Friday, March 30, 2012

Back Breaking Experience

Last week this time, my life was great. I just did not realize how great it was. I drove, walked, danced, hopped on to the bus, and sprinted down the stairs of my townhome without realizing how blessed one must be to be able to do these without experiencing any pain. Last week this time, the issues ailing me revolved around learning to use logistic versus multinomial regression model, finishing the deadlines for the semester, and planning my Canada itinerary. When my back felt a little stiff, I blamed it on my two-hour long drive to Washington D.C. In the excitement about preparing for my conference presentation, I almost ignored the pain that had started to invade parts of my lower back. That afternoon, I lifted the laundry basket multiple times and loaded and unloaded stuff from my car in a bid to finish off the pending chores before I left for the conference. Something quite did not feel right in my back, and I blamed it on a faulty sleeping position or a sagging mattress and moved on. The bed I sleep on is anything but sagging by the way.

With every passing day, my pain intensified and manifested itself in scary ways. I would go to sleep praying that things would be fine the next day, but come morning, I saw myself unable to spring into action. I would spend quite some time tossing, turning, and wincing in pain. By the time I was presenting at the conference, the pain had shifted to the right side of my body, extending all the way to the back of my knees. I noticed I had started to drag my feet. As I boarded the 7 am flight this morning, I was a mess. The pain had started to make me feverish and nauseated. I had three short flights ahead of me, which meant a lot of boarding, deplaning, lifting heavy luggage, and hurting myself more. The first thing I did after landing back was to call the doctor and make an appointment. I had suffered so much pain during those eight hours of my flight that I could no longer walk without a limp, and was about to faint.

A herniated spinal disc is what they diagnosed, something akin to a slip-disc. The vertebral column gets dislocated, causing immense pressure and pain in the adjoining nerve. I had never associated a herniated spinal disc with a thirty year old woman who between gymming, dancing, driving, and running around, had led a perfectly normal and active life. I can neither go to the gym, nor dance anymore. In fact, every time I walk, I am in so much pain that I consider using my arms and crawling on my belly instead, just like army men under cover do in war movies.

Thankfully, the doctor did not think I would need surgery. She thinks that with rest, medicines, and physiotherapy, I should be fine in a few months. Which brings me to my second worst fear of living alone in the US (the first one being death of any member of my family and me being unable to take a flight back in time to see them). I am not even getting into the student health insurance issues, and the thought of how much I have to cough for my physiotherapy deductible and co-pay alone makes me think of the wisdom someone had put in saying, “If you don’t want to get bankrupt paying medical bills in America, make sure that you are not poor and you never fall sick”. Surely it is a concern that has been plaguing and stoking my worst fears. Living in the US for the last five years has only been possible because I chose the life of an independent person. I cooked my food, did my dishes and laundry, cleaned my home, drove myself to wherever I needed to be at, and never depended on anyone to run my life for me. This mandated that my limbs and my brain functioned properly. I do not live with my parents anymore, and in the unlikely event that I injured myself, there is no one to take care of me.

The demons of your worst fears nudge you and nag you to death when you are confined to the bed, writhing in pain and unable to function well. For the first time, I can genuinely feel the panic of the endless possibilities of unpleasant consequences awaiting me if I ever hurt myself and cannot function properly. I have never craved for my old, seemingly boring but comfortably normal life more, a life where I lifted heavy grocery from Krogers, went Zumba dancing three days a week, drove 500 miles to Rochester without blinking an eyelid, climbed stairs in haste, sometimes two steps at a time, and sat through classes for six hours a day. I can no longer do these seemingly ordinary things anymore.

In a state of helplessness mixed with panic, I asked the doctor if she thought I had bone cancer or arthritis. At some point in life, I developed a deep-seated fear for these two, afraid that I might die of one of these someday. My grandmother suffered through arthritis, and I have seen so many people, some considerably young, losing their lives to cancer. The doctor assured me that it was neither. Suddenly, perspectives have changed and graying hair is not an issue for me anymore. I used to count the number of grey hairs I got first thing in the morning every day, but my spinal cord gave me a perspective that half a dozen hardly visible graying hairs could not. I don’t care if I wake up with a mop of grey hair. I just want this back breaking pain to go away.

My doctor comes with a sense of humor. She said that I will be fine and gymming soon, although, if I was thinking of making a career out of weight lifting, I should probably give up that idea now.

I write this post and dedicate it to the benefits of good health we enjoy, something which we so often overlook and take for granted. Flu and fevers do not scare me. My twisted ligament in Italy did not scare me. But my spine worries me. For this is not a fracture incident borne out of an active lifestyle of running around. It is but the heralding of the disturbing realization that the body is no better than a machine, and with age, wear, and tear, it is deteriorating, and will require more effort in maintenance and servicing than I had anticipated before. At 5:30 in the morning, as I still struggle to fall asleep due to pain, I know that I would give anything to get back to my normal, active, pain-free, and sedative-less life again.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

So now I need to talk?

As I go over my presentation slides once again, the realization of what I got myself into slowly dawns on me. I am presenting thrice, at two national conferences this year. And I am in no mood for merrymaking. I am in the second year of my doctoral program, the scintillating achievements of my seniors weighing down my shoulders heavily. Last summer when I wrote these proposals, it was more an exercise of self-assessment, to see where I stand, to find out if I can write convincingly and visit a few new places in the process. The proposals got through, and suddenly, it became serious business. I have spent a good stressful amount of the last few weeks polishing off the papers, making my presentation slides, and generally mulling over what to say in front of an audience who stare at you expectantly. I know I will fumble, race through my talk, even stammer. For public speaking is not my forte. Give me a pen and I can write you a novel. Give me a camera and I will give you a year’s worth of pictures. But the microphone makes me nervous. Standing up there, listening to my own voice, seeing all those stalwarts in the field, knowing that my adviser is tucked away somewhere in the crowd, listening to me inconspicuously, lest I become nervous. There will be questions and clarifications, there will be sighs and deep breaths, and there would be awkward silences. I have spent half a day last Saturday, picking up a formal suit in black and white that cost me three-and-a-half days worth my salary. Then there would be flights boarded, classes missed, and more work piled up as I spent the next three days at a conference. I think of all this, as I go over my slides once again, one final time, just to make sure that not even a comma or a punctuation mark is missing.

What have I got myself into?


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Post-Mortem of a Post

I am interested to know, what exactly goes behind the success of a post, from a strictly academic point of view of course. Measuring the “success” of a post is not that relative or abstract when there are defined indicators. For example, the number of comments, the number of tweets, or the number of “Likes” on Facebook are some indicators that define the success of the post, not to mention the content of the comments. I have a few theories, but I do not know if they work.

Content Theory
I would think the content resonated with most people who read it. Barring a few who did not like my post, most agreed that they identified themselves in a similar situation. I am somewhat hesitant with this theory, because in the past, I have written many posts that people identified with. None of those got as much attention as this one did. In fact, this is not even one of my better written posts. I have written much better posts in the past. I have even written about similar content, of the whole alienation experience when you live in a different country. So is it content after all?

Platform Theory
The forum is undoubtedly a well-written, popular and a widely acclaimed blog. With thousands of readers, I am sure this post was bound to get some attention. So is it the fact that it was presented to a wider audience? I do not know.

Theory of Critical Mass
It could be possible that there is a critical mass of readers and more importantly, sharers for every post. I do not know what that critical mass is, but when it crosses that critical mass, it spreads like wildfire perhaps? When 2-3 people read something and share, chances are more that it would be a dying flame lost even before it has spread a significant number of times. However, when 200-300 people are sharing the same thing, the chances of it being lost or dying becomes significantly lower. Perhaps it is not content or platform alone, but a phenomenon of crossing that critical mass? I don’t really know.
Help me think of other factors that could lead to the success of a post. I know there are measurement biases and confounding factors involved here (for example, having or not having friends who network widely, and who spread the word). Still, there has to be something underlying, maybe singly, or maybe a combination of factors, that determine the popularity of a post. I have written travelogues with much time and effort that have done reasonably well in the past. However, on a bored Monday morning, in between listening to class lecture and introspecting about the value of taking that class, I had ended up writing a short post on why Portugal is an amazing country to visit. That post had become an instant hit, got widely circulated, showed up on travel websites of Portugal, was instantly loved by the Portuguese community, and currently stands at close to 400 “likes” on Facebook. No one really knows what worked right with that post, and when I tried emulating that formula again, things did not work. A hastily scribbled account of a country had produced an effect that carefully crafted travelogues that failed to create. In any case, given that the shelf life of a post is not much, maybe days, maybe weeks, I am currently basking in the glory of finally having written something that has gained the readership I have always dreamed of. Trust me, modesty and everything aside, it is an awesome feeling.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Writing Right

The good thing and the bad things about good writing is that there are no such concrete rules out there that can guide you through the process. Sure there are rules for grammar and punctuation, and some basic commandments, for example, clarity, precision, and so on. But these are merely guidelines, and are not formulaic. Although this means academic writers are often lost in blind alleys of words and sentences, not knowing how to navigate their way through the writing process, it also means there is more room for someone to be experimental and creative. Writing blogs or fiction is something, where one has more freedom to ramble on, engaging the reader in the rich intricacies of the language or word play. However, academic writing is different. People write with a purpose, and for a target audience who most of the time are busy, and do not have the time to deal with wordplay. If an academic paper has not caught my attention in the first five lines, chances are less that I will give it the rest of my time. I will skim through it and move on with life.

What do you do as an academic writer under the circumstances? Brevity helps, and so does clarity, but more than that, what helps most is style. A good piece of writing is something that arouses a question in the reader’s mind, and then goes on to answer it in the subsequent lines and paragraphs. You need to help the reader navigate through your thoughts and processes so that by the time they are done reading your paper, they have found almost every question answered within the paper. What we do in the research world might be complicated, but we need to master the art of putting the most complicated things in the simplistic way possible, because our reader has no time or energy to sail with us in our journeys of complications.

How one makes the reader navigate through the questions and answers them in the article is something I do not know. There is no formula to it and it is an endeavor that comes with time and mastery over one’s field. Writing is both a science and an art. It is like anything else, for example, playing a piano or cooking. You start by playing by the rules, and once you have mastered the rules, you play with your instinct. All this fluffy talk aside, I have realized that it is best to keep your target reader in mind when you write. What questions I would have if I were the reader? For example, if I wrote a few sentences about why red is my second favorite color, there should be a mention of what is my first favorite color, because that is what the reader is thinking when he reads about red. Simple and logical writing is often a product of clarity of thought, and not a way to undermine the reader’s lack of knowledge and understanding. In fact, good writing is like doing math. Every piece of your writing is logically connected to one another, and one piece leads to the other.

So how do you learn all this, given years of programming, thanks to good old Calcutta University, where the marks you score is directly proportional to the number of pages you fill up with garbage, and where the best answers score somewhere between 65-75%? Well, you simply unlearn your past learning, and relearn your art and science of writing. You read what good writers in your field write, you learn from your adviser (assuming he is a convincing writer), and most importantly, you write and ask for feedback.