Sunday, February 15, 2009


(written 14 Feb)

I arrived in Graz last night. My friend and, now, co-worker, Robert Leeb, met me at the train station. The last time I saw him, he was fretting over his PhD thesis like all good PhD students do, worrying way too much about details. I told him the same thing my Mom told me when I was revising my PhD- you are not writing for the ages. Meet the requirements for your PhD, get the signatures from the committee, and move on. Save the obsessive mastery for work that will be read by more than five people. Harsh, but true.

I notice an interesting psychological schism in late stage PhD students. You hit the extremes of stress and peace. Femke Nijboer, who successfully defended her PhD in the Birbaumer lab last year, called herself the “freakishly calm late stage PhD student” at the time. I called her a couple times planning on calming her down and instead found myself getting more relaxed talking to her. There are so many stressors, fears, and consummations devoutly to be wish’d, all at the mercy of five mysterious committee members, you get all confused about just how stressed out you are supposed to be. I find myself in a similar situation now. I am starting what is, and should be, my highest pressure job ever. Working at the Wolpaw lab was close, but I had little direct contact with him. Not so here. When Dr. Robert Leeb met me at the train station at 8:30 PM, he said we should get to my apartment by 9 PM since my boss Prof. Dr. Pfurtscheller wants to meet at my apartment at 9 PM to discuss the grant proposals I am working on. Now there’s a devoted boss. He is one of the original giants of noninvasive BCI research, along with Birbaumer and Wolpaw. However, Niels is distracted with a new son and Jon somehow manages to run a separate, larger lab that does spinal research. So I have the twin turbochargers of a top BCI lab and being under a magnifying glass held by the big boss. Bring it!!

Inspiring, but confusing. On the bright side, things seem fine at the moment. Pfu told me last night that I did a “very good job” and indeed it’s hard to have an unhappy boss when you’ve essentially been working for his lab for free for months. On the other hand, he seems eager to put me on as many grants as possible, including one with Bremen that screams disaster from every pore. I can already sense that being forced to work with Bremen will be one of the major stressors of my new position. However, time is on my side with that one. As news of what really happened in Bremen percolates through the community, this pressure should abate. Until then, I must eat shit, waste time on poorly conceived projects, and whine appropriately- enough to make damn sure I am heard, not enough to alienate bosses.

I spent much of the day catching up on emails and grant work, then headed back to my apartment to avoid the sickening Valentine’s Day crowd. Yup, they have it here too. My new pad is quite unlike anywhere I lived before, and totally unexpected for university housing. The apartment is in the middle of a little forest next to a tiny lake. It can only be accessed via a ten minute walk up a dirt road that does not allow vehicles except for residents. This apartment complex is the only building I can see, excluding a small shed. The building is surrounded by pine trees. Further, the building is quite old, and seemed a bit too fancy for us meager academics. Pfu explained that this used to be the Lord Mayor’s house, and it was adapted for uni housing. I feel flattered. While the building itself is old and pretty stylin, the inside of the apartment has modern furniture and fixtures, a TV, even a full kitchen with oven. Seems like a good combo.

It also brings back memories. When I was 7.5, we went to Kansas to visit some relatives. I know my age because I can distinctly remember sitting around a table with Dad and maybe 15 other people, having a great outdoor feast, when I felt the urge to inform Dad it was my seven and a halfth birthday. Dad said, “Brendan asked me to announce that we are here, not just to celebrate that it’s Wednesday, but also that Brendan is now 7 and a half.” The table sang Happy Birthday. I was later told that we were going to the mayor’s house. Wow, I thought! The mayor! Didn’t know our family was so connected. In retrospect, I had an overly fanciful view of mayoral regality. Being the mayor of a small town in Kansas is not such a feat. But I didn’t know that. That night, we went to visit the Maher residence and I was thoroughly disappointed by my misunderstanding. Perhaps one of the Mahers is also the mayor? No. Sorry, kid. But the evening was saved by an imminent hurricane. Mom pointed to it and there it was, a dirt brown wriggling twister, just like the pictures. We all had to get to the basement, where Dad told me that it was the only safe place and we might go out tomorrow and the whole house would be gone. I thought this was too fucking cool, and remember thinking about whether I could put some kind of movie camera up there to watch the house get torn apart. (Note this was well before webcams; a 7.5 year old American kid today could probably rig such surveillance without any trouble.) I was again disappointed to emerge the next morning to an intact house. Now, in curious narrative closure, I live in the Lord Mayor’s house. And it is a pretty phat house, as if the mayor of Graz is indeed a VIP. There is thus some restoration of childlike marvel. My new mystery is what difference exists, if any, between a Mayor and Lord Mayor.

The main drawback to this pad is obvious. You can’t get from the middle of a big city to the middle of a forest easily. It’s more than 10 minutes to the nearest streetcar stop, and at least 25 more to work. This is not such a bad commute, and walking 10 minutes through a forest twice a day is much better than driving through heavy traffic on 52 east. However, walking uphill on an unmaintained dirt road without drainage will be far less charming through rain or sleet. I see i cee sludge in my future.

But again, as I did not understand until moving to Europe, commuting through traffic just doesn’t compare to commuting on foot and streetcar. On a streetcar, you can read, talk to locals, watch the news (Graz streetcars, unlike those in Bremen, have TVs with news), or just zone out. Yes, I know, you can do these things while driving, but you aren’t supposed to.

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