Sunday, 19 January 2014

Gravity X - An Album Review

First post of the New Year! I really have to work harder to get these out consistently... In any case, my holidays were great, the New Year's shaping up well, and I just celebrated a birthday. I was thinking - for a while there - that I'd have to burn an effigy of 2013 as a sacrifice to the Gods to ensure that 2014 goes well. So far, so good, though - I've got more articles coming out soon, and I'm working to diversify my publication base with a variety of local papers, journals, and magazines. Let the craft-honing begin!

On that note, I recently wrote my first film review, which was posted on a blog I co-write with some colleagues at http://blobloblaw.blogspot.ca/. I had so much fun doing it that I've started writing more. As a massive culture-consumer (which is a nice way to say I watch too much TV), I should have thought about this earlier. In any case, I figured that this would be a great venue to share my first album review: it's an "oldy but a goody" for a band I discovered last year. Musically, I'm comfortable knowing that it's not everybody's cup of tea - I can't even tell my grandmother that I listen to a genre called "stoner rock". Keeping that in mind, I hereby present this to the public. Enjoy.

Gravity X embodies both the broad, raw, vastness of the wilderness and the driving, pounding rush of the human experience. The 2005 debut of Swedish band Truckfighters, this album is characterized by massive fuzzy overdrive, intense beats, and enthralling riffs. Inspired by the American desert-rock scene legends Kyuss, with a sound that I’d liken to Dozer or Orange Goblin, the Orebro-formed Truckfighters have a penchant for putting out kickass albums – a trend that all started with Gravity X.

Paradoxically, the album’s diversity of tracks seems to underscore the band’s consistency of sound – instantly recognizable, but never repetitious. Gravity X starts strong with the velvety chugging of “Desert Cruiser”, progresses through the colossal throb of “Momentum” into the surprising brassy trumpet and magnificent drum fills of “Subfloor”, the alternating energy and introspection of “Manhattan Project”, and culminates in the subtle, twinkling odyssey that is “Altered State”.

Despite going through a series of drummers (“We have a very Spinal Tap relationship with drummers,” jokes guitarist Niklas ‘Dango’ K√§llgren), the band plays tightly together, and I suspect that they’ve really hit their stride. There’s something for everyone here, so whether you’re new to the fuzz-rock scene, a hardened initiate, or a grizzled metal veteran who remembers the good old days, you really should give this record a listen. It will not disappoint.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

An Apology and an Explanation

I'm going to start with an apology, which should, if I do this right, turn pretty seamlessly into today's post. This has been a long time coming, and I'm sorry. I got busy on the weekend after my previous post, and since the idea for this was still taking shape, I figured "What the heck, I'll skip a week - nobody's reading, yet, and I have a good reason to be missing a week." My reason? I was writing an article for the university newspaper, helping a student with her research in the field, and getting a bunch done in the lab (yes, over the weekend - just because I'm not getting a degree out of this doesn't mean I have to stop working like a grad student). For the record - those are good reasons to be busy, but bad reasons to skip a post. But, how was I to know that a real reason would come up?

And sure enough, on Friday, November 15th (just before the weekend, which is my personal deadline for these posts), my reason came. I got a text message from my father. That's unusual, because they live overseas - our communication is mainly by email or Skype. It said only one thing:

"Keeg, if you get this and can get to your computer, can you Skype us? It's urgent, dude. Dad."

I had just finished touring a new student around the lab, and since I hadn't taken my lunch break that day (working through lunch is a great way to pretend that you work nearly-normal hours), I had some time to kill. Grabbing my laptop, I made my way downstairs to an empty lab we use. As I walked, all I could think was Don't let it be about Grandpa, don't let it be about Grandpa, don't let it be about Grandpa... I couldn't think of any good news that might get classified as "urgent", and that was certainly the worst thing on my mind.

I'll spare you the details of the conversation, but the point is, my Grandfather had had a stroke. There was a bleed in his brain that was weakening one side of his body, so he'd been taken to the hospital, and was asleep. Because of the leukemia, his platelets were low, and we all knew what it meant. The bleeding wouldn't heal on its own, and the doctors weren't prepared to perform brain surgery on an elderly, immune-compromised patient with terminal cancer that caused bleeding complications. There would be no operation this time, no chemical warfare to hold the disease at bay, and no miraculous remissions. He would never leave the hospital, and the odds were good that he would not even wake up.

My grandfather passed away at 2:30 PM on Friday, November 15th. He died in his sleep, with several family members at his side. My mother (his oldest child) was in the air when it happened, flying home to see him one last time. I was informed around 5:30 that evening - just before I was to tell my younger sister what was happening. The timing of that could not have been worse.

Shock, when it hit me, was like slowly lowering myself into a bathtub full of ice water. My body felt like it was made of lead, or like I was coming out of a deep sleep. My mind went numb, and colour drained out of my world. As I hung up the phone, my sister was opening the front door to her residence, and we went upstairs to her room. By the time we got to the top of those stairs, emotion was gone. I didn't feel sad in that moment - I felt hollow. By the time we reached her room, my ears were ringing and all I knew was that I had to tell her. She asked if her roommate should leave. I said I didn't know - and at the time, I honestly didn't. I wish I had told her yes, yes she had to go and stay away and this needed to be between just her and I and nobody else should be in the room.

I didn't say that. Instead, I mumbled that I didn't know. Then I told her everything in a flat, emotionless tone, in a stream of words too fast for her to process the gravity of what I was saying. I did all this knowing that it was wrong, that she didn't deserve to hear it this way, that I was hurting her by doing it... but I couldn't stop. I wish I had. When I got to the end, there was a moment's pause. Her eyes filled with tears, and when I got up to hug her, she turned and ran from the room. I found her out on the quad, crying on the grass.

I will carry the memory of those moments with me for the rest of my life. I relive it, in dreams that keep me awake at night. I can never express to her how very sorry I am, how I failed her as a big brother. It is our duty to protect our younger siblings, and to guide them - not to plunge them into pain.

My grandfather was a role model to me in many ways. He was a teacher, farmer, volunteer hockey coach, and a member of his local Lions' club. He had lived in his little town his whole life, and it was a rare day that he had a bad word to say about anyone. He treated his fellows with great respect, always making conversation if he could. He loved many things - the land, his family, his friends, good food, and certainly good coffee. I could tell a thousand stories about him, and I hope that, over the course of my life, I will. When the day of the funeral came, hundreds of people showed up. Extra chairs were brought in, and when the doors closed, there were too many for even that. As I stood at the pulpit to give a reading, I saw that the back of the room was crowded with standing men. He was loved and respected in his community. I miss him.

-

I'm sorry that I still haven't posted anything about science - you were promised that a month ago, and all I've been giving you is personal. What can I say? Sometimes things are rough. I've been going through some unpleasant times, and I'm trying like hell to keep my energy up.

If you do want to see some of my writing that's a little more to the point, check this out. That's a link to my contributor's page at the newspaper I've been working with. It updates with my articles as they're published, and I encourage you to read them if you're curious. I've been trying to focus on science articles, but the News Editor is a great guy, and we've been working together quite a bit, so it's kind of a mixed bag. I'm really trying to get this "regular blog post" thing into my schedule, but until then, that's a source of material for you. The paper's season is done until the new Semester, so if you like those articles, hold on until January - I promise that there will be more.

I'm going to be out of the lab by then, and I'm trying to grab as much writing experience as I can, so if I find any other gigs, I'll let you know. I have yet to get paid for anything, but I try to keep the quality as high as I can anyway. One thing I'll be doing is trying to turn my Honours thesis into a paper. If anyone has any interest in remote sensing and/or image classification, let me know, and I'll keep you updated on that, too.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Training the Brain for Happiness

As I outlined in my last post, I've recently been going through a bit of a rough patch emotionally. I've been working through it as best I can, and in the process, I've been learning a lot about cultivating resilience techniques - mindfulness, meditation, directed thinking... that sort of thing. Through reading, asking for advice from experts, and talking extensively to others in my social circle, I've been able to gradually shift my mindset from depression and anxiety to content and pride. In short, the difficulties I've been experiencing have really helped me grow and learn to cope with, and respond to, hardship as it arises.

However, something I've been noticing a lot in my research is how ubiquitous the problems I've been going through seem to be in modern society - especially among members of my cohort (the 20-somethings, particularly recent graduates). Anxiety, stress, and depression are widespread, and it isn't just the emotional and mental well-being of young people that is at risk - it's having physiological effects as well. Incidences of stress- and depression-related health problems are on the rise, and that fact has really been hitting home for me lately. Aside from personal experiences with health problems, I have a number of friends who've been affected too - one friend in particular has recently had to take a break from his doctoral studies on account of severe health issues arising from stress.

Is there something wrong with us? Did our generation miss out on crucial coping skills in our upbringing? Or is it the times? Certainly, our situation is difficult - economic downturn, environmental degradation, and social upheaval around the world all make our futures uncertain. To make matters worse, the generations above tend to compound the issue through their soul-grinding realism. This isn't to say that 20-somethings don't need a good dose of reality (because that's certainly part of the problem), but being told that "life sucks and then you die" really doesn't help to cultivate hope and happiness.

Perhaps the ultimate truth is that this is the part of our lives where we are supposed to feel this way - we are finding out who we are, where we're going, and how we'll get there. In short, this is exactly where we're supposed to be right now. Coming-of-age difficulties are part of life... they're just the parts that aren't discussed often. In talking to the "grown-ups", it's become clear to me that this part of life can be exceedingly rough. A part that people tend to ignore, overlook, or tint with nostalgia in their memories. We're young - we don't have the benefit of life experience (or even fully-developed brains) to be able to look at things and say "this is temporary... this too shall pass". Most of the older people I talk to laugh and say "You'll get over it... I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up."

Does that make it any easier to cope with? It didn't for me. I simply saw an uncaring, unsympathetic world, where I was being encouraged to "just grow up" and be a part of the majority. That just made me resentful, and made things even worse.

So what did help? Learning that I wasn't alone. Learning that everyone has suffered through feelings of fear, hopelessness, and uncertainty. Talking to people, getting them to really open up, I found that they could remember the pain of what they'd been through. They were sympathetic. They hoped that I could work through it soon, because knowing someone wrestling with their demons made them conscious of what they'd been through... and they all tried to help me, in their own ways.

Ultimately, I found myself feeling better by working at it, a little bit every day. Taking time out to tell myself how proud I was of my achievements... how happy I was with the good things in my life. I learned to practice gratitude on a daily basis. Changing my thought patterns, creating good habits, has been key to my recovery from suffering. This technique might not work for everyone... but I found myself realizing that this was something that was never taught to me. It's something that should be instinctive - waking up every morning and saying "I'm glad I'm here. I like being with myself, and I'm proud of what I've done. I'm grateful for this morning." Too many of us wake up and say "Another day stuck with this guy (or gal). This is going to be another difficult day. I wish I could get out of this... something out there had better make me happy today. I don't even want to get out of bed."

Self-worth and self-respect should be hardwired. They lead to happiness and love, and those are the fundamental human right. I really believe that, and it's what I've learned over the last few months. In sharing this message with you, I'd like to leave you with a few links - these are some videos about gratitude and "re-wiring" (if you will) ourselves for joy. These have helped me immensely, and I hope they can be of value to you or someone you know.

This video, presented on UpWorthy by SoulPancake, focuses on the "science of happiness". It shows an experiment, focusing on the role that a sense of gratitude plays in a self-motivated sense of happiness and contentment. The study found that subjects expressing gratitude to a person they appreciate quantifiably increased their sense of happiness. It's a beautiful video, and I encourage you to watch, share, and think about it.

http://www.upworthy.com/scientists-discover-one-of-the-greatest-contributing-factors-to-happiness-youll-thank-me?g=4

This next one was a collaborative effort, sharing the magnificent film work of Louie Schwartzberg. The images, music, and narration combine so beautifully with a deeply insightful message, that I couldn't help but smile as I watched it. It helped me to cultivate a sense of appreciation and inspiration in my own life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj2ofrX7jAk

This last one is a media interview with neuropsychologist Rick Hanson. I only saw this one yesterday (my Mother, a big fan of his, sent it my way), but it shows an important perspective that resonates with me in my recent lessons - that "training the brain" for happiness is not only possible, but encouraged. It explains how the bad habits of negative thought are natural (and in fact, have developed through the course of human evolution), but can be overcome through careful use of focus and inner strength.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gK9DyvWuGA&feature=youtu.be

When things get dark, and it seems hopeless, you can still practice these ideas (and in fact, there is no better time to try it!). Even when the objects of your gratitude are far away (my family and my significant other are literally thousands of miles away from me in opposite directions) this can be tried out and put to great use. So, if you're struggling on your journey, I hope this helps. Remember - you're not alone, we want you to be happy, and you can always find something to be thankful for.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Hello World!

This is my first post in what I hope will be a well-kept weblog, focusing on the discoveries in my daily life. As my first blog, I don't know what to expect from myself, but I'm excited to try the experience out.

I'm told that the key to a successful blog is to identify a target audience and a topic of interest. Once those are established, keep a consistent subject and tone, update frequently, and try to provide readers (as often as possible) with links to other material - whether it's sources of information for my articles, or points of interest outside my own topics. I've tried to do that, and I've given it a lot of thought over the last few weeks.

My interests are broad and varied, but I've always been an avid reader. Science and history are probably the biggest topics in my life, but I find myself getting into all kinds of new finds. So, this blog is intended to be about just that - my "Explorations and Observations" in my life. I'm going to try very hard to keep it focused around science topics - things I follow out of personal and professional curiosity. Having said that, I can't say that I won't drift from time to time... but I'd like to avoid an intense, personal monologue. Interesting though my story may be, it's not what I'm here to share.

Having said that, something I've come to realize recently is that my own life history has come to shape who I am, and what I'm interested in. I'd like to share some of that in this initial blog post. That may give you some context about who's on the other end of this thing, and why I write the way I do. After I take a few minutes to get this out of the way, we'll both be better off, and I'll try real hard not to extensively revisit it.

So, who am I? At 21 years old, I just graduated with my B.Sc.H., with a double major in Environmental Science and Biology. I immediately jumped feet first into a Master's program in Biology, but it didn't take me long to realize that I was in over my head. The reasons for that are many, one being that I didn't take a break between them - it was a seamless transition from one thesis to another. Some of the conditions of my workplace and personal life contributed, too. The biggest thing, however, was that my heart wasn't in it - my choice of major was based on wanting to work outdoors, with people and wildlife, making decisions that mattered to me. Instead, I found myself cooped up alone in a lab, answering questions about molecular biology that I didn't want to work on. I tip my hat for anyone who enjoys molecular biology - for me, it satisfied nothing in my soul, and the cost of the experiments made me very uncomfortable.

Like many university graduates, I was coming to terms with a new stage of life, and for me, there was a lot of change; friends moving around the world, my girlfriend of four years moving halfway across the country (and Canada's a big country) to start her own graduate degree, a new apartment (and a legal battle with my landlords over our damage deposit from the previous one - which, I add with some pride, was recently resolved with no guilt on our part, and a notice to them that they were conducting illegal activities with regards to our lease), my grandfather had recently been diagnosed with leukemia (which, for the record, he is still fighting - almost a year since his diagnosis, he is soldiering on and making us so proud), and to top it all off, resounding opinions from the media that I, as a 20-something university graduate, was doomed to saddle the difficulties of environmental crisis, economic despair, and social degradation, all the while with no prospects of a job and the likelihood that I would eventually die poor, if the fumes from industry didn't get me first.

So I had some anxiety. That grew into situational depression. I stopped sleeping, I stopped eating, I lost 20lbs over the summer. I was nervous, pale, and emotional. All joy had drained out of my life. I was putting in 60-70hr weeks at work and seeing no progress, which caused me to slip even further into the hole I was digging myself. It all eventually culminated in a nervous breakdown during a field trip in late September. After a lot of desperate, tearful phone calls to loved ones, I was calmed down enough to come back to the lab, and even believe that everything would be better when I did. Instead, I found that just stepping into the building brought a flood of negative emotions back, and I felt sick. Finally, with support from my family and my girlfriend, I took the step to tell my supervisor that I couldn't do it any more.

He was in Portugal at the time, four weeks into a six-week research trip. I expected him to be angry with me. He wasn't. It was a personal decision, he said, and we would make it work. I was willing to finish the project I was working on currently, and he appreciated that. I was five months in. We agreed I'd stay another three to see the project out, and then say my goodbyes. I deeply regret that I allowed myself to reach this point - if I had been honest with myself, I would have known long ago that this wasn't going to work for me. I was too tired and worn-out from my Honours work to jump right in. And I was going through far too much personal difficulty to think I could just grind on...

I deeply respect and admire my supervisor - I first worked for him in the summer after my second year of my undergrad, when he hired me on without a lot of the courses or experience that would have helped me. He took it on faith that I could adjust to the work. I loved it in the lab that summer, and came back for another. I will always look up to him as an amazing researcher and mentor. But the truth of the situation is, I will need something more out of my graduate work than isolation and benchtop work (and I will go back for one, when I find the right time). Since being out from under the pressure of the graduate work, I've begun to recover my health, sanity, and sense of self. I hope that can continue.

So what does my future hold? I'm spending time, aside from my "day job" wrapping up this research work, trying to find what excites me, what I'm passionate about. I'm throwing myself at life wholeheartedly, trying to suck up as much of it as I can - learning, as I do so, that while I may not have been prepared by university to make a lot of life choices, I did develop an awful lot of knowledge, and a great skill set. I love reading, writing, and teaching. I love working with people, especially kids - something I used to do in my job as a swimming instructor, but haven't really been involved with since. I'm trying out a thousand different things, hoping that something will work for me, but if it doesn't, at least I tried a thousand things. I'd love to eventually move out to be with my girlfriend - the love of my life and the sun in my sky. Someday I want to continue my education, but a very prominent researcher (I'll just call him by his first name, David) I met not long ago told me his opinion, saying "My graduate studies were my happiest times... I felt liberated by the freedom to spend as long as I wanted studying things that interest me every day... once I got out into the real world and had to do anything else, it seemed like a chore." I really hope that I can one day find something that makes me feel like David did, and get to work learning everything I can about it.

So, that's where this blog came from. I've been wondering about science writing for a long time. As a kid, I wanted to be a journalist for National Geographic. I've come to realise that they're a pretty competitive spot to work, and maybe that's not what I'm looking for just yet - but I still cherish a dream of publishing with them at least once in my life. Now that I find myself with some time, and a desire to try out some of the things I've always wondered about, I'm going to give it a shot. I hope I can share the adventure with you, and who knows what will happen.

As my readers, I appreciate any feedback from you - comments, questions, arguments, shares - whatever you feel a need to do, do it! Keep your eyes open and your chin up, and keep reading!