GUEST POST: A Long, Hard Road

It’s really hard to know where to begin. Do I begin with how I wanted to save the world by going into IT and working hard to the point where I was an IT leader. A network admin for some company with clout. A thought leader and engineer.

Maybe I should start where the problems started – trying to be the foundation for my friends to build on, to anchor them in a good house so that they could get their lives together while working in low-paying positions with my help. When my friends ended up leaving me high and dry and starting the stress that would one day culminate in the first flare up of my condition.
Maybe I should start in with my last year employed, where I was overworked and underpaid – a condition that many people still go through. However, it created the perfect storm of stress with trying to take care of my family at the same time that it started what I go through every day now.
So I guess I’ll start with that. About three years ago, I started developing chronic pain, fatigue, and memory issues. When I was really stressed, I would shake violently in bursts. The worst part, though, was the growing frequency of spacing out without control. This was especially problematic, as I was working in a high-pressure call center and these episodes caused me to forget details, answer the phone incorrectly, or any number of other serious problems with getting my job done.
In December of 2010, I lost that job. I also started having serious seizures that caused me to throw myself at the ground or into walls without control. I would throw things I was holding without warning. I would wake up shivering and shaking violently for twenty minutes, nearly every day. My joints had always been bad for one reason or another but as my body started to shake every day, they just got worse. Every day was a pain war between my upper back, my lower back, and my legs. My muscles would tighten and loosen constantly and without any kind of rhyme or reason, and I started to be able to crack my knuckles on command. Constantly, if I wanted. At first, I thought I could live with it, though. I’ve never had medical insurance (as I come from a family that struggled to stay in the lower middle class) so I’ve always dealt with my health problems the old fashioned way – live with it, work through the pain, look for simple cures on the internet and make sure they work.
That all changed on the tenth of December, though, when I lost consciousness while driving and went through a freeway sign and the side of someone’s car before I could pull the wheel back and gain control of myself again. I had started making a left turn onto the freeway and my body locked up, my mind wend blank, and I just kept making the left turn. That’s when the reality of what had started happening to me hit me full force – I wasn’t able to be normal anymore. I wasn’t able to drive, I wasn’t able to work, I wasn’t able to live like everyone else anymore.
After losing my job, it took me three months to get unemployment benefits. In that time, I lost the last house I lived in – a small apartment in Orange where I helped take care of my mom and my youngest brother. For the next year, we would live between motel rooms and my mom’s van while she did what work she could and I helped keep everyone fed and the car running on my unemployment. After several months of sleeping in a van, though, some of my old friends started lending me a place to stay when I could and I started couch surfing. That’s where I’ve been ever since – floating between couches, occasionally renting a room here and there when I could for privacy and much needed rest. This worked fine until I lost my unemployment benefits and started the application for disability. An application still in process, I might add, since I don’t have medical records of my problems (even though they’re plain to see).
However, the real important thing here is I’ve been spending the last year without any income, couch surfing, and dealing with all of those problems I listed before. I’ve learned how to manage them and, since stress management is my only real job now, I’ve gotten a lot better at controlling the sudden outbursts of shaking, pain,and dementia. It is all much harder without a home, though. Without a place to call my own, a bed to sleep in, and the space to store the few belongings I have left. I thought it’d be a long time before I’d see a home again, at least until I finally got my Social Security decision ironed out and worked through the HUD application.
That changed recently. My partner, the amazing woman that she is, offered to pay my rent when some very close friends of mine offered me a room in their house. It’s a modest room, but a good room. It’s a place where I feel safe and where people are looking out for me. The rent isn’t really that high and everything was going to work out. So we pulled together the first month when it was needed, I dropped my stuff off, and I lived in my own room for the first time in two and a half years. For three days, I was the happiest man alive.
Until the landlord talked to me, grew nervous at my situation and wanted financial records. Wanted me to have provable income, despite my girlfriend being the one paying the bills as it were. He didn’t want her, though. He said he couldn’t take her as a guarantor no matter how good her job is. My tenant score is too low because of my eviction from my job loss and disability, He wanted a deposit.
An outrageous deposit.
He wants the rent on the whole house. From just me. We didn’t have that kind of money laying around – if we did, I wouldn’t have been homeless this whole time. I am, however, too stubborn to take a challenge lying down. Too stubborn to be given a chance at stability and a home again without fighting for it every way I could. At the suggestion of a friend, I started a campaign to raise the deposit, to keep me from being homeless, and to get what I need together for the deposit. It’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it’s meant a lot to me so far. Since I started the campaign last Friday, we’ve already raised nearly $800.
Now I’m wondering if you, dear readers, can help me get a little closer to the end. Get a little closer to having a home again, being able to put my life back together, and being able to finally deal with how much I’ve changed thanks to my disability. To figure out who and what I am now that I can’t be who I was when this started. And all it takes is a little bit of help – a few dollars in the pot, a shared link on twitter, a post on your blog. If there’s one thing this weekend has taught me, it’s that sharing and reaching out to people is what makes a difference. It’s reminding people that it doesn’t need to be a lot of help to be a big help, and that there is a real life here, a life that appreciates everything that’s done for them. A life that, without your help now, could be a hell of a lot harder.
So please, consider donating if you can, whether it be your time or your digital space if you have no money to spare. And thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
GUEST POST: A Long, Hard Road

Rude Sustenance

Every family’s path is a story.  One does not have to reach far into the generations to find that their history and the world’s are deeply intertwined.  We are all children of history.

And my ancestors are the Cold War.

My father’s Cuba was less than a century removed from the pivot point where it decided not to become part of the United States.  The freshly independent colony styled its flag after the American flag and built undreamed-of wealth through its rich, mountainous soil and glorious climate.  It did so with a permissive business environment that let a whole new upper class grow itself out of the island’s natural resources while subjecting yet larger numbers of people to the kind of privation that only laissez-faire, libertarian economics can create.  My father’s family ascended through the social ranks in this developing society, as they tell it, through business acumen, quintessentially Cuban inventiveness, and a sprinkling of luck, beginning a story that could not have been more American if José Martí had failed to convince Cubans of their island’s distinctiveness.

My father was born in 1957, 59 years after Cuba’s independence from Spain was realized and with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary warpath through the island already beginning.  By the time he escaped the island eleven years later, the Gonzalez family’s holdings had been expropriated, Cuba was a Soviet satellite, and my grandfather had already been imprisoned for taking out that insult on the Communists during the 1961 American attack.

Dad got his American start as a child refugee fleeing a Communist government that stole everything his family had built.  He spoke no English, was accompanied only by his ailing mother, and would not see his father again until years later, in a story I do not yet fully understand.  He landed in New Jersey, long one of the United States’s receiving grounds for those who could no longer live in their original homelands and one of the country’s most vibrantly multicultural regions.

I will never fault him for the irrepressible, fiery drive that propelled him through school, taught him English, kept him working multiple jobs to help support his sick family, and got him into college-preparatory programs without a great deal of the aid that a modern student in similar straits would have received.  I will never fault him for the well-honed social intuition and work ethic that helped him rise, against his own desires, through the ranks of grocery-store management when his mother’s medical needs prevented him from continuing with school.  I will never fault him for the financial genius that got him into flipping houses in the 1970s and 1980s.  I will never fault him for the sheer willpower that kept him working full-time and renovating houses for sale the rest of the time, while Mom was doing the same, for over 15 years.  I will never fault him for the accumulated, experiential wisdom that enabled him to sell most of his investment properties and enter a loan-sharking semi-retirement at age 50 while putting three kids through university with no student loan debt.

I would not be an American if I did any less than beam with pride at my parent’s story.  It’s something that Horatio Alger might have written—the classic American tale of starting with nothing and ending with everything.

But it’s also the kind of story that affects how people see the world.  Poverty and struggle shape one’s mind and leave scars that no lifetime of riches to follow can ever dispel.

Continue reading “Rude Sustenance”

Rude Sustenance


As our About Us page mentions, I’m a Ph.D. student in biology, specializing in environmental toxicology.  Since I’m at the University of Ottawa and I didn’t have the requisite UOttawa Student Who Doesn’t Work With Fish human sacrifice, my model organisms are fish.  When I’m not blogging or cleaning aquaria, I’m pursuing that degree: reading scientific papers, trading Emails with the aquatic facility regarding space and fish, injecting fish with things, collecting fish tissues, and otherwise living the demanding life of a soon-to-be Doctor of Philosophy.  This isn’t an unusual life for an atheist blogger. Dozens of us are involved in education, science, or both, and I can name several relatively big names who are working on their graduate degrees at present.  This experience, and the background required to get this far, has colored my perspective as a writer and thinker on issues surrounding atheism and continues to inform my approach to many of my creative endeavors.
So why don’t I talk about it more?
A lot of it has to do with Jen McCreight.  Once upon a time she wrote several posts addressing this very same question, and most of those situations apply to me as well.  I blog under my own name, more-or-less, and I’ve made no particular effort (other than not using my last name very often) to create a wall of plausible deniability between this blog and the rest of my life.  Ania’s and my business cards have both of our full names on them; we refer to our personal affairs regularly; I even mention every now and then what university will eventually be on my diploma.   So, my commentary here may end up reflecting on me either as a potential hire someday or as part of some review of my relationship to my university.  I cannot afford to vent my occasional frustrations with my professional relationships in a public forum under my own name, even more than someone like PZ Myers who is already in a tenure-track position.  I take enough risks with the above; I go no further.
Another problematic aspect is the nature of my research.  Part of the requirement for Ph.D. work is originality, which means that a Ph.D. has to represent a body of new pieces of scientific information not previously known.  Where a master’s degree, depending on the institution, might permit the bulk of one’s work to be confirmatory or otherwise not entirely new, I do not have that option.  Every similar project that someone else is doing, at whatever stage in their career, is potentially a threat to mine.  If someone else publishes something that answers one of the questions I’m asking, it’s likely I will have to dramatically reevaluate one of my planned experiments and one of the chapters of my future thesis, at substantial cost in time (both sunk and about-to-be-sunk), resources, and the goodwill of my supervisor.  Worse, since I’ve already hit snags with other experiments and had to go with backup plans that otherwise might never have seen the light of day, I currently skate on a particularly thin layer of newness atop substantial bodies of older work defining my fields.  So, it’s not in my interest to publicize my unpublished work any more than being a scientist absolutely requires.  I presented a poster this week at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Valencia, Spain, which was an intensely informative and helpful experience in addition to being in fracking Valencia.  But dispersing my ideas further than that just yet, before they’re published and unambiguously mine, is not a great plan.  If I get scooped, I might not get my degree.
There’s also a simpler reason why my work doesn’t impinge on this blog very much: It’s my work.  This is my hobby.  This is one of the things I do to get away from what I have to do.  As much as I enjoy being a Ph.D. student, part of what makes that intense job liveable is being able to step away from it.  Getting to think more broadly and about things other than the minutiae of my very specific future contribution to the world’s knowledge is absolutely vital to my sanity, and I maintain that by keeping my professional and blogging subjects at least that separate.
When I have some published results to celebrate, we’ll hear more about my Ph.D. research, and I’ll render a delectable expose about how it, like everything else in science, makes more sense in a world without fairies and devils than with them.  Until then, not so much.
But there is one aspect of my degree that merits more commentary now, and that’s the teaching requirement.

Continue reading “Ph.Blog.”