floor; even women half your size will try to actively push you over so they can move into your place (and be very wary of their stilettos), so the dance becomes a kind of passive-aggressive mosh pit; except moshing is actually quite a cathartic and communal event where nobody actually is trying to hurt you; here people just want to place an elbow into your kidneys. Everywhere else in the UK (and elsewhere in the world) groups can share the dance-floor peacefully; in London (in my experience) it’s a constant fight to retain your position. Or take my dear neighbour, for example (no, not the loud, drunk and aggressive one; I meant the nice, family living next door). He consistently parks his huge SUV in front of the house on the street where two small cars could (well, used to) park, instead of using his own driveway. Which is empty. I’m sure he’s a swell fellow, his friends love him, and he visits his mother regularly, but in reality it just shows that he is a dick for taking up effectively three car’s places with his one aircraft carrier without even thinking of the others -like yours truly- who need to find parking lots in a busy street.

I honestly don’t know what turns people inside out when they come to this city. Perhaps there’s an ancient Celtic curse on the place. Or there’s really just way too many people are trying to share it.

So in the last post I mentioned my phone… I feel like I really need to add a short addendum. I did mention I did not like the phone, as it was not a very good one; well, one of the major issues is that a finger-width band on the screen is unresponsive. So I’ve got all this awesome computing power, a CPU with multiple cores, and no way to run games (the only things that actually use this power on a phone), since you need the full screen normally to interact with the software.

But it gets worse. I was on a job interview yesterday, and when I tried to unlock the screen afterwards I realized I cannot. There’s a character “1” in my pin; and since it happens to be placed in the area of that particular strip, I could not actually enter my pin. It used to work -the area was not completely unresponsive- but now it became absolutely impossible. It was maddening and ridiculous at the same time. So that’s it: I’ve got a phone I cannot get into unless I have the screen replaced.

No, not that kind. (We can talk about it, too, if you want to.)

 

I had to reboot my phone the other day, and for that I needed to remove the battery; so the phone came out of its hard protective shell which made it look like a big, flat, rubber brick.

I just realized how nice it actually looks. Designers poured countless hours to make it look aesthetically pleasing, from the brushed metal surface to the curved lines on the side, and then to make sure it does not get damaged should I dropped it onto some concrete walkway, I hide it all in layers of plastic and rubber. (By the way the phone is bad; I’m never going to get another LG again. But it does look good.) It was like having a brand new phone, so I did not put it back to the protective case. At least not yet.

 

Anyhow, this  lead me thinking about the whole issue of protection and function. We use protective cases, protective mats for sofas, carpets and chairs; essentially disfiguring these items in order to make sure they stay beautiful (or at least whole).

Just look at this thing.

eb-belsofa-velvet-sofa-protector-stone

You spend two grands on a leather sofa, and then cover it to make sure it does not get damaged. The fact you have a beautiful leather sofa can only be deducted from the presence of the protector, but now, what you have, objectively looking, is a butt-ugly sofa in the end.

We are weird.

 

 

It seems like I’ve passed one big rite of passage -about 20 years late. I got married. For reasons -some of which out of my control, some of which resulted from my personal choices- I have not found a female who was willing to spend her life with me until now; there were candidates, but at the first sign of difficulties (mostly distance) they bailed. It’s unfortunate, but I guess I should not mourn the loss; after all, if the first hurdle caused them to buckle, a more serious crisis would have been worse once the relationship advances to the point of having children and other responsibilities. At least this way they did not mess up the lives of little humans.

Regardless there we stood in front of the wedding guests, quite a bit older than your usual happy couple, and I had this weird feeling. Most of my friends and relatives were there with their children; it seems like we’re behind that particular curve as well. (It was a particularly problematic area as for sixty adults we had fourteen children…) Now we also have to start thinking about spawning some offspring; but there’s always this doubt of being already too late. It will be strange to go to parents’ meetings in schools while almost being old enough to be grandparents; I’ll be sixty by the time our first born (if she or he arrives soon) finishes high school.

It’s strange how the world has changed for our generation. The old life-story of finishing school, getting a job, getting married, have children by the age of 25 seem to be the exception rather than the rule among my friends; economic reasons (and for me the lack of work-life-balance in the area of scientific research) forces people to settle down later and later. If you listen to some feminists they’ll tell you it’s a problem for women only, but it’s not the case at all; it’s just the biological clock of men isn’t as apparent as women’s (and despite claiming otherwise even feminists tend to have old-fashioned stereotypes). I would have loved (and still would love to have) a traditional steady career that progresses with time, and gives me enough dough and time to bring up a family. It’s not that I was so intent on pursuing my career I could not spare time for propagating… (Or if I did I did a very poor job of it; I’m still just a poor scientist working in the civil service. No sports cars for mid-life crisis here, that’s for sure.) The guy who did the cooking for the wedding is an amazing chef- he worked for really prestigious restaurants ten years ago, and now he’s running his own small business in Tokaj that he built; he is a year younger than I am, yet his oldest son just graduated from high school. And here I am in London, sitting in a civil service job that does not offer advancement (but does offer serious responsibilities), trying to figure out what to do with my life.

It’s strange to feel old when I think of this; after all I do not feel any different than I felt when I was 25. Actually, overall I would say I feel much better and look much better (despite of the hairloss). Mind you it’s a comparison, not an absolute statement. I look much better than the 25 year old myself; I did not say I look good. Just to make sure the distinction is understood.

Yet, the example of our chef does make me realize that time is ticking away; 20 years from now I’ll be close to retirement. And this is a scary thought.