Do you ever look in the mirror and for just a second – even a half second – you don’t recognize yourself? I don’t mean in some superficial appearance way, like, you look tired. No. I mean more broadly. I mean you look in the mirror and for that pivotal second, you have no idea who you’re looking at. You see a shell of a human being, a stranger, someone you’ve never seen before. And then it clicks. Ah, yes, it’s me. It’s just me.
I never ponder these moments. I never think to. Yes, for a second I had to remember I was me, that’s alarming to some degree, but I never dig deeper. Is this rooted in something? Is there something I’m missing? Maybe I don’t know who I am. (I mean do any of us really know ourselves?) Maybe the uncertainty and ignorance about my true-self reaches a critical point. On some subconscious level, my brain says “enough!” and has to reset. Maybe.
I like to think it’s a matter of identity. My entire life I’ve followed a track. Not because it’s what I wanted to do, but because it’s what I’m told I want to do. Maybe I have these moments because I don’t know myself. I don’t know the parts that built me.
In hopes to avoid further dissociative episodes, I present this list. This attempt at self-identification. Totaling 100% (I checked), here is everything that makes me, me.
FLUID SEXUALITY – 6%
I’ve struggled with my sexuality my entire life. Even now, after over 7 years of being openly gay, there’s some hesitation before I speak. This hesitation doesn’t stem from internalized homophobia, I most certainly am attracted to men. The hesitation stems from women. This is where my confusion lies.
The Kinsey Scale is a (flawed) spectrum describing sexuality. It ranges from 0 to 6. If you score a 0, you are exclusively heterosexual. (I can’t imagine a more horrific diagnosis; my condolences to those immediately affected.) If you score a 3, you are perfectly bisexual. If you score a 6, you are exclusively homosexual. In sum, this scale ranges from strictly heterosexual to strictly homosexual, with bisexuality somewhere in the middle.
I’m not sure how I feel about the validity of the Kinsey Scale itself, that isn’t really the point of this essay, but my response ranges from a 4 to a 6. A five on the scale means you are predominantly gay, but also incidentally attracted to the opposite sex. A four means you are more than incidentally attracted.
I find this absolutely hilarious. Incidentally? I get that they’re trying to say “in passing” but I like to think they mean “accidentally”. Just imagine. Ahh shucks! I accidentally slept with a girl! Oops! Gotta lower my Kinsey score by 0.2 now…
MICROBIOME/BIOINFORMATICS – 8%
If you see me on my computer, it’s probably safe to assume I’m working on something microbiome-related. I mean, my Capstone and Thesis are on the microbiome. I minored in writing to literally get away from science, yet at the last second, I let it back in.
For those who are unfamiliar, bioinformatics is the use of coding to look at complex biological systems. For example, bioinformatics encompasses sequencing of RNA or DNA. It also includes studying the microbiome. Being able to work in a wet lab setting while also being able to code is a dream come true. I thought I would never to get the opportunity to work remotely (I hate people), but here we are.
If I had my relationship status with my own microbiome advertised on Facebook, it would be marked as ‘it’s complicated’. (We’re going through a lot and trying to figure out what’s best for each of us.) I won’t go into the details (you’re welcome), but let’s just say to combat whatever the hell is going on with my gut I have: wet wipes, prescribed Immodium, and a bidet.
Mind you, this isn’t enough.
Again. Won’t go into details, but Michigan gets cold and our pipes aren’t insulated, so I have my eyes set on a lovely heated bidet. Only then will I know true happiness.
Maybe I have Celiacs (it runs in my family), maybe I have IBS, maybe I have Crohn’s, or maybe it’s just Maybelline. The only thing I know is I am desperate that it’s none of these.
Here’s the thing: I can never have Celiacs because I refuse to give up Domino’s “Pick 2 for $5.99”. I can never have Celiacs because I refuse to buy Gluten-free flour when I literally just bought a 10 lbs. bag of flour. (I’m on a budget, what am I supposed to do with 10 lbs. of flour? Bake delicious cookies and not eat them?) I can never have Celiacs because it took my mother like two years to re-perfect her cookie recipe. (I make bomb mint chocolate chip cookies and I just do not have that kind of time.)
Aside from my gastrointestinal woes, my interest in the microbiome isn’t just personal from a diagnosis standpoint. (Note: if I’m ever in a band, it will most definitely be called Gastrointestinal Woes.) Junior year, as some of you may remember, I was in a special section of an introductory biology lab that focused on the microbiome. We learned some basic microbiome analysis. The best part of the lab? We did the microbiome analysis on our own poop. Actually, no. The best part was we got paid.
Yes. The best public university in the world paid me to scoop samples of my own poop from the toilet. (Go blue! Or Go Brown?)
Anyway, on a more serious note, the class was what got me interested in the microbiome in the first place. It actually came at the perfect time. Just as I was realizing something wasn’t quite right with my own gut, I was given the opportunity to explore it. While it is overambitious to think that some surface level microbiome analysis would cure me, it was, at least, a starting point.
Throughout that semester, I actually pursued my mysterious condition and saw a gastroenterologist (i.e. Poop Doctor). Beforehand I had a colonoscopy (which, by the way, deserved a whole essay), which was surprisingly incredible. I was pumped full of anesthesia, wheeled into a warmly-lit room, and lulled to sleep as a doctor inserted an endoscope into me while old Maroon 5 songs played softly in the background. It was truly lovely.
Don’t get me wrong, the prep was legitimately depressing. (I don’t use that word lightly.) I couldn’t eat anything. My mom (WRONGLY) told me it was okay to eat chicken broth beforehand (MOM, YOU WERE DEFINITELY MISTAKEN). It was disgusting, and also made my bowel movements horrendous and smelly. I soon switched to Gatorade. (Which, let me tell you, deserved an official endorsement as the Colonoscopy Prep Fluid of Choice.)
To make matters worse, you have to drink a literal gallon of this hellish, lime-flavored, salty solution within (I think) a few hours before the operation. It really was rock bottom for me. But. Like I said, Adam Levine lulling me to sleep while I was in the most comprising position of my life was by far the highlight of my college career.
I actually woke up mid-procedure. Yeah, I lazily woke up, really high off the anesthesia, and looked at a TV monitor to what I thought was at first a man with a mustache, and then a beautiful cave with a lovely creek running through it. To my surprise, it was my own body! (With the context, I’m sure you know what part!) I actually said “Cool! Is that me? Got any news, doc?” as the doctor was literally mid-procedure. At the time, I thought it was completely normal to casually wake up in the middle of a colonoscopy and make small talk with the doctor, but I guess not? The doctor told me, as politely as they could, to shut up and back to sleep I went, dreaming of caves and men with mustaches.
The worst part was the fact the colonoscopy, even after all the Chicken broth and Gatorade in the world, came back with inconclusive results. (Didn’t change the fact the visit to the gastroenterologist was still $1000!) They noted some scarring tissue, but none of the tests were matches. So, I’m still mysterious, at least. Maybe someday I’ll be reunited with Adam Levine and the mustached man who still haunts me.
Aside from the colonoscopy and the biology lab, I had one other major encounter with the microbiome. You see, I work in a research lab that focuses on diabetes. I won’t go into the details, but the primary investigator of the lab I work in was interested in the microbiomes of the different groups of animals within her experiment. She asked me if I was interested in learning to process microbiome data, considering how frequently I mentioned the biology lab I was in at the time. I eagerly agreed and after a little over a year, I mastered microbiome data processing.
To my surprise, I had way more fun than I thought I would. Getting over the learning curve for microbiome data processing was so satisfying to me, that I pushed further, and decided to make microbiome data processing the topic of my Capstone and apply to a Ph.D. program in bioinformatics. The result was my website, Guthub, which I hope to continue updating even after I graduate with my B.S.
All I’m hoping for is another opportunity to collect more of my poop samples upon starting a Ph.D., otherwise, what’s the point?
CATS – 10%
Hey, I’m surprised about this one, too. My entire life I’ve been a dog person. Not the “I like dogs” dog person, but the much more intense “I Must Always Own Four Dogs Simultaneously” dog person.
Our first dog was Molly. A friendly golden retriever. Shortly after, came Raney, a black lab mix. Next was Dexter. You know the saying, “Once you have three dogs, you must always have three dogs”? How about the saying, “The only way to get over a dead dog is to buy another one?” Well, maybe those aren’t actual sayings, but they should be because it’s almost as if those were our mantras growing up. Our first two dogs were the only dogs we ever got from the desire of purely wanting a dog. I have had five dogs, three of which were literally coping mechanisms.
Raney ran away one summer for weeks. After weeks of searching, we gave up. Rather than focusing on healing, we poured our feelings into researching purebred Pomeranians. Forget the cost and shadiness (we were seconds from being scammed hundreds), because regardless of the money, Pomeranians are fluffy. Pomeranians are so fluffy, they were the motivation behind the creation of the adjective fluffy.
So, let’s count. We had Molly, Raney (MIA), and now Dexter. Well, days after getting Dexter, Raney came back. (I suspect foul play. Could my mother have hidden Raney in order to have an excuse to buy Dexter?)
Sadly, during my Junior year, Molly passed away. We then got Remi, a yellow lab. Then Raney passed away last spring. We then got Charlie, an actual black lab. You cannot get more obvious than that. Our black lab died so we got another one.
Regardless of the cycle of dogs in my life, I found myself drawn to cats during my Junior year. After I started dating my current partner, Ben, I took a liking to his cat, Simon. Simon is the cat that Grumpy Cat was based on. Not actually, but he should have been. He is the moodiest, pettiest, most annoying cat in the world. And I absolutely love it.
Naturally, I adopted a cat the spring of my Junior year. On my way to get her, I was panicking to think of a name. Turning onto N Maple Rd, seconds away from the cat rescue, I picked “Maple”. It really was that simple. I suddenly spoke her name into existence to Ben and never gave it a second thought. We never even talked about names after that. It wasn’t until months later that I realized how weird it was I randomly said “Maple!” and then made no attempts to further the conversation.
Now that I think about it, how vulnerable was I in that moment? How desperate was I to find a suitable cat name before arriving to pick her up? How impressionable was I? Would I have picked whatever name was on the last street sign I saw before arriving at the rescue? Oh god, would I have named my cat 4th St?
LOVE OF NATURE – 11%
Even though I haven’t been to the UP in over three years, I’m still influenced by it. Growing up in the woods will always be a part of my identity, regardless of how many 7/11’s open near me. There will always come a point where I say “bag” weird or need to walk through some forested area, even a mini-park, just for a few seconds.
Since moving to Ann Arbor, I’ve noticed how much I took the forest for granted. I ran through it every day, I lived in it. Marquette did not have an arboretum, like Ann Arbor, because the entire city was one. At the time, I hated the lack of cell phone service, the isolation, the inability to play XBox Live. I was jumping off the walls when we finally switched from dial-up internet to satellite. When I was in sixth grade. Sixth grade. Imagine all the AIM conversations I missed out on! And that satellite internet? It was at first HughesNet (which sucked) and then it was Exede (which was a little better, but to be honest, sucked).
Even with all the resentment, I still find myself wanting to go back. I find myself yearning for a green spot when I travel to big cities. I find myself constantly staring at the sky and looking at trees when I walk around campus. I find myself waiting to, at last, be back with nature.
DWINDLING FRIENDSHIPS – 12%
When I started dating Ben, I made him agree on two conditions:
- I have an unusually low sex drive and that won’t change.
- If there comes a time where I have to decide between doing something with my friends or his, I will pick mine.
In retrospect, my heart aches. My entire life, I’ve seen friends disappear into their relationships. I’ve seen them completely transform. I didn’t want that. I wanted Ben to a part of my life, not my entire life. I didn’t want to lose touch with the friendships I had built up over the previous years in Ann Arbor. I had found a great group of friends here. They were the kind of people who didn’t gossip about anyone. They gave off only good energy. In contrast to my friends from the UP, these people were saints. I needed them.
But I guess I didn’t. Rather than be blunt, let me explain with Facebook. My Facebook friend count in high school peaked at 1,000. When I went to college, I deleted half of the people on my friend list, leaving me with 500. Today I almost have 1,000 again. Since moving here four years ago, I’ve added 500 people to Facebook. Has it really been that many? If I contrast that with how many people in Ann Arbor I actually keep in touch with still, there’s a difference of 498.
I am terrified. Outside of my boyfriend’s immediate friend group, I regularly see one friend. It isn’t that my other friendships were shallow, and thus, disintegrated. I actively destroyed them. One second I was single, surrounded by friends, and the next, I’ve been dating Ben for six months and I’ve barely seen anyone. A combination of substance abuse and lack of energy left me suddenly terrified to see my friends. Would they be angry I haven’t been focusing on them? Would they be disappointed in my recreational habits? I was no longer that involved with TEDxUofM. I had a sudden lack of interest in big ideas.
While I still saw my friends regularly during my Junior year, that was mainly because we either had a class together or were on the Lead Team of TEDxUofM together. I ignored this fact. The following semester, during my Senior year, I promised myself things would be different.
While I still occasionally saw my friends, it was nothing compared to Junior year. On top of this, I was gaining a lot of weight. Lack of physical exercise and the ever-increasing recreational activities with Ben’s friends gave me the munchies. (It should be clear what I’m talking about at this point.) It’s stupid, I know. But somehow I couldn’t face my friends, with my enlarged body, poisoned by smoke.
So I didn’t.
And now those friends are all across the country. (They’ve graduated.) And I’m still here. With Ben. And our cats. And my few friends.
We’re about to sign our lease to live in Ann Arbor until 2020. 2020. That year still looks so far away, so futuristic. Who will still be there with me when the clock strikes midnight?
HOBBIES: COOKING, READING – 20%
Without my hobbies I am nothing. In the literal sense, of course, I am someone. But, in regard to personality? A person without hobbies should not be trusted. They have a suspiciously large amount of time to do whatever they want (i.e. murdering you).
I am in no way surprised the penultimate item of my existential list is “my hobbies”. On one hand, I’ve loved reading since I picked up my first chapter book in grade school. It took me (at minimum) an hour to get through the first chapter of Harry Potter.
(I was a really slow reader.)
But once I finished that first chapter, I felt a change. I can still picture it. I was sitting cross-legged on one of our dining room chairs that I brought into our living room. Having gotten to page 17 in one sitting of reading, though it took ages, helped me transition from picture books to reading literature (i.e. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief). While my reading comprehension was terrible, I was still improving. Albeit very slowly. It wasn’t until 6th grade that I realized I was just reading words. I couldn’t remember the plot to any book I read from 3rd grade onwards. Hell, I couldn’t even remember what was on the last page.
Reading has always shaped me. It’s provided me with tools to make my own writing better, it’s allowed me to see what’s possible. How far I can push the boundaries. I read The Book Thief and realized prose can be poetic. I read Breakfast of Champions and realized that the semicolon is a fantastic writing device. With each book I picked up, I gained something.
What reading can’t give me, cooking can. I actually hated cooking until I met Ben. When I had to cook for myself I either made 6 scrambled eggs or chicken and potatoes. But even chicken and potatoes were hard. (I could only focus on cooking one food item at a time.) I didn’t even experiment with seasonings and spices. It was always the boring garlic, salt, red pepper flakes. Maybe cumin if I was feeling exciting. (By the way, I know how white I sound right now, I say these things ironically.)
Thank god this all changed with Ben. I learned that, shockingly, salt is needed to even begin to taste other spices. Even more shocking, was when I learned that “salt to taste” doesn’t mean “add as much salt as you want, sweetie” it means add salt until you taste the other spices. I’m a biochemistry major. I’ve literally studied the taste receptors in our mouths. How I didn’t connect the dots, I do not know.
After relearning the basics to, I guess, food, I learned which tastes went together and which didn’t. I learned about spices I hadn’t heard of before. I learned about bok choy, pancit, and fish sauce.
(Quick note on fish sauce: while I recognize my hatred of the smell of fish sauce is partly due to the fact I never saw it growing up and it not being a part of American culture, it still smells like shit. But, fish sauce adds such a unique umami flavoring to any dish, I don’t even consider skipping the step. Each time I use it, the experience is a little less painful and I take one step closer to being everyone’s non-problematic fave homosexual chef.)
While learning all these things were great, I wasn’t truly invested in cooking until I started collecting recipes. I tried making everything from scratch I could think of: sugar cookies, chicken pot pie, Panda Express’ orange chicken, the late Indonesian Peanut Saute from Noodles and Company (may she rest in peace).
I started memorizing different stages of baking cookies: mix flour with baking soda and salt, cream butter with sugar, add eggs and vanilla to sugar-butter, mix in flour, bake. And then I moved up to memorizing recipes, starting with a basic white sauce: 2 tbsps of butter mixed with 2 tbsps of flour, after flour melts into butter, add 1 cup of milk, stirring slowly until sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, garlic. (And cheese if you love yourself.)
At some critical point last summer, my job, and cooking became one. After leaving the lab for the day, I would go home and use the same practices cooking. Cooking in the kitchen was almost an extension of working in a wet lab. I was precise in my measurements, I had everything prepped before I started, I made sure to have a clean workspace. It got to the moment that I was cooking so much for Ben, that he had to beg me to let him cook again. He’s more than welcome in the kitchen again, but he’s going to have to buy his own lab coat.
BEN – 33%
It scares me that Ben is 33%. I’m not surprised, but I’m scared. While ⅔ of my identity is independent of him, what am I to say about the future of that ⅓?
33% is a lot of space.
But even when I think about, I can’t think of what this ⅓ is displacing. What activities am I missing out on with a substantial fraction of my energy focused on him? Yes, I stopped being involved in TEDxUofM, but it’s pretty much the norm for people to drop off the face of the Earth in the years that following being on the Lead Team. It’s exhausting.
Other than that, what else is there?
Well, maybe it isn’t a matter of what isn’t there, but a matter of what is. While I didn’t sacrifice any aspect of what I like to do, I did sacrifice the amounts of time I can spend on any given thing. Now, this isn’t revolutionary. This is, well, obvious. When you start dating someone, you will inevitably lose some time that you would have otherwise spent doing something else. But is the extent of the importance I place on Ben okay?
Yes, I’m making time for some friends, I’m doing the research I want to do, and I’m reading and cooking enough for a family of eight. But how much more cooking, more reading, more friends would I have had I never swiped right on Ben. (Yes, it is true. Ben and I are a Tinder success story. Any day now we’ll get our own couples commercial.)
Of course, the time I get with Ben is more valuable than reading one extra book. It’s more valuable than an extra recipe, or one friend. But say that 33% dropped to 25%. I know he’d be encouraging, he wants me to do what I want, but what would I fill that precious 8% with? What am I missing out on?
The fact of the matter is, while I’m saddened by my dwindling social life and the natural flux of college friendships, I get to come home to one the best boyfr —
Actually, I’m going to stop right there.
I think you get the picture.
If I do say so myself, these past 4000 words have been a delight, so why risk tarnishing that with some cheesy cliche sentences about my relationship?
It’s more exciting when I leave that to the imagination.
Note: this essay was written for my Capstone for my Minor in Writing through the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan. The capstone course is listed under Writing 420. You can see how this essay fits into my (much) larger Capstone project at my website, guthub.org.