It turns out that painting, like cleaning stalls, is a good time for introspection.
A few weeks ago I arrived home late in the evening from a long, rainy day at a cross-country riding clinic. While I had a great time galloping through water and over solid fences, by the end of the day I was wiped out.
Despite remarkably low energy levels, I was feeling edgy about unfinished business. I thrive on finishing things: the pleasure of pushing through to completion, having something to show for your efforts, and delivering what you have promised (to yourself or others). I couldn’t stop thinking about half-finished papers, some silver casting projects I needed to take care of, and – somewhat oddly – a wall in my room that I’d once run out of steam while painting and had been sitting half-finished for an embarrassing number of years. It’s a nice light green color that matches the back half of my room, cool and muted like sagebrush.
So inexplicably, after years of being unable to muster the gumption to finish this project, that night I decided to do it. I hunted down some blue painter’s tape in the laundry room and taped off the shelving brackets. I cracked open the paint can that had been sitting on my desk the whole time, added some water, and did my best to smash the chunky bits into something resembling a smooth liquid once more. I found a brush, changed into painting clothes, and began to paint.
My life was very different the last time I set down the paint roller, no matter which metric you use. The last time I painted this wall was in high school, or at least the first year of college. I would have been wildly uncertain about my academic path, but happy to entertain all kinds of exciting possibilities. My cat was a soft cream-and-orange longhair named Rascal, who I’d had since I was ten years old. Between classes I’d curl up by myself in a conference room and work on homework.
Now I am about to graduate and fly the comfortable nest of the research lab that has been my academic home for the last four years. Much of my brainspace is dedicated to science, both my own and others’, and I have a pretty firm idea of the career I want. I’m still excited about it. My cats are two tabby sisters, named Annie and Louise for Annie Alexander, the benefactress and champion of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and her lifetime partner Louise Kellogg.
I’m not taking classes any more, just research credits; I spend my time in the lab, either working on papers or socializing with (read: distracting, being distracted by) my fellow students.
That half-painted wall had seen an awful lot of changes in me.
I have a matter-of-fact patience now that I did not have the first time I began painting. Before, I doubt I would have simply picked up the materials and painted the whole damn thing, brush stroke by brush stroke. Perhaps it’s come from years struggling to overcome procrastination, learning to recognize that it’s no use fighting against what simply needs to be done. Better to suck it up, sit down, and do the work with less fuss.
I’m reminded of a paper that, like the paint in my closet, has highlighted the changes in me by remaining itself unchanged. It’s a 2002 paper by C. Janis, J. Theodor, and B. Boisvert called “Locomotor evolution in camels revisited: a quantitative analysis of pedal anatomy and the acquisition of the pacing gait.” This paper served as a starting point for my very first independent research project, which involves exploring the ecomorphology of camel postcrania from one of our field sites. I first read it my sophomore year of college.
Despite what I now recognize as Janis’s characteristic smooth and clear writing style, I struggled to understand the paper. The narrative, the citations, and even the words were foreign to me. Digitigrade? Secondarily unguligrade? By the time I finished looking up the words or concepts at the end of a sentence, I had forgotten what the first half of it was even about. Never mind the data analysis section – at least three separate explanations of Principle Components Analysis from my advisors fell through my understanding like sand through a sieve. I finished the paper having read every sentence but feeling as though I couldn’t answer what on earth it was about, even after multiple rereads.
Fast-forward three and a half years to now, as I write the manuscript for the paper from that very same research project. I did most of my statistics in R and planned them out without referencing my advisors. I am familiar not only with who Janis is, but with her broader collection of publications and how this particular paper fits into her research themes. We’ve even chatted at the vertebrate paleontology annual meeting. When I pick up the locomotor evolution paper, I read it as I might read a particularly detailed news article – with attention and focus, but smoothly and without struggling. The concepts are familiar, the vocabulary second nature enough to roll off my tongue in casual conversation.
Some things stay the same. Though I touched up the paint with another coat a few days later, the newspaper and painter’s tape are still up. Often, still, getting the ideas and information from a new paper into my brain is like getting a cat in a carrier for a vet visit. I still worry about the future and deal with this by planning and making lists more than is probably reasonable.
But it’s comforting to know that, thanks to time passing or (I hope) actual concerted effort, I and my abilities have changed over these last few years. I suspect that once I arrive in graduate school, I’ll meet once again the feeling of not knowing anything about what I’m doing, or not recognizing the names and concepts that everyone else in the research group seems familiar with. At least now I have a bit of an informative prior. When feeling overwhelmed I can recall a time when a single paper and an unpainted desk seemed like impassable barriers, and the satisfaction of realizing suddenly that my limits had shifted further away.