Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Streets of San Francisco...

One of the best parts of my job is that I get the opportunity to do many different things in the course of a week. I can be teaching an advanced analytical lab one day, running nuclear magnetic resonance and gas chromatograph samples the next, and find myself performing chemistry and physics demonstrations one day later… I love it. But one of the best parts of my job is that sometimes, when the students are gone and I have some free time on my hands, I get to do research.

I used to love research, but I fell out of love during my school days after a full year of getting my ass kicked by an overly zealous professor who loved to torture his undergrads. But now, I get to do serious research without the hassle and pressures of trying to achieve a degree or maintain tenure… I get play scientist… and entirely for fun.

Last summer, I spent a month shooting high powered lasers onto chemical reactions, studied my results, worked with Captain Science (I swear to God… he chose that pseudonym), came up with some conclusions, wrote up the report with Little Boss, got peer reviewed, and was published in a serious scientific journal. Feel free to pick up your copy of The Journal of Organometallic Chemistry and read Reactivity of the M-(η-2-alkyne) Bond [M = Cr, W]: A Kinetic and DFT Study. Of course, due to the fact that I’m not really supposed to be doing research… I got listed as second author again. But hey… it counts.

As a reward for getting published, Little Boss allowed me to travel to the American Chemical Society annual meeting and expo in San Francisco. I had to change my journal article into a poster board, but completed it on time and was ready to go. While my profs were traveling business class (“we have PhDs… we don’t travel coach”), I was shoved into a tiny coach seat for a fifteen hour flight from Doha to Houston. My bosses had the class to walk back and tease me about their ice cream floats and filet mignon while I dined on roasted nuts and the sweat of the people seated next to me.

Since there would be an eleven hour time difference between Doha and San Francisco, we had planned on spending the night in Houston to get acclimated. My parents picked me up at the airport for a joyous reunion. We drove to my sister Pumpkin’s house just outside the loop so I could get cleaned up and see her kids. My nephews, now in their teens, are almost as tall as me… frightening. Pumpkin arrived and we headed into the Montrose area for some fine pork dining at a restaurant simply called Feast.

Feast specializes in home grown, farm raised, huge hunks of meat… especially pork. I gorged myself on roasted bone marrow on toast, creamed sweet potato soup, savory bone chunks where you had to grind the meat off, and finished it off with a whole pork loin and mushrooms…


I quickly fell asleep from the wine and the oncoming food coma. In the morning I woke to the delicious smell of cooking bacon, as Pumpkin had made a feast of everything breakfast pork... bacon, links, sausage... oh God. My parents dropped me off the next morning back at the airport so I could jump on my flight to San Francisco. While waiting at the gate, I looked around and noticed that the entire plane was nothing but grad students and post docs, each carrying their poster tube, or bazooka as we all call it. I even got to travel with some of my undergrad professors. When we arrived in San Fran, my bosses took their hotel supplied luxury car to their fancy hotel, while I flagged down a cab to ferry me to my “boutique” hotel… a fancy word for cheap. I would be sharing a room with Little Boss’s Dutch postdoc… let’s call him Ernie. Our hotel was just off of the Broadway cable car line near the convention center. I dropped off my bag and went in search of some fun.

I don’t think I need to go into a huge amount of detail about San Francisco… do I? I mean, anyone who reads this blog reads it for the amazing travel destinations and sights that they may not be ever lucky to see themselves… but San Fran? You can all buy a bus ticket.

The convention was great; I went to a bunch of talks and lectures ranging from my research topic to chemical education to science history. I loved setting up the poster presentation… all the young grad students were dressed in suits and ties, eager to display how smart and interesting their research was, while the postdocs just clamored for the ability to network for jobs. But me, I came in with an untucked shirt and a beer… after all, my research was for fun.

I spent my free time walking back and forth thru the city, as I do love San Francisco. I toured the nearby modern art museums and parks. I rode the trolleys and buses across town to visit the Exploratorium and California Academy of Science, finishing the day by heading to the beach just under the Golden Gate Bridge and scoping out Alcatraz in the distance. Each day I awoke to the cool mornings and mist rolling over the streets. At night, all my bosses plus some friends would head out for great local restaurants and even better local brews. Captain Science and I walked a few miles to an excellent brew house for burgers and to get drunk on dark, rich, tar-like ales. Ernie and I pounded down Dutch and Irish beers at a local pub, all the while dodging the homeless and streetwalkers outside of our hotel window. One day we walked down to the piers where I bought the best T-shirt from a pork store to wear in Qatar… “Praise the Lard” with a picture of a ripe pig on it. Amazing how much you realize you miss things like pork, Mexican food, and just sitting around with a beer when you aren’t allowed it anymore.

We even met up with a former student of ours from Qatar one evening. He came down from Stanford where he’s getting his PhD, and we spent some time catching up. One of the best times I had was when Big Boss and Little Boss took me on the subway out to Berkeley, where Little boss did his postdoctoral work. We walked us up the steep hills to the beautiful campus and he showed us his old haunts. Berkeley looks like how college campuses are supposed to look… thick trees, open fields, and fliers hanging on everything. They both especially loved taking a photograph of themselves in front of the “No Parking Except for NL”… NL meaning Nobel Laureates. As they bickered about the climb, work, and everything else as they both are fond of doing, I yelled out “C’mon Dads, this is supposed to be my time to check out the campus!” Pretty funny considering they’re both conservative Muslims with international reputations in the scientific community… and I just called them out as being a gay couple walking the streets of Berkeley… hah! And if you’re ever in Berkeley, eat at Bongo Burger… damn good burger.

San Francisco was a great trip, both for personal and professional reasons. On the last day, I said my goodbyes to cool weather and blue skies, and flew back to Houston. Pumpkin picked me up, partially drunk, and we went off for some Shiner Bocks and Tex-Mex. In the morning my sister and I drove down south to Pearland to check out my storage unit that I packed up before moving to Doha. We were lucky enough to stop by a taqueria for chorizo breakfast tacos and dirty coffee.

When I opened the storage unit door, the chorizo high quickly dissipated. Time, heat, and dust had turned all my furniture and house wares into trash. One box that had spices in it had been devoured by rats… eww. A reason I was checking out the unit was to pick up a piece of art I had left behind that I wanted in Doha. Another reason was to see what I could get rid of. My storage unit is expensive, costing over two grand a year. And since I have no idea when, or if, I’ll ever move back to the States, I figure it was time to get rid of the dead weight. Pumpkin helped talk me into it, but in the end, it was my decision. And as I write this, my parents and Pumpkin have given away almost everything I own to various charities.

To paraphrase the movie Fight Club, “when you buy a couch, you know that you’re done… that is the only couch you need to buy, you have that problem covered.” It is strange that I spent over ten years acquiring enough furniture, art, books, and other accoutrement to fill a large house, office, and garage, etc… and here I am giving it all away. I don’t even get the tax write-off… I don’t pay any taxes in Qatar. So if I ever move back to the states, or anywhere else for that matter… I’ll be starting over. And I hope I can crash at your place for a while…

Later that morning my parents arrived and we went shopping for clothing and DVDs. We took them to an Asian market looking to get mangosteens for my father to try. No luck, but I did buy an assortment of exotic foods that I eat every day that my parents had never even seen before; including dragonfruit, rambutans, lychees, and starfruit.

After a fulfilling lunch of a Chinese buffet (again, something we don’t have in Doha), we spent the afternoon sipping on beers, not wanting the day to end. But finally, my parents drove me to the airport, and we said our goodbyes. I ate a Cajun dinner with both bosses while waiting for the plane. But soon, I was back on board and flew the fourteen hours back to Doha.
I really enjoyed this trip; both for the ability to see my family, and to experience San Francisco again. I love to visit, but don’t think I could ever live there… too many hippies.

And I fuckin’ hate hippies…



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