Archive for the ‘Life’ Category


Reflections on Ramadan

July 19, 2012

Today is the first day of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month on the Muslim calendar where Muslims fast for during the day for an entire month. Basically how it works, one wakes up while it still dark, and eats a quick morning meal before the first prayer at dawn. Then throughout the daylight hours, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking, including water, and perform three more prayers. Then at sunset, Muslims perform one more prayer, then they break their fast with a meal called Iftar. Iftars are usually wild celebrations that can many times go very very late into the night.

I want to implore though that the fast is not the point of Ramadan. Even though it sounds like it is an awful challenge of the mind and body, the goal of Ramadan is to reflect on yourself and your spiritual self, and to give back to the poor and needy. Community service and giving is a cornerstone of Ramadan.

For the last two years I have somewhat successfully participated in Ramadan. My first Ramadan in 2010 began August 11 and ended September 11, three days before my graduate school qualifying exam. Needless to say, the stress of the exam did not mix well with the fasting so I quit with 10 days left in the month. My second Ramadan began July 31 and ended August 30. This time I was actually able to complete the month, and it was incredibly rewarding.

The reason why the date for Ramadan changes every year is because the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar calendar, which only has about 355 days/year. A a result, Ramadan moves up 10 days every year. Which makes the next decade seem somewhat daunting as Ramadan will be slowly moving to earlier and earlier in the summer where the days are longer and longer. Other religions and cultures that use the lunar calendar also face this problem, but deal with it differently. For example, in Judaism, the timing of their holidays are also determined by the lunar calendar. But in order to prevent Hanukkah from moving up 10 days every year, every three years they add an extra 30 day month to the calendar, to correct for the difference. Brilliant!

The actual start and end of Ramadan is actually somewhat controversial. Some believe we should determine the start and end of the month the traditional way by looking at the moon. So if you go from new moon to new moon, the start of the month is when you can see a sliver of the moon. But if it is overcast at Mecca, and the moon cannot be seen, then the end cannot be determined. So the predicted very last day of Ramadan might be delayed if one cannot prove that the month has ended. In other words, the fast continues one more day just in case. The other school of thought is that we have technology and a global society, we can figure out with science when the exact dates will be so we should just use that.

But I do want to discuss some biology. Notably how difficult it is to fast. Now fasting is not unique only to Muslims and the Islamic faith. Judaism has days of fast that are spread throughout the year. They are pretty much the same, where you fast during the day and eat and celebrate at night, but they are single dJainism also has many different kinds of fast, most notably a fast where one does not eat or drink water for 3 consecutive days (which can also ramp up to 8 or 9 days, which sounds unbelievable). Interestingly, they also have a fast called Santhara, where one, who has determined that they have succeeded all they want in life, begins a fast until they die.

Though I could describe the biology and health of someone fasting, I think most people have either fasted, or skipped a couple meals in the day to understand the difficulty of fasting. What I want to discuss is how difficult the marathon is. Not eating every single day for a month plays a huge toll on the psyche. Last year, during Ramadan, I ranked each day with how difficult it was to get through the fast. I ranked the days from 1-10 where 1 is easy and 10 is difficult. Here are my results.

Basically, for me, there was an adjustment period. The first couple days were very difficult. But then you just get used to it. Getting up in the morning for breakfast became essential to getting through the day without exhaustion, and eating at night was not that big of a deal. There were a couple days in the middle that were just difficult, but mostly just because I was kind of fed up with it. But once you get into a routine, everything is easy. Those last few days though, were incredibly difficult. The anticipation of end mixed with being so tired of the routine made those days so hard.

Once Ramadan ends, the Muslim community celebrates for 3 days in a holiday called Eid ul-Fitr. This is sort of the Islamic Christmas where people celebrate, spend a lot of time with family, and just enjoy life. And after the marathon that is Ramadan, I’m sure for many Muslims, it is a truly great couple of days.


Where am I?

September 27, 2009

Yesterday, as part of our “orientation”/ department sponsored social events, a small group of us went hiking at a nearby state park. Although poorly attended by my fellow classmates (which is hypocritical for me to say because I almost didn’t go…) the trip was definitely highly anticipated and definitely worth it.

I love to hike. I never really got to do it a whole lot in undergrad as a result of being extremely busy with school and living so close to a major metropolitan area (it’s hard to convince your friends to drive an hour and a half away to go hiking when the big city is a 30 minute el ride away).

But getting away to nature is definitely a favorite past time. There’s something about being in it, being surrounded by life, surrounded by freshness, surrounded by old trees, that really puts things together. Life makes sense in the chaos of the forest.

As I sit in the cold confines of my laboratory bench and chair, reading about the godlessness of the universe when I should be reading about the homology, or sameness, between yeast and humans, I wonder what the heck I’m doing. Is this gel that I just accidentally set on fire because I misread the voltmeter going to get me closer to understanding? Is this book about the inanities of religion getting me farther from god? Or do I just need to go for a walk, and let my mind wander the light peaking through the trees, the scent and musk of the flowers and animals, the babble of the brook and the crackle of the creek?


In the end, all people are ever going to see is the degree.

September 3, 2009

Today at the gym, I actually heard a girl say…

“But are these friends and stuff really important. In the end, all people are ever going to see is the degree.”

I really, really hope that I took this out of context, or I misheard what she really said. But what scares me is that this kind of sentiment is real. I experienced it in undergrad and even though I changed schools for graduate studies, I’m still hearing it.

Can it be that we, the next movers and shakers of the world, are really this focused? I say ‘focused’ because it has the least negative connotation associated with it. I could also say, “are really this closed minded” or “are really this short sighted” or “are really this stupid?” But the thing is, these kids are just that, stupid. They’ve been taught or, after years of being beaten down, learned, that the only way to make it is through hard work. That the joys of life are secondary to the success. That becoming a doctor is the ultimate goal, not happiness. That success will bring happiness.

I think the most important, and sobering, lesson of my life was that we need to teach ourselves how to be happy. If there’s one thing that does not come with a manual, it’s our emotions. Somehow, in the big genetic mess that is our genome, the hardware of life, we code for how our personality will come together. And through positive and negative events in our development, we shape our cells to trigger genes a certain way, a certainly complex way, that ultimately determines our personality. So no one but you can figure out how to make you happy.

But who am I to judge. We all have to make choices. And we all have to live with the choices we make. It’s not my place to impose my will on others and say you should take college for what it is, an extended summer camp where you can learn what you want to learn, see what you want to see, and experience everything and anything that comes along the way.

College is a ramp to your future. That is definitely true. But like all simple machines, you have a choice: to make the ramp short and steep, or make the ramp long and gentle. I say made my choice. I used my ramp to bypass all the steps ahead of me, but I made that ramp as smooth and enjoyable as I could. You only live once, so you’d might as well make it long and lush. And happy.