Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year's Eve, 2005

I’m sad.

If I were less wordy, I might just leave it at that. In fact, a lot of what I’m feeling has already been expressed. I love – absolutely adore/can’t get enough of – people with blogs. Those people who are honest and gutsy enough to put something real out here help me sometimes. To know that grad school, jobs, dating, friendships -- life is hard for someone other then me is comforting. And every once in awhile, I pull that knowledge around me like a blanket and snuggle in, content in knowing I’m alone physically but not in how I feel.

I have an actual blanket – one Grandma made for me before I was born. So my blanket and I turn 27 in January. I don’t sleep with it every night, though it’s usually around. I took it with me on an interview – the one where I had endless social events to attend for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted. I felt unsure and uncomfortable, and tucked my blanket into my suitcase before heading off to catch my flight.

It was a bad trip. I got a manuscript rejection right before my flight left, and there was nobody to meet me at the airport when I arrived. Then started days of interviews, tours, meetings with executives as well as senior scientists, increasing certainty that I didn’t want this job, tours around town to find housing, and social events. I would return to the hotel, exhausted, and tuck my blanket under my chin – smell the laundry detergent I liked, and feel the worn cotton knit against my face – and sleep, comforted.

I got through the interview, and sitting on an uncomfortable chair at the Delta terminal in Atlanta on a layover, I realized that I couldn’t remember putting my blanket in my suitcase before I left that morning.

Don’t panic. I told myself. You couldn’t have forgotten it. It’s there. But when I got home, unzipping my suitcase as soon as I wheeled it to the car, it wasn’t there.

I can’t even explain the sick feeling of dread that overwhelmed me when I realized I didn’t have it. I called the hotel, finding only front desk staff at midnight, not at all concerned that I looked like a fool for freaking out about my blanket.

“It has a white back and yellow trim,” I began, already starting to cry as I pictured it. “And there are dolls on the front. With big bonnets. In primary colors. It’s ratty and old – I’ve had it since I was a baby. I know it’s silly, but I need it. I have to have it back.” After carefully giving my address and gaining a kind girl’s promise to have housekeeping look for it early the next day, I hung up and returned to the living room, barely clinging to my control.

I sat in a blue rocking chair in front of the window. “They’ll send it tomorrow.” I told my mom solemnly.

“No, they don’t know if it’s there, but I’m sure someone found it. They’ll figure out where it is tomorrow, then put it in the mail.” I answered when she asked if they already had it.

Mom sighed my name, and shook her head. “I think you need to be prepared for losing it. I probably got tangled up with the sheets and sent away for laundry. Then whoever finds it will just think you didn’t want it, and throw it away.”

Now, I consider Mom to be my very best friend – I’ve relied on her love, support, and pragmatic views more often than I can recount. But this little gem pushed me over the edge. All the stress of having my defense pushed back indefinitely, feeling like a failure, not finding a job I wanted despite exhaustive interviewing, and yes, losing my beloved blanket, coalesced and I couldn’t breathe through the pain of it. I started to sob – uncontrollably and with great passion.

I cried for almost an hour – mourning the future I thought I’d find after grad school and hadn’t, and desperately needing the comfort that my blanket always gave me. Mom, bless her heart, tried to backtrack.

“They’ll find it.” She assured me. “And you don’t need it anymore anyway!”

“Do you see what’s happening to me?! Do I look like someone who doesn’t need her security blanket, Mom?!” Barely able to wail out my questions through wracking sobs, blowing my nose to try to gain the ability to breathe, headache brewing and nausea threatening.

I did laugh when she considered me, sitting at my side on the couch, stroking my hair. “I can make you a new one.” She finally offered.

We went to the store the next day, found new material, and she taught me how Grandma put a dinner plate in the center of the 2 pieces of material, tracing around it to form a large circle. Then she sewed from the circle to the edges of the material. Mom started, and I finished it. Then I had a flower blanket to cuddle – one with pastel daisies and a green flannel back. This one, like my first, had yellow trim. It comforted me until my blanket arrived in the mail, sent by the kind woman at the front desk and courtesy of a housekeeper who recognized it as being something vital and important that its owner would desperately want back.

That story is to explain how important comfort is to me – to find something that makes me feel loved and important on days when I feel lonely and insignificant. So when I hear that other people are dateless on New Year's – people who I think are amazing and lovely – it makes me dread my evening less. When I realize that not everyone does something special to mark the coming of 2006, I decide to think of myself within the company of other home-dwellers rather than feeling completely isolated in a world of people who party.

I think the reason I decided to put these thoughts in public vs. keeping a private journal was that I hope it helps someone – makes her feel in good company (or at least not alone – not sure how good my company is right now), or makes him realize that getting your PhD doesn’t mean you necessarily have anything figured out. That the woman who fell apart over losing her blanket has given seminars and talks, successfully performed at prelims and defenses, passed classes, mentored new students, and served on various committees.

I present a confident, professional, smart version of myself to other people – putting significant time and effort into this person others might see. But here? I am who I am. I feel lonely today and dread people asking what I did for New Year's. I’m hurt that my site traffic has gone to hell in the past few days – did I write something offensive? Get boring suddenly? Somehow transmit the fact that my general malaise is affecting my productivity at home, at work and at blog? I wish I had a man who loved me, and failing that, friends who lived where I currently reside. I wish that I were stunningly beautiful and even more successful.

I’m not writing resolutions this year – I normally don’t. I will say that I’m glad I started writing recently. As many others have said recently in their own posts, it’s cathartic and makes me view my life much more clearly. If you’ve been reading or have commented, I’m all aflutter with pleasure. I know you have your own lives that demand attention, and that I might compel you to come and read is incredibly flattering. So you have my sincere thanks. Those thanks come with my wishes for a very happy 2006 – whether you’re partying with crowds or home alone for its actual beginning.

And if you happen to be sad, I'm here too. Do you want to be friends?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Things I learned today:

1. I knew my dog didn’t like to have her nails trimmed. So I use a sandpaper attachment on a rotary tool to grind them down. People at puppy class told me it was less traumatic for some dogs, and it works pretty well. BUT, if you let the nails get overly long,
a. It takes forever to get them an appropriate length (like 30+ minutes)
b. The nail dust smells horrific
c. The dog gets irritated with you and tries to run away until you put a purse strap through her collar, then around your leg so she can’t escape again

2. If you’re going to put pretty shelves together that you got for Christmas (mine are white), perhaps you should make sure you know how they’re supposed to look before you insert the screws. Each shelf had 2 sides and a back, and they were to be constructed first. My mistakes included
a. The bottom of the shelf was upside down, so the sides came out of the bottom. This not only defeats the purpose of putting sides on your shelf, but also looks dumb.
b. I got the sides on the top of the shelf, but the curved parts faced the back rather than the front.
c. I split the wood trying to anchor the back to the bottom of the shelf – the freaking screws should go in straight!
d. Rather than lining the boards up so the holes in the sides matched the holes in the back, I just guessed. That’s not effective.

3. If you make copious amounts of mistakes on the first shelf, the rest of those suckers will go together quite smoothly.

4. Don’t start with the top shelf – your mistakes will be obvious where they would have been largely irrelevant had you started on the bottom.

5. Cordless tools rock. I’m especially fond of my electric screwdriver today as it worked with me to force my shelves together. When you don’t have talent, rely on power tools.

6. You can never have too many clocks. I received the melted clock for Christmas. Kirch makes it, and Mom got it at Bed Bath & Beyond after no less than 3 trips when I went to gaze at it. It is the 4th clock to be placed in my bedroom, and I actually have a spot picked out for one more. I do like to know what time it is.

7. I can see 3 clocks from where I’m sitting on my couch in the living room. I might have a problem.

8. I adore Cash Cab. I actually already knew that, but every time I watch, it reinforces the concept. Since I don’t have tremendous amounts of TV that I look forward to, it’s very enjoyable to look at one of my many clocks, note the approach of 5PM (central time), and happily say “Cash Cab!” while scurrying to the remote and finding the Discovery Channel.

9. I just realized, through my Wikipedia link for #8, that the show originated in the UK. If anyone's reading from England, thanks for the good TV!

10. Rearranging even a tiny corner of the living room to make room for some shelves (that are actually quite lovely, despite the fact that I see a screw protruding from the bottom of the top shelf) makes me happy.

11. It also makes me think there should now be a clock in that corner.

12. If you think that you can take Tylenol PM, then stay awake and coherent enough to get a few more things done sans headache, you might be incorrect.

13. It's probably not the greatest idea to try to write while losing the battle for consciousness against my superior competitor - Tylenol PM.

What have you learned? I don't like doggie nails. I do like shelves, though I'm not great at putting them together. I love Cash Cab, almost as much as I love clocks. Tylenol PM is also quite nice.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Rainy day - past and present

I drove home through a light rain shower this afternoon. Using my wipers intermittently, I pulled into the garage without getting wet and entered the house to ecstatic greetings from the puppy-dog. She's a happy girl most of the time, but she's nervous in storms. Luckily, there's no thunder - just a gentle cloudiness and misty rain - or I'd have to huddle in the corner of my closet, under the clothes, cuddling my shivering furry friend.

I have been carefully considering Wise crow's request for a spiritual post, and while I continue to stall, I'm heading once again to the back-up plan and some pictures! Yay for pictures! I haven't made it through even a fraction of my Kyoto photos, and though I don't plan to post all of them, they're still fun for me to glance through. I like clicking on my bookmark and seeing images appear among the text.

So when I went to my office to find the pictures in my files, I was drawn to one of the rainy days in Japan. I had trekked out of town on a bus with 3 boys - past and present members of my research group. We wanted to see the Golden Pavilion (Rokuon-Ji Temple).

So we journeyed away from our hotels and toward the west side of the city. As we disembarked and wandered through the grounds, it started to sprinkle rain - a gentle wash that bathed the gardens in a white light that filtered through the grey clouds. The Golden Pavilion was impressive, but crowded. After a rather lengthy bus trip there (also crammed with people), we wanted to check out the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple. It was a longer walk than expected, and I have a picture of the guys looking irritably at the map on the way there.

I, however, adore rain - it softens everything, and as I think about it, most places I've visited have been photographed in cloudy weather. After we entered the grounds and began the hike toward the Rock Garden at Ryoanji, I took pictures of this lake, marveling over the lily pads and swans as we stood under a tall canopy of trees and dried out a little.

Pausing to look around - that's what I hope I'm doing here. Sometimes turning to look back - rehashing situations to see if I missed the lesson as I was living through some experience. Sometimes just standing still, formulating impressions into blog entries so that I'm more present in the moment.

And for a precious few times, I have pictures, like this last one, that I find exquisitely lovely. I recall how it felt, clothing barely damp from walking in the mist, smelling the clean rain mixed with the not unpleasant scent of lake, looking around - almost breathless - at the beauty of being lost in my thoughts, finding myself somewhere special, and treasuring the sound of the tiny white gravel under my feet as I moved from this particular spot and headed toward more adventures.

I'm pausing right now, peering out my wide wooden blinds, staring at my street, outside the house I've always wanted for myself. It's beginning to darken as the sun slips farther away for another evening. In this moment, as I sit here and type, moved from my office to curl up on my loveseat, I'm happy. Watching it rain softly, letting thoughts come and go, hoping those of you who read this are enjoying your evenings as well.

That was my ending there, but would you look at that last photo! Am I talented or what?! Does anyone else think that's gorgeous, or is it just me? I took that! All by myself! I probably shouldn't mention that I had it upside down when I first posted this entry, right? Because that would make me look stupid rather than talented. Which is probably what this little paragraph did. That's not so good.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Before I was a post-doc: the receptionist job

I’m starting to think that I suck lately – have been telling lots of crappy stories about me and feeling badly about myself. So let’s try a happy post, shall we?

I worked at a department store for 2 years near the end of high school. Mom loved working retail when she was young, as did Grandma. So I was following a proud tradition. Except I hated it – didn’t enjoy the people, felt the job of turning hangers the right direction and folding sweaters made time absolutely crawl. I had no use for my bosses, didn’t like going in early to take my turn at cleaning the bathrooms, wasn’t particular interested in the “fashion” contained in the rural stores. So I quit at age 18, the summer before I started undergrad.

Mom had told me countless times to “find something I liked about it.” Her "focus on the positive" approach had enabled me to endure 2 years, but that was all I could take.

“You won’t find anything better.” She told me on our drive home from the store after I quit. “There are problems with any job, and when you look for the bad stuff, you’ll always be unhappy.”

Eager to prove her wrong, and always irritated with criticism, I entered the house and headed straight for the classifieds. I found the perfect ad - small, subtle and with a thin border around it for emphasis. I answered it, and got an interview.

I entered a gracious building with antique furniture and cut glass doors enclosing a reception area. I talked with some lovely older ladies, and was awarded the position. I arrived for my first day of work, and took my seat at the reception desk for the evening shift.

I was to answer questions for our elderly residents, direct incoming phone calls to the appropriate recipient, make copies, put together retirement community brochures, take rent checks, sort mail – all sorts of fun things.

I missed 2 days of work over 2 years – I adored that job. The mindless tasks – copying, organizing, addressing envelopes – allowed my mind time to drift gently to daydreams. How someone’s grandson would come to visit – tall, dark and sexy – and realize that I had always been kind and helpful to his dear Nana. He'd come in to talk with me on his many visits, and we'd start to date. Small waves as he'd pass by my desk would ease into a whirlwind romance that would require all of my attention, allowing me to leave work and school behind. We’d fall deeply in love, and I could see my old co-workers when we returned to the retirement community, hand in hand, to visit dear Nana.

Though I never found a cute grandson, I did have time to do homework and reading between small tasks. In addition, they thought I was brilliant – fixing the computer, unjamming the copier, anticipating the need for extra brochures, always being sympathetic yet effective when dealing with phone calls – quite impressed my supervisors.

Yet my favorite interactions by far were with the residents. I’d close my books and put away notes and binders as dinner came to a close. People would shuffle from the doors directly across from my office. They’d enter to complain or rave about the food – Heaven help us all if we ran out of entrees on lobster or prime rib nights. Sometimes someone would lose something and I’d quickly dispatch maintenance to look around for it, page the head housekeeper to check the lost and found, and ask laundry to be careful with the linens from that apartment in case the missing item was tucked within sheets or tablecloths. I was seriously good at that job – handling most problems, knowing who to see about others, checking back to make sure everyone was happy with the resolution.

I also knew names – Sofia had trouble with her checkbook and we would work to balance it on Saturday mornings. Pauline would forget that her children called after church on Sunday, so they grew accustomed to having me scamper out of the office down to the game room to find her when they’d call me, looking for her. Julia had doctor appointments, and I’d leave post-its on the desk so that whoever was working could call to reminder her that the driver was ready to go. Paul would come in to talk about the war – unhappy with most events, but almost giddy when his son would come to take him to visit for a week. He’d return with countless stories of grandchildren, his old friends, the improvements his son had made on the house. I’d cry sometimes after talking to Paul, wishing I could find a way to bring him happiness like that every day.

I think what strikes me as I look back over those memories is that I loved being there – feeling important, helping people, providing someone to talk to for people who were a little lonely and eager to share their stories. The residents, though sometimes irritable and cranky, were mostly loving and warm, age having softened them so that they were mostly kind, stopping in to compliment my hair or a new dress. Though they didn’t need me every day, I always knew there was the possibility that I’d be necessary to someone – Bea could run out of her heart medication and need me to arrange for a special delivery; Elsa might get pictures from her nieces in the mail and want to show me; Margaret could forget that the shopping trip left at 10:30 on Saturday, and I’d have to call to remind her since she needed microwave popcorn.

I’m not always eager to go to work these days. I don’t feel overly important, though I’m much more educated than I was then. I sometimes feel like the ability to care – to really be fully engrossed in my job – is receding. I don’t want it to hurt so badly when a manuscript gets rejected. Or be so disappointed when a study doesn’t go well, or takes forever to design and get approved. So I ease back, loving my job and the people I work with, but not feeling like I’m making any sort of difference. There’s nobody to smile and look appreciative when I listen to their stories. No warm feeling that I made a difference – personal and direct – to someone who, for a moment, needed me.

Do I need more contact with patients? Am I just getting older? Should I have stayed a receptionist rather than leaving for a bench chemistry internship that would further my career? Am I headed in the wrong direction when I found something that was fulfilling already? What I’m certain of is that I have a great deal of respect for people who care for the older members of our society. Those who are kind, caring, and who become deeply involved in the lives of some incredible people with a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Oh, and if you work retail, you’re a stronger person than I. Being civil to people who are rude, straightening, competing for commission, working crappy hours on your feet, sometimes in heels. Cheers to you.

And cheers to us – whatever your job may be, and whatever I end up doing after I finish this post-doc in a couple years, may we be fulfilled, productive but with enough time to daydream, challenged to find time to make someone happy, and motivated to be present – both physically and mentally – because we find our life’s work to be somehow profound.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Nothing to see here...

I have many posts started here within a 2 page document. But nothing is flowing – I can’t make the words appear and keep changing topics in hopes of hitting inspiration but am failing spectacularly. So rather than posting something not even I find remotely interesting, I’m going to wait another day.

I think the lack of reading, which is something I do with tremendous amounts of free time I sometimes don’t have, is affecting my ability to write. Without taking in all the thoughts and stories of others, I can’t put my own together very well.

I also notice that when I work in solitude, not talking to anyone, I can’t talk very well. It’s hard for me to put sentences together – I stutter and choose the wrong words, sounding like an idiot. So I’m stuttering now, unable to find a compelling topic on which to write semi-intelligently. But I miss being here – posting new things and reading to myself as I attempt to figure out what’s in my head.

So this is just a little pep talk for me, and a note that I’m spending hours in the car tomorrow heading home. So I’ll have plenty of time to gather my thoughts and get ready to write again. And when I arrive at my house to the lovely wireless router and cable modem located in my office, I’ll be able to read everyone again. I sigh with anticipation even as my heart tugs with the thought of not seeing my family again for several weeks.

The bittersweet feeling lingers, even as I wait to connect via dial-up one last time, savor the quiet as my parents sleep, and continue to put things by the door. The gift this year was being here – it wasn’t always easy, but it’s rare that I can spend more than a week just being a daughter again. Cell phones and email just aren’t the same as being physically present, and as much as I complain, I wish just a little bit that time would slow so that I don’t have to leave again, watching Mom and Dad wave from the front door as I once again trek back my house, somehow not quite home at either location.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve, 2005

It’s been non-stop today. Trying to get the house clean for my parents, grocery shopping, buying last-minute gifts, helping with moving Aunt and Uncle, church, having family over for snacks, then putting together toys for the little one so everything would be set up when she arrives tomorrow with her parents. They’re back together, by the way, so forgive me for my melodramatic tendencies when discussing the matter. I’m actually one of the more stable ones in my family, but that could probably constitute a whole other series of posts.

Jesus is the reason for the season – the phrase makes me cringe, but it is something to remember, especially in the last day’s push to get everything done and ready for December 25. So while Dad decided to lounge around here at home, Mom and I got pretty and headed off to church for the evening service. It’s normally a candlelight service, lasting about 30 minutes, at 11PM. There was some sort of scheduling conflict this evening though, so we met at 6 instead. It was dark, and I’m exhausted from the moving and general business, so 6=11 to me lately.

Mom and I arrived early and snuck in through a side door, grabbing our bulletins and candles on our way to our pew. My family normally sits on the left side of the sanctuary, about ¾ of the way back. So I headed in that general direction, and started reading about who had donated the poinsettias.

They were gorgeous, I thought – strikingly vibrant against the red brick backdrop of the high church walls. The pots were crowded together, a reminder of loved ones absent and present, festive and bright, a constant of the holiday season. I didn’t care for the insert though, printed on the top half of a sheet of bright pink paper. I would have done it on cream paper, and used larger text in a different font, centered vertically and horizontally, I decided. Lately, I’m very into how words appear in print. It doesn’t bother me too much online, but if you’re going to go to the trouble to make something appear on paper, why not do it right?

That should have provided a clue to my mood, which was fussy and heading into judgmental and critical. Then I saw the band warming up – checking the microphones (one gentleman said “check” 9 times in a row – I counted. Excessive.), tuning up (You’re not quite there yet, guitar guy.) and generally doing their best to attract attention. So involved with thinking about how I would have organized the service, I didn’t notice the incoming congregants.

Mom leaned over and whispered – “we’re the only people on this side of the church.” And looking over, I noticed the right side was rapidly reaching capacity while we were, in fact, the only 2 people on the left.

“They’ll have to come over here soon,” I replied quietly. “They’re almost out of room over there.”

Mom had already scoped out 2 seats though. “If we went up 2 rows, there are some seats in the middle of that pew.” She informed me, trying not to smile, tilting her head in the direction of the right side of the church.

I giggled with her, and we looked around together, both of us pleased when a woman sat on our side, about 5 rows up. Satisfied, I returned to my bulletin. They were alternating verses with carols in the sing-along fashion I was used to with some basic contemporary variations – the “praise team” would perform certain songs, and would add a skit near the middle. Now, I’m not crazy about the performances or skits, but it’s Christmas, so I’ll tolerate it, I decided.

My musings were disturbed when Mom gasped. I looked over to see her watching the woman a few rows up, our only left-sided friend, abandon us for a seat on the right side. At that point, though I knew there was no reason for everyone to sit on the right, I started to look around to make sure there wasn’t something I’d missed. It was too warm in the church, so they couldn’t all be huddled for warmth. They can’t all know each other – they’re not talking, and I recognize people who normally attend the traditional service in favor of the contemporary one. Perhaps they all want to be on the side with the band? Or maybe they think Jesus loves that side more? Does Santa only visit those who are seated on the right side of the church?

We eventually had 11 or 12 people on our side, while there was hardly room to breathe on the other side of the church. Mom and I giggled about it for a long time. And we should have moved – there’s safety in numbers.

The service started late, which again, I don’t like. Scrupulously organized, if I plan an event, it will run on time. Since I’d been busy all day, I was running at full mental speed. I wanted to get things going, and the continued checking and tuning and talking of the band started to grate on my nerves. Don’t glare! I lectured myself – it’s Christmas. We finally got started, and right away, the band started into a song when it was time for us to hear a Bible reading from Luke.

You can only pull off the “pretend this was the way things were supposed to go, and nobody will notice we screwed up” trick if people don’t have printed version of the order in which the service should proceed. Other things that bothered me:

Cool Band Leader asked if people wanted to sit or stand to sing – there will always be those who’d rather sit and those who’d rather stand. I personally don’t care. But that’s why you have someone decide beforehand. Then you put a nice little cross by certain hymns, and we all know we’re supposed to be on our feet. Otherwise, we sit. So there was this awkward little pause when every song started as we all looked around to see if we were going to stand or not. It wasn’t a big deal, but it disturbed my focus.

I grew up in this church, and I adore the organ. It’s just how some hymns are meant to sound. And having never attended a contemporary service there, I wasn’t used to hearing amplified guitar, flute and drums. It didn’t work for me. It also didn’t work for me when Cool Band Leader decided to get all showy with the music. So people would start singing at different times during his lengthy intro, get confused when he started to jam a little between verses, and stop singing and look around, befuddled, when he’d perform the verses out of order. At one point, I wanted nothing more than to see the guy running the overhead slides to put a “what the %$#@&?!” sign up because they lyrics matched the band only about 60% of the time.

If you’re going to provide lyrics on a screen up front, I guess that’s fine. And if you want to use some sort of song-relevant picture as a background, that’s great too. But you might not want to pick a photo of a cross that’s very dark on one side, and bright white on the other. Then, when you use white letters to print your lyrics, people can only read the ones located on the dark background. This leads to an unfortunate sound-silence-sound-silence cycle as we can read-not read-read-not read your screen. It also makes me laugh until I can’t read any of your lyrics at all, defeating the purpose of the song.

If you decide you’re going to put the program back in order again, just have someone decide to do it – there’s no need for a discussion with every member of the band, the pastor, and the guy in the front row. Seriously.

If you have children come up to participate in part of the program, use a microphone. I thought it was fine that you were just talking to them, but the little old lady who kept yelling “what?” and “we can’t hear!” disagreed.

Then if the children are too shy to read the huge paper you take out of the manger, just read it for them. Don’t wait a full minute, asking each of them to come up, then asking groups, the finally coaxing everyone on the steps. Then trying to sound out the words. And I heard 2 girls read it, and I was sitting near the back, but neither “actor” acknowledged them. Of course, I had 2 people between me and the front of the stage, so sound traveled pretty well. Those people packed into the right side of the church probably missed it.

If you’re Cool Band Leader, don’t make a joke at the children’s expense on needing a literacy program in Sunday School so that they can read a simple paper. It isn’t true, isn’t funny, and really serves to make you look like a jackass to the children, their parents, their grandparents, and a young lady in the back who was trying not to glare at you before, but when you told said joke, decided to make sure you know she thinks you’re an idiot each time you make eye contact (which is a lot, since there are few people sitting in front of her).

So within all these petty complaints and annoyances, you might think I didn’t get anything valuable out of church service this evening. But I’ll remind you that I’m quite educated, and therefore able to weed through useless and irritating distractions, and hone in on the take-home message. I’ve been through some classes with professors I don’t like, but still try to gain some grasp of the concept they’re trying to teach. So what’d I learn today?

The Bible stories must focus on how other people reacted to Jesus’ birth. He was obviously a baby, so he wasn’t trying to teach yet. So we talk about Mary and Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, the angel. Sing songs, read verses, and try to imagine our own reactions when faced with someone so awesomely miraculous. They don’t know what Jesus is capable of, have no proof that His teachings will be so very important. But they celebrate the possibilities, I think. The power of what God could do here on Earth – the lives He could touch, the gifts He might eventually give to us.

We had 2 little ones at my parents’ this evening. My niece, and a cousin’s baby. We’ll see the third little one tomorrow at dinner – he was napping tonight. Looking at them, it’s easy to play games and try to make life easier. Offer snacks and diaper changes when they’re fussy, teach them how far to tip the sippy cup to get the drink to come out at the right speed, watch them play with the Fisher Price balls that go in the little jungle spinning toy or the bubble gum dispenser-type toy. But to consider the possibilities that exist for these 2 girls is kind of amazing. So I like thinking of Christmas that way – the beginning of an incredibly productive, yet painful journey. One that took incredible courage, strength and faith.

The other big moment for me was during the candlelit version of Silent Night. I stared down at the flame on the tip of my white candle. I’d made sure the wick was far enough out of its protective plastic cup so it could be lit as the pastor made his way down the aisle. Then I leaned over to lit Mom’s. I watched the flickering light, looked around at the others as we sang in the darkened sanctuary, then returned my gaze to my own candle.

Spread light into the world, I thought. Love other people, but provide an honest portrayal of who you are – your weaknesses, minor irritations, and major pet peeves. I think we all deal with these traits for a reason – there’s a lesson God wants to teach us from all of this, and I might be a little more energized and strengthed now if I’d been more focused on Him than on the list of things with which I was not impressed. For some reason though, it's important for me to figure work past those things. I notice them, so maybe I'm supposed to note certain minor instances. Or maybe I'm meant to understand something else.

But starting at that tiny flame, even as the wax found a way through a tiny hole in my cup and onto my fingers, I was filled with hope and peace. Though Christ suffered, He’s fine now. There are still infinite possibilities for Him, as there are for us. Just as there’s darkness – exhaustion, irritation, and too much work – there’s light.

I drew my candle deep into the plastic cup to protect it. I didn’t want it to burn out – it was so beautiful and I wanted to watch it for as long as I could. A stray breeze or air from a heating vent could extinguish this tiny representation of hope and peace for me, and I would do all in my power to keep it safe and free from harm. So I stood still and watched it, huddled carefully around it. Looking away from it for just a moment, I noticed the pastor. He had returned to the front of the church after lighting candles. The advent circle was complete – we’d prepared and waited and the time for celebration was near – the church was alight with tiny flames. But when the song was over, he walked briskly down the aisle toward the lobby. He held his candle in front of him, not worried it would blow out, certain of its strength and ability to withstand his motion, stray breezes and a chance sneeze by a worshipper.

Moved, I slowly pushed my candle up and through the plastic cup. I wanted to be brave too. To celebrate the birth of my Lord, to acknowledge that there was a chance things could go wrong in my own life – that some opportunities would bring pain rather than success – and face the future and all its possibilities with confidence. Walk smoothly and briskly with my candle in front of me, unconcerned with the chance that the flame could be blown out. I said a prayer when the song ended – asking for His blessing on everyone inside and outside that church – and carefully blew out my candle before laying it on the tray by the door.

Thank you, I thought as we headed toward the exit. I appreciate so very many things you’ve given me, but the ability to head You speak, if only for a moment through a fleeting thought as I watch a candle burn, and despite my poor attitude during the service, humbles me.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2005


I was 18, a freshman in college, and painfully sure of myself. I was there on scholarship – National Merit Scholars (that’s right – and it shocks me that I waited over a month to introduce that fact here online) went to my undergrad institution gratis. So I was smart, had my life figured out, was making friends, and lived close enough to see my family often.

In fact, I was on my way to see my family then. Pulling off onto a side street and parking behind Aunt & Uncle’s car, I headed toward the house where I spent my first 6 years. My parents decided to move after Brother was born, and bought the house I’m currently sitting in.

They rented the old house for a couple years, then discovered friends of friends who wanted to buy it contract for deed. I don’t understand exactly how things work, and recall that I was young, probably around 9, when this all began. But I saw it as kind of a rent to own arrangement. The Olds would pay my parents each month, and there was a contract where they had to insure and pay taxes on the property, and the couple and their 3 children would live in the old house. After enough payments were made, they would own the property outright.

I think it worked fine for about a year. Then the checks stopped coming. Mom would call, then when the phone was disconnected, would go over to see what was happening. We quickly learned that they were mired in debt, and eventually they stopped paying my parents completely. The last straw for Mom was when he was condescending. We don’t tolerate that well at all in my family.

Our assumption was that since they violated the contract, they would move out, we would sell the house and things would be fine. That seemed the fair way to resolve the situation. But bankruptcy and other legal issues kept them in the house for 8 years when my parents received little, if any, payment. They kept at it though, paying a lovely lawyer who diligently worked at getting the old house back for us.

I never went to court, but it always upset my mom. We never got the results we wanted – they continued to get chance after chance to make payments and tried to put themselves in a more reasonable financial situation. They would lie to the judge outright – claim they had loans, other jobs, alternate sources of income. But when it came time to pay, money never materialized. My parents were relieved when they saw the same judge twice in a row. The third time, he warned, would mean eviction.

The third time had come, and I had arrived at the house to move their things out. My parents understood that they would refuse to leave, and had planned to move their belongings out of the house. I was going to help because I was family, but also because I felt they deserved it. I had been angered on my parents behalf – what gives someone the right to take advantage of such great people?! – and was eager to express some of that irritation.

Until I saw the front lawn, littered after only an hour with bags and boxes full of clothing, bedroom furniture, shoes, and toiletries. A police officer was stationed at the front, and I learned another was located at the side door. I was appalled immediately, stopping to look around, standing still at the enormity of what was happening, until Mom saw me and motioned me inside.

She introduced me to the officer at the door, but I couldn’t make eye contact. We needed the money – I knew that. My parents had bought that house, paid for it over 10 years, made improvements. They deserved compensation when someone else moved in. But to do this? Pack up someone else’s things and put them outside? Where people could see?

I remember the little girl’s room most clearly. I’ve largely blocked the rest of the house – the roaches that moved under the carpet, the stench of the basement where they kept their dogs, the thick grime that coated the kitchen as we packed dishes and food. I remember thinking we should find them a cooler for the perishable items. The fact that their milk could go bad upset me greatly, though it only took a glance outside to see they had bigger problems.

But their youngest child, a girl, was perhaps 5 years younger than I was. She had a pink bedroom set, and her shoes were neatly lined along one wall. A pair of ballet slippers, one pair of dress shoes, brown boots, and pink boots for snowy days. Her clothing all neatly hung or placed in the drawers of her dresser. I think she had a single picture of her with some friends in an inexpensive frame. But everything was lovely.

She was there when the police came to notify them that they had to leave, my mom later told me. The parents weren’t around, and had apparently disregarded the earlier notices that had been posted. So the 2 youngest children, one my age, the other Brother’s age, were home alone. Crying, my mom said, tearing up herself, shocked at the thought of being forced out of their home.

I walked out of the girl’s room after hearing that. I wasn’t able to cope with touching her things – so lovingly cared for – and putting them outside. Instead, as punishment, I went to the basement where the smell of waste stole my ability to breathe, and carried up items I don’t remember save their weight. I then tackled the garage on one corner of the property.

It was repugnant – everything about it. I returned to the dorm, snuck down the hall to my room, and threw the clothes I had worn away. They were old anyway – work clothes worn to a job I thought I wanted to do, but was actually incapable of handling – and I could never have worn them again. Then I showered, spending long minutes crying and trying to remove the smell from my hands and arms, attempting to forget that I had played a role in someone’s horror, and trying to determine if what we had done was right.

Praying always gave me comfort, and continues to do so. But I got stuck on one line – many use trespasses, but our church never had.

“…Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors...”

I helped move Aunt and Uncle today. They built a house out of town, and it’s exquisite. And as I tread across the hardwood floors, put groceries in a stainless steel refrigerator, and lined up shoes they don’t often use in an extra bedroom closet, I thought about the Olds and their little girl. In her 20s now, I hope she’s well. I hope that someone out there gave her the confidence that I have that the world is benevolent, full of good people who want what’s fair and right and kind. That there are infinite possibilities, and that each path has some joyous turns and some rocky climbs.

But I didn’t show her that. And I still wonder if there will come a time when I won’t be forgiven my debts. I certainly don’t deserve to be. But God knows my weakness, understands how very sorry I am, and I’m sure answered my prayer to watch over her and hers and He cares for me and mine. For tonight though, my sore legs and back match a twinge on my conscience, the former from moving today, the latter from a time long ago.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Jack & Jackie - an opinion in progress

Being a woman in the sciences can be difficult. While my particular field has a decent sized female population, I’ve had many classes where I’m the only girl. I’ve also been left out of group lunches or social events, excluded from casual conversations that shift to academic discussions and lead to valuable collaborations.

There are people who expect you to do poorly because you’re female and others who expect you to be extraordinary to prove stereotypes wrong. Most of the time, I feel completely normal – as productive, talented and with as many opportunities as a man might have. But sometimes, especially when I’m having a bad day, it’s just hard.

I think having positive role models are important. Women who take responsibility for their choices, foster healthy relationships with collaborators, encourage younger scientists. And I’ve known many of these women. But there are some people, male and female, who I’m still trying to figure out.

When I started grad school, I met Jackie. She was in her mid-30s, was finishing up a post-doc of her own, had been married for a couple years and was expecting her first child. Jackie was lovely – smart, friendly, helpful, pretty, and had developed a very nice CV. I thought, what a lovely role model – she seems to really have everything together.

I didn’t see Jackie much in my first semester. I’d pass her in the hall and ask how she was feeling, but then returned to my obsession over labs and reports. I happened to see her on the bus as I rode across campus and weaved my way through the crowd until I could reach her. There must have been construction or snow since the ride took an abnormally long time. I quickly determined that her pregnancy had progressed to the constantly uncomfortable stage, and that her professional life wasn’t much cozier.

Post-docs offer many advantages, but a stable medical plan sometimes isn’t one of them. Her boss didn’t have money to pay her while she was on maternity leave – she was funded from grants and her time was up. That sometimes happens – money runs out, grants don’t get renewed, new applications are slow to be processed and someone loses because there’s no way to pay them. Jackie seemed to be in that situation. Her husband was also in the academic world, so he wasn’t exactly setting records with his earning potential, and she worried over their ability to support a family.

I wasn’t too concerned. I was looking at 2 bright, extremely educated people and what good is learning a whole bunch of stuff if you can’t make good decisions? They’ll be fine, I assured myself, and didn’t really think about them again.

The year before I left graduate school, I was sitting a cubicle wall away from Jackie’s husband, Jack. He had taken what I believe was his 4th post-doc position in the lab that she had left when they started having children. Interestingly, she was pregnant with her 4th child at the time. He would startle me with muttered curses throughout the day. It’s not often that you’re working on a figure for your talk and disturbed by explicit phrases you’ve never heard before. But it became normal, albeit irritating, for me.

He would stop by occasionally to talk – I’d inquire after Jackie and the children, then he’d start in on how the world was out to get him. What a paranoid freak. I’d think, trying to formulate some plan of how I could politely look busy so he’d leave. People were taking credit for his work, he wasn’t allowed to write the grants he needed to get funding, professors didn’t like his attitude. I nodded, but more in agreement with the “evil-doers” in our lab.

Jack was a jerk – telling me soon after I’d joined the group that I was taking up funding that could be going to him to support his ever-growing family. How white males were discriminated against as they searched for employment in higher education. How his intellect intimidated his superiors, and they sought to find ways to make him look stupid. At some point, when everyone is unified in their distaste for your antics, I thought as I blocked out the continuing list of complaints, it starts to seem like you’re the problem, not the victim.

John would correct me though. He was a few years ahead of me in his program, but taking his time finishing up. Well-versed in the history of the department and the people therein, he told me that Jack had once been a great guy. Easy-going, bright, convinced that he’d get his break after he put in a bit more time. But as he moved throughout the different departments in the university, never catching a break, he became increasingly bitter and unable to contain his displeasure with the system behind a pleasant façade.

I thought of the couple on and off today. The last I heard, they were planning to move back in with her parents on the west coast. The public aid that I’d heard stories about from Jack before I could escape was evidently not enough to support a 6-person family on a post-doc income. The feeling of being inadequate despite extensive education and subsequent training must have been overwhelmingly difficult.

I watched the little one today. Running around after her, naming objects ad nauseum (Ball? Door? Dog? Blanket? Juice? Cup? Baby? Presents? Tree?), helping her up and down the stairs, spooning up applesauce and yogurt (she doesn’t eat meat), trying to keep her away from Nick (she can hit keys to screw him up that I don't even comprehend), figuring out how to make her nap so I could catch some sleep as well, changing diapers, watching The Brave Little Toaster (NOT a good children’s movie! I was angry and upset several times during my viewing). It’s hard to watch her for a day – let alone be responsible for her full time.

So I imagine Jack and Jackie had a rough time of it. Four children is a lot. When they're all born within my four years of grad school, that's ... well, I don't know what that is. I only saw that their bitter paranoia was hurting them – people didn’t want to hire Jack because all he would speak of is a flawed system. People didn’t want to help Jackie because her life became a litany of how nobody was able to handle Jack’s brilliance and how, though she adored being a mother and had no plans to return to work outside the home, the financial difficulty was overwhelming. They had alienated most of the people they knew personally and professionally, and continued to dig themselves a hole they became increasingly unlikely to escape from.

I probably was, and continue to be, too hard on them. Too convinced that success in the graduate field must lead to great things afterward to believe that sometimes it just falls apart. I wasn’t sorry when the department let Jack go – I was sick of the constant swearing, complaining and printing of 200 freaking resumes when I just wanted my single journal article to get some time on the printer! They became annoying – casualties of a competitive system that can devour the weak. What’s the lesson here? I’m still not sure – perhaps I continue to lack the maturity and perspective to figure it out.

But as I chased the little one today, loving her dearly but desperate for a nap, I decided Jack and Jackie’s situation probably wasn’t as simple as I’d construed it. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. But for now, I’m guarding against my own bitterness – advising myself that I’m never too experienced or educated to learn from someone, that students are a vital piece of this academic puzzle and therefore deserve a great deal of my respect, that faculty members, tenured or not, are stressed and fallible in addition to being innovative and wise. I’m still looking for my place, and that option of turning my back on academia at some future point is an appealing one. But I’m glad I didn’t do it yet. There’s still a lot for me to learn here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Goodness, but I spend a lot of time online. I’m really noticing now that I have to dial in, and watch billable minutes tick by in the corner of my screen. I decided I deserved a laptop from some of my misc. fellowship funding, so I bought mine in June. Actually, on June 1, the exact date the fellowship grant rolled over and I had money to spend, I arrived at the tech store bright and early, parked illegally, and filled out paperwork to bring my shiny new PowerBook home.

I named him Nick (so his full name is Nick Mac – cute, right?!), and have built a rather unhealthy relationship with him. I was home last week, and had been doing some reading when I decided to take a break and see what some people were saying in their lovely little blogs. But the light that brightens and dims on Nick’s side wasn’t on.

“Nick?” I said fearfully. Picking him up and pushing the screen up. Tapping the space bar multiple times, frantically trying to wake him. I plugged him in, then pressed the power button. Firmly. For a long time. Nothing.

So I put him carefully on the table, jiggled the power cord to make sure he was recharging, and sat on the couch. I had my feet flat on the floor, hands folded in my lap, looking solemnly at Nick as he sat silently, no little light to tell me he was sleeping. I was able to wait a full 4 minutes before opening the little silver laptop and pressing the power button again. And Nick came back, albeit without my address book, and let me read blogs, compose my own entries, edit my IRB form – all the critical things which must happen to maintain my normal life.

I smiled at myself as I waited for the log in screen to appear. I quickly sent an email to a friend when Nick was back up and running. I think I have a problem. I wrote. I panicked when Nick wouldn’t start – I felt sick to my stomach thinking about how I wouldn’t be able to write and read and research in my living room like I love to do. So you may have to reply to me care of some sort of Mac dependency rehab program. But I’ll have to find one with excellent wireless internet service.

In fact, rather than curtailing my reliance on Nick, I’ve decided he needs a friend. So I’m planning to buy myself a belated graduation gift. A snazzy little iPod which will back up Nick’s data. Apparently this will also allow me to listen to music, rendering my radio habit obsolete, and watch video. I already watch quite a bit of television so that feature is probably not going to enrich my life. Decrease my productivity, yes. And I’m sure that soon upon receiving it, I’ll have no idea how I was able to live without one for so long.

Here at home, Nick offers some comfort. A place to sit and write – get feelings on paper so they don’t swirl inside, creating an ugly mess. I adore my family, but we’re not always nice people. Quick to judge and deem people lacking, negative thoughts creep in and I often allow them to fester. When I write things out though, I can see them more clearly.
That’s not right, I often think. I don’t really feel that way – there’s another side to this story and it too deserves some room on the page. So as I’m writing something that I feel comfortable publishing, I often figure things out for myself. In the event that I do write something crappy, I either file it away to deal with later, or put it out there to release some of the anger. Either way, I hope I’m presenting something of some value. And as I go over some archives, I think it’s helping me.

While I’m here though, I'm completely in the moment. Watching re-runs of TV shows and laughing hard because I didn’t notice the subtle humor the first time – distracted by email and internet. Cleaning the house without stopping to see what people are saying about the transit strike in New York, though I am curious. Picking up various items and putting them away, wiping away the light coating of dust that’s accumulated since Mom cleaned last week, vacuuming the bits of kibble that dogs (one mine, one Brother's) have scattered throughout the house. Carefully placing play dishes in the play kitchen so the little one is able to scatter them yet again tomorrow when she comes.

I composed entries the whole time I cleaned, updating the mental list of what needed to be wiped free of fingerprints, made piles of mail to be sorted, books to go to the office, shoes to distribute to various bedrooms. But the fleeting thoughts didn’t appear on my screen here – I was busy trying to accomplish something – establish some much needed sparkle in my family’s holiday.

I do what I can – react to the circumstances that have presented themselves on this visit home – and try to do something to improve the situation. I clean so Mom will smile and give me a hug of gratitude. I call Brother to make sure he’s OK, not knowing how to make him smile. I sit in the living room with Dad when he arrives home from work, eager to tell me joke he heard. Today it was a vet joke about “cat scans” and “lab work”. I enjoyed a lot more than yesterday’s dirty blonde joke. And me? I long for my wireless router, and the distractions of reading other people's words rather than being stuck trying to write my own. I miss work, and feeling productive and competent. I crave the quiet – being responsible for nobody’s happiness and well-being but my own.

I do love my parents and fervently wish for Brother to find his path to a happy future. He’s struggling again today, but that’s a different entry. But it’s getting old, and I’m starting to count down the days until I can pack the car, load up the dog, and head back to my place. I wonder if that should make me feel guilty.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Memories and updates

I laid a rose, pale pink like I received for my graduation bouquet, on each grave. They lay side by side in Springdale Cemetery, deep within the grounds near the mausoleum. I had carefully parked my car in the curve of the road, and made my way down the icy hill. I walked right to the graves, only glancing at one wrong marker before finding the one I wanted to visit. Kicking snow off of her side, I knelt in front of the marker and brushed snow, dirt and grass off with a napkin and my bare hands. Then I started to talk, opening my laptop and adjusting it so there wasn't excessive glare on the screen.

Hi. I never know quite what to say when I come here, so I wrote something before I drove over. I thought I could read it to you.

I know I haven’t been here for awhile. It’s sad – missing you, feeling guilty for not thinking of you as often as I once did, moving on without you. I think about you often lately as I watch Mom and Dad play with the little one. Remembering how I would call – yours was the first number I learned. Do you remember? How I’d ask if I could come and play? One of you would always come get me. And I’d bask in the warmth that was always at your house, not understanding that someday it would be gone.

I finished my PhD. Daddy got me the flowers like the ones I brought you. I still don’t have a real job though. I’m doing another bit of training to try to figure out what I want to do. I’m living near [youngest of 2 cousins name], so I went south. Not quite to Florida where you guys went when Mom and Aunt were little, but farther south than here. It’s not so cold there.

I bought a house too. Dad really likes it – he picked it out from the 8 that we looked at. It’s light brick, like Mom and Dad’s, like yours was. I have your pictures up in the hall – the ones taken right around the time you were married. You were both so beautiful then. I keep another picture on my desk at work. Brother was little, so I must have been 5 or so. Grandpa sat on a lawn chair in the back yard and you were leaning over his shoulder, Grandma. I sat on his lap, smiling prettily, but Brother was trying to get down so he could run around.

We’re still like that – I’m content to sit and think, maybe write something on my computer. Remember the little red notebook I’d write stories in? You always read them – told me what I good writer I was. I think I still wanted to write when I was in high school. I decided to go into science instead, but I’m sure you know that. You’ve been watching, right? Brother is always busy - with work, friends, family - always eager to get somewhere else, never content to be still.

We’re doing well. Dad’s seeing doctors after his heart attack, but he’s 5 years out from the angioplasty and doing well. Mom’s knees are bothering her and she still works too hard. She misses you a lot – it broke my heart the first time she called herself an orphan, but I guess it’s true. She still needed you, but she knew you had to go away. I try to listen and support her, but sometimes I don’t do enough. I’m sorry about that.

Aunt sold the house you arranged for her to buy all those years ago, Grandpa. They loved that house, and Uncle didn’t want to move. But they’re getting older too, and wanted a house with less steps. I’m going to help them move in tomorrow, and the girls will bring their husbands and babies for Christmas. William’s named after you, Grandpa. We all still miss you so much.

I put up your Christmas decorations in my new house. Mr. and Mrs. Santa are on my mantle, and that little church you painted for me is at the entrance to my dining room. I put up your china in my kitchen too – the dishes with the wheat pattern and little blue bows. Mom and Aunt say you’d be pleased that they’re being displayed, Grandma. It's my favorite part of the house - it reminds me of you, and some of the things I hope to pass on to my children, should I ever have them.

And I still read – all the time. Remember how you’d keep books for me in the hall closet? I have shelves in most rooms, and other containers in the rest of the house – all holding books. We read to the little one too.

We still go to your church, Grandma. It reminds me of you in a warm way. I watch some of the old ladies and think about the tiffs you’d sometimes have with them. I get that same pinched look in my face when someone irritates me. Oh and I still use the trick when you tell someone to go to hell but smile the whole time so they don’t know you’re serious. I’m always serious.

Brother is having some problems. He has an adorable little girl – she’s walking and starting to talk. She waits until she’s ready to do things though – you can see her thinking about words before she opens her mouth. He married a twit. I never have liked her – she’s one of those useless fluttery girls. Not like us at all. She’s pretty, I guess, but the little one looks like us. Dark hair and her eyes are still getting darker. They’ll be the same deep brown yours were soon, Grandma. The same as Mom's and mine and Brother's. The twit says she’s leaving Brother, and I personally think that’d be for the best. But the thought of losing the little one is breaking Mom’s heart. So that’s hard right now.

Selfishly, I wish you were here to cuddle all of us, and assure us that we’ll all be fine. I always believed it when you said it. I’m trying to accept it now, but I’m not sure I do. I don’t have the perspective you did – watching family members get married and altering the dynamic we have going. Knowing that things change but the core of what we have remains strong and resilient.

I remember you though. How much you loved us and took care of us. How proud you’d be of everything we’ve done, just because we did it. I’m sure you’d worry over us, pulling us close and patting our backs, offering comfort and support because we’re yours. We’ll be OK – we all had wonderful examples of how to build and care for a family in you. And I’m glad you’re together – I know you missed him after he was gone, Grandma. That you were ready to rest too – moving on to be with God and Grandpa. I do miss you, and I love you so so much.

I hope you’re celebrating up there – the joy of having more of our attention than usual for the holiday season, hoping that we take care of each other a little more and laugh a little harder than usual. I love you.

The leaves on the pink rose over Grandpa’s name flutter in the slight breeze. I cleared the snow off of Grandma’s side and sit, nearly numb, as I read from the screen of my laptop to them. I’m crying – watching the tears drip off my face and onto my coat. The United States Air Corps emblem is clean, and the pink roses I left mirror the ones in the center of the marker that surround the words together forever. And as they are, my family is as well – all connected with memories and blood. United in our desire to remember these 2 amazing people from whom we’ve come. But it’s nice to sit here alone – cold, but peaceful. But it’s time to go.

I pressed kisses to fingers that had gone numb from the cold and then touched both names on the bronze gravestone. Then I carefully found a path up the hill to my car, started it and waited for it to warm up, gazing back on the resting places of 2 people who were dearest to me in my childhood. I look down at the ring that encircles the middle finger of my right hand – the only ring I wear and one I never remove. It was Grandma’s engagement ring and serves as a reminder of the greatness from which I came. The love, the warmth, the dreams, and now the tears as I continue to grieve for Grandpa after 20 years, and for Grandma after 9.

God, bless all of us, I think, as I pull away and weave my way through the cemetery toward the exit. Let things work out and allow us to enjoy our blessings and forget about our troubles for awhile. Grandma and Grandpa would have liked that.

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Monday, December 19, 2005


I stood in the corner of a large lobby, sipping bad white wine and trying to think of a topic of conversation for my date. He could best be described as nondescript, I decided. Light brown hair, light brown eyes, normal-looking features. Not overly attractive, but certainly not repulsive either. He didn’t even have on a sexy black suit – it was a dull grey with a navy tie. He’d studied some sort of agricultural discipline at a large Midwestern university, and I don’t know much about farming. My feeble attempts at that conversation were given cursory answers. So I tried to discuss the opera he’d chosen – didn’t work either. So I looked around, tugged at the hem of my dress and wondered how many times I could excuse myself to go to the restroom in a 20 minute span.

Intermission is hell on dates like this. At least when you’re engrossed in a show, you can enjoy yourself. Forget that you have little in common with someone who in all probability is a lovely man. Try to block out the fact that you battled for any sort of conversation at dinner, then made the drive to the theatre in silence. Enjoy the spectacle – the music, the costumes, the happenings inside the audience.

But intermission brings the tension of having to deal with your escort. Feeling responsible that he’d bought tickets and dinner, knowing with all certainty that you won’t see him again. I waited, glancing upward at regular intervals, waiting for the lights to flicker to let us know that we could return to our seats and yet again pretend to read the program. Then the next half of the show would start and the evening would be one step closer to being over. Minutes would ease by until I was home again, out of my dress and stockings, and into comfortable sleepy pants and a t-shirt. I sighed, finished my wine, and smiled at my date. He was looking around too, poor guy, undoubtedly as eager as I to wrap this evening up.

I’m currently in another intermission. Seated not in the corner of my own couch, comfortably cushioned with beige and white striped pillows propping my computer on my lap, but tucked into the corner of a brown and tan checked sofa next to a brightly colored Christmas tree at my parents’ house. We kept my little niece today – ran some errands, played with her new pre-Christmas present kitchen set, finished up cookie trays for the neighbors. Then a phone call came – it was my sister-in-law, who we’ll call Cindy. She had left work early, she told my mom, and was coming to get my niece.

One of her friends had told her that Brother had tried to kiss her. And Cindy then had no choice but to pack her things and move back in with her parents. She had taken her clothes, she explained, and wanted the little one so that she could proceed with her plan. She spent an hour with my mom and sobbed in the bedroom while Dad and I watched “The Search for Eden” on the Discovery Channel (good stuff, by the way).

She believed that he had cheated on her, and I don’t know that to be true or false, and had gotten completely dramatic over the whole situation. Refusing to talk to Brother, she decided to upset my parents and my niece by creating a larger mess than she started with. I rolled my eyes when I went to get some good white wine – “my friends wouldn’t lie to me! They love me!” “He told me he loved the little one! But he did this to her!” “He can’t live without me, and he deserves to suffer!”

They’d gotten together, Cindy and Brother, when he was still dating someone else. In fact, Brother has always started new relationships while firmly involved in old ones. So why Cindy thought she could build a life with him and not have to face some infidelity issues speaks strongly to her conceit and stupidity to me. To her credit, Brother is smart and incredibly charismatic. Even I want to believe him when I’m quite sure he’s lying. But Cindy got pregnant at exactly the time she decided not to continue her studies at the community college. Her parents were not pleased with her leaving school, but she convinced them that her new vocation of motherhood was a worthy goal.

So she and Brother got married and had a beautiful, smart, sweet little girl. They haven’t been happy – my parents tease me that they fight every time I’m home. Whether over money or drinking or cheating, there’s always something that upsets one of them and builds into a complete clusterfuck of epic proportions. Screaming matches, bouts of tears and countless conversations as the families of these 21-year old children try to patch things back together.

So this is just another chapter in a continuing saga as I wait with my parents and my dog in the living room, waiting for Brother to arrive for Act 2 of this little drama. And yet again I’m reminded of my dislike of intermissions – where people who aren’t actors in the show have to make conversation – speaking of the work they’re viewing or making some sort of small talk, fixing dinner or having drinks – while they wait impatiently for the next act to begin. Because only then can the evening be over, a fight hopefully ending in some sort of reasonable resolution, and we can head off to bed.

But for now, we wait. Dad’s fixing a toy the little one broke today, carefully taking apart the truck and poking at the mechanical device inside. Mom’s sorting through the mail – she’s been through it 3 times so far as I sit here and type. Will Brother go home and drink himself into a stupor? Forcing us to leave the sanctuary here and confiscate keys so he doesn’t make yet another foolish decision and drive while drunk? Or will he invade the quiet here and charge it with righteous indignation and protestations of innocence? Whatever the outcome, and whatever form the upcoming drama takes, for now we try to keep busy as we wait for this portion of the evening to end and the next to begin. All of us already longing for sleep and trying to gather our resources to deal with what’s to come.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Publications, part 4: If at first you don't succeed, revise and try again

We’re down to the last 3 papers – the ones that I’ve written myself, babied through other author revisions, reformatted, formed countless figures and tables to aid in reading the text, and made large strides in understanding my work by clarifying it for others. There are 2 manuscripts on my thesis project. One details my method in a small sample – something like 22 datasets. There was some optimization, and many areas were exciting and encouraging, but it contained little in the way of true validation. And that’s a problem. I’ve done simulations, attempted ways around the lack of data, but realized early on that I’d be fighting an uphill battle. But I believe in this work – I think it’s important and innovative and think that if someone has the means to do some additional testing and application, I’d like to let them know how I think it should work.

This paper originated in my second year of study, and was abandoned after only one submission. Taking lessons from that experience, the description of my novel technique was much more concise and clear. But it was rejected from another 2 journals in its new form.

The second rejection came immediately before I boarded the plane for an industry job interview. I don’t know how I can describe the feeling of a rejection when you’re praying for something positive. It’s crushing – demoralizing and awful. I read over the reviews after I landed at my destination – taking 10 minutes before catching a cab, needing to understand the rejection – pick at the scab that had barely formed over my tender feelings on the 2 hour plane ride. It was hard – one author was clearly pushing his methods and criticizing some fair but very minor points of my overall work. I felt that some additional explanation would clarify the issue at hand for the readers. But the priority score was not adequate to merit a second look by that particular journal.

The third journal accepted the paper though, asking for some large-scale rewrites but without demands for additional data. It was a low-tier journal – I don’t know that I’ve ever read a paper from it. And I am completely realistic about the audience for this paper. My feeling was that it had to go out there.

My impression is that people in my field are quite prolific in terms of putting material out there, and it’s not like there are a shortage of journals to choose from. So, at the advice of my advisor, I continued to push. Sadly picking up the pieces from negative reviews, wallowing in feeling pathetic and picked on, then regrouping and trying to create a paper that would be better received. So my first paper found a home, and I found a journal that has a very great deal of my affection and gratitude.

The second paper is more of a case study. It takes some reasonable results from my method and compares them to another relatively new technique with promising results. There are clues as to the important questions that my work will have to answer. But if I had a sample size issue with the first paper, I have a catastrophe with the second. Again, I believe in the work – I think it’s novel and important and credit it with my job search success. But is it publishable? I’m starting to have questions on that point. I’ve been through 2 rejections on it – one from a journal that requested the paper in a different form and was incredibly encouraging in terms of the quality and importance of the work. But the resulting case study was rejected, and now is awaiting the assignment of yet another set of reviewers. It’s at a moderate impact factor journal – around a 2.1, I think. So I’ll see what happens there, and reevaluate its future in case of another rejection.

The last, and the most disappointing and baffling of the three, is based upon the work I did with Carrie. I saw some holes that an additional experiment would fill, and collected the data, analyzed it, saw what I expected and thought I would, and thought I had a lovely little paper. Some reasonable experimental data validated in a somewhat novel way merited a try at a high impact factor journal. It failed there, which in itself isn’t that bad, but there were 3 reviews. One very positive, noting 2 very minor issues that a single sentence would have corrected. The other was very negative, noting multiple problems that were the result of not reading the manuscript carefully. I asked several people who had read the pre-submission paper if they saw any problems in similar areas – thinking I may have been vague or worded something awkwardly. They assured me that the questioned sections were quite clear. I truly believe the reviewer didn’t exercise proper care when reading my paper.

The third reviewer was fair – noting positive points and refuting some of the issues reviewer 2 had discussed. But his opinion of the paper wasn’t high enough to merit publication. So I fixed the problems they found, noting that all but one were quite feasible. The only issue I didn’t repair was based upon the entire validation theory that we had. I thought that Carrie’s work was adequate, and even designed, to provide enough information to validate new studies. It took several conversations and my personally reviewing all of our claims, making new outlines, examining every statement for speculation vs. what we could prove. It was an excellent exercise and created what I believe to be a cute little paper. It’s not earth shattering, but it could help someone out. I submitted it to its second journal about a month ago, and expect to hear within the next several weeks.

I think it’s important for me to review all of this. To look around and think about where I am, how I got here and where I hope to go. I don’t think the academic world, or any world, is all about accomplishments. Sometimes it’s about lessons learned – building character, furthering your understanding, allowing people to figure out their own paths, even knowing that sometimes they won’t act in your best interest.

The cool thing about publishing science in some sort of public forum is that people can think about it with me. The same is true for my thoughts in this space. Charlie can say that other people experience authorship problems as I did with Kermit. That’s unfortunate – giving comfort on one hand that I’m not alone in handling a situation badly or in allowing myself to be pushed aside, and giving me confidence that the stories, mine included, add to the collective good of the community. One of my great problems is that I allow myself to feel like a failure when I’m experiencing some situations that occur with many people.

I don’t consider myself to be a great heroine in all of this. I’ve made mistakes, been foolish in some cases, mean-spirited in others. To review my graduate career, and even my post-doc so far, is not to be completely proud. I don’t look back over every day and smile over how mature and lovely a woman I’ve become. Some days I suck – I make bad choices, get lazy, and let people down.

I don’t pretend that my publication record is stellar – I don’t look over the CV and see triumphs, although there may be an element of that. I also see areas where I need to improve and some problems I continue to ponder where some outside input would be completely welcome. I also hope that some of my experiences – the kindness shown by others, the problems with some colleagues, work with friends, and the times I’ve stumbled with each of my own first author papers – might be read by someone who’s discouraged. Maybe she’s feeling isolated because she failed a test, or depressed over a poor performance at a conference, or irritated over lack of interest in her work. In any case, perhaps knowing that I’ve gone through my own challenges and made it to a place where I feel content, even knowing I’ll face greater problems in the future, is something worthwhile.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Publications, part 3: Stage presence

I went 2 years without having much going on in the publication department. And that’s not good. We had trouble getting data for my thesis project, and while 3 different people said they could fix it, none of them had any luck. I started to get worried after my prelim when each of my committee members told me what a great presentation I’d made, but that the project was huge and it would be difficult to complete. One of them approached me, patted on the shoulder and said “You’ve set yourself quite a challenge. Let me know if I can help – you’re going to need it.”

So I did what you might suspect I’d do if you’ve gotten to know me at all here. I panicked. I quickly emailed students who had graduated to get an accurate assessment of my situation. I had learned quickly that they were observant and honest and would tell me whether I was in a bad situation. I was clear from the beginning – I needed a first-author publication. I was ending my third year of grad school and hadn’t exactly been prolific in the realm of writing.

Whether she felt sorry for me or truly needed the help in her post-doc research, Carrie offered me a solution. She had a multi-faceted project and was committed to doing a tremendous amount of analysis as well as responsible for designing and perfecting the method. I knew she was stressed – we were a matched pair in terms of freaking out when considering the tasks we faced. But we balanced each other – listening to her reminded me that I too overreacted to circumstances that ended up being fine.

There was a large body of work that could be done remotely, she said. If I could take over certain pieces of the project, she would have time open to do some optimization that had been delayed. I happily accepted, unconcerned with putting off working on some major sections of my project. Apart from the lack of data, I was stalled – not knowing how to bring everything together in some sort of cohesive unit. So I stared at all my data a lot – an organizational nightmare and a methodological question mark. I knew where I wanted it to go – where I still hope it ends up. But I had no view of the path to get there.

So a distraction seemed in order. Carrie was concerned that my advisor would see a problem with my spending work hours on other projects, especially those centered at another institution. Unwilling to let a chance at a publication slip away, especially when my future in print was extremely uncertain in my current environment, I decided to work from home. Putting in the requisite hours at the office – doing reading, helping younger students, serving on various committees in the graduate school as well as my own department – I would go home to more work.

My fourth, and last, year in grad school was by far my most productive. I did eventually tell my advisor that I was doing another project and was warned that he expected progress on my work for him as well. I agreed, and since he saw no problem with my work ethic, I was allowed to complete parts of Carrie’s project. We talked relatively often toward the end of the work – exchanging up to 20 emails each day, several phone calls, and faxes. I felt it was collaboration at its best.

We knew each other’s strengths and used resources – journal subscriptions, software licenses, contacts – not only to make the work possible, but to increase efficiency. I had several ideas that aided the projects tremendously. It was, I thought as I was exhausted from lack of sleep and mental resources, the perfect solution. I had taken primary responsibility for one project, and had contributed largely to a second. In addition to the publications that would result, I had found an idea that would eventually complete my thesis research. The initial idea that Carrie had refined could be taken in a different direction and applied to a completely different idea. Thrilled with the prospect of solving all my problems – the lack of publications and lack of a clue on where to go with my project – in 5 months of work, I was eager to wrap up with this project and move on.

After writing all but the discussion, Carrie and I faced a problem. We didn’t have enough of a grasp on the literature to make a complete determination of what our results meant to the community. Understanding this, her post-doctoral advisor suggested having well-established authors in the field write the papers. It would give them initial acceptance where young authors might be greeted with some skeptism, he reasoned. And faced with the daunting task of reading another 100 papers, understanding them and creating some reasonable explanation, I decided that was a more reasonable course of action. I had stepped outside my comfort zone and learned a lot. But I was willing to let someone else be responsible for the paper in order to publish in a more respected journal and allow the data, which I found to be compelling, to find the audience the suggested author would provide.

So it was with some regret that I passed along my text, graphs and tables to another remote location. I once again completed revisions and repeated some analyses for another first author. Had I not been confident in my thesis work, which was moving forward quickly and with great initial success, I might have clung to this work. I would have written a decent paper, and been accepted to a mediocre journal. It seemed selfish though – a decision that would serve only myself when the community would undoubtedly benefit from a beautifully-written paper from a different author. So I’m pleased when I look at the next 2 papers on my list. The first, one that I guided and felt complete ownership of until a time when I gave it away, was met with a great deal of approval. We completed some minor revisions after review and went on to publish easily. Likewise with my other contribution to Carrie’s work.

So there are 2 papers where my name sits second. I’m pleased with both of them – I felt I did good work, made good decisions and gained some experience with concepts and people outside my major focus of interest. In addition, they are in the strongest journal of the ones I have listed. And they've been widely read and discussed in a little niche field, which pleases me to no end.

It was a critical lesson for me as well – someone knows how you should solve many of the problems you encounter in your research. So listening to talks and working on projects which may seem irrelevant to your own work can yield amazing benefits. If you keep half a mind on what you want to know and let the other half be engrossed by new concepts, you’re sometimes able to bring disparate ideas together to create some sort of novel solution.

The other point from these 2 papers is that Carrie is incredible. A wonderful friend, we’ve laughed and talked over countless hours since I met her. Always roommates at conferences, and the donor and recipient of many silly emails sent only to make a friend laugh, this project gave me a way to relate to her experiences after leaving grad school, and gave us a reason to keep in close touch – to provide a continued support system and give each other breaks, share contacts and ideas, and provide some much needed impressive text to the “peer-reviewed publications” sections of each of our CVs.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Publications part 2: It's not easy...being mean

“Do you have some time?”

I glanced up at a female faculty member – recently tenured, she was the darling of the department. Smart, well-liked, well-funded. I smiled and answered that of course I had some free time. I had wanted to work with her – understanding the importance of networking even within the department.

I was ready to tackle the research world that first summer. I had been admitted to the top school on my list, and allowed to do research with the group that most strongly appealed to me. Life was good.

Then classes started, and killed my spirit. I had no time to do research, and all the work I had put into selecting a group felt useless. I had this dream of how graduate school would be and this was not it. So when someone I liked and respected offered an opportunity during the winter of my first year, I decided to let classes slide a bit to have a chance to work with her.

There was a man who worked in our group. Not one of the usual suspects – faculty, student or post-doc – but someone less predictable in his motives and goals. He has a voice like Kermit the frog. The voice, his lack of higher education and qualifications, and his overall demeanor made me scoff at the idea that he was dangerous to my career.

She asked if I would assist Kermit with a minor project. Though disappointed I wouldn’t work directly with her, I was basically familiar with how this research should be done, and she thought that picking up a few additional skills would give me a good start at collaborations. Kermit had started with the work, she explained, then was sidetracked with clinical duties. So this would be an excellent opportunity for me to contribute to the overall research group.

So I did it – analyzed the data, made some figures, moved the results around so they were available. Then I asked the professor what to do, and she in turn went to Kermit, who happened to be her husband. That’s right – Kermit was married to the darling, and while it turned my stomach a little bit – the blatant nepotism of allowing someone ill-equipped to do a job that should have gone to a student or faculty member, there was little recourse.

Since I didn’t see a way out of the project at this point, I ran many more analyses at Kermit’s request. Over and over – changing small parameters and having him view results to “see what looked good.” In the hands of a scientist, there would have been a plan – some reasonable course of action that would or would not lead to publishable material. But in the hands of a husband, it was a fishing expedition – a grueling task of guess and check that eventually resulted in enough data for a low impact factor publication.

I had been warned, gently and with humor, from the more senior students that Kermit would take first authorship. Any sort of contribution on his part resulted in excessive credit for fear of offending his wife. So the days of having ownership of a project and a subsequent career boost were over, but I was fine with that. Continually having things handed to you fosters weak character, right? A second author paper from my first year of graduate work was a lovely prospect for me.

But Kermit wasn’t smart enough to write the paper. He asked me for help, but I was in the middle of exams and not exactly familiar with how you put these things together. The experiment design was his, and I had written the methods and results. In terms of discussion, well, it wasn’t my idea to do the study. Normally, when you design something, you have some sort of reason for it. But apparently in the mind of Kermit, you just start something, have your wife find someone to finish it, then and only then wonder why you ever did it in the first place.

So he asked a friend to give him some advice on the paper, and was aided in literature searches and the formation of some reasonable discussion. I viewed the draft, made some vital corrections on the methods. I also corrected the spelling of my name, placed rightfully second since I had done a vast majority of the work. But the idea and experiment design were his, and he had the first author position with my blessing.

Many months later, he asked me to make some revisions that had been requested. I began studying gender effects and found some papers that described a reasonable method of answering some reviewer questions. Pleased that I had redeemed myself after my initial lack of input on the discussion section, I handed text and tables over to Kermit. He dismissed me with a quick thank you.

I complained to the senior member of the group – a man whose talent was equaled only by his humor. I remember him smiling at me, and putting his arm around my shoulders.

“I’d ask to see the revised paper in total.” He said, not unkindly. “You’re not where you thought you were in author order.”

I assured him that he was incorrect, but later sat at my computer, looking at the title page of the revised manuscript. It had taken me 3 emails and a personal visit to receive it, and I now understood why. His friend, a well-established faculty member, was now the second author. So I was bumped to the third author position, and not until I saw the reviewed manuscript was I even aware of it.

The lesson here is that just as there are great people – those who are established and eager to help further the careers of others – there are slimy, insecure frogs who will take credit for your work, present it at meetings and publish it, continuing to move you further down on the list of authors without your consent or knowledge.

Being third author is fantastic, and I’m proud of my other contribution at that level. I also appreciate that collaborations are naturally tricky. That’s why it’s best to be clear on what the responsibilities are, who has ownership of the work, and the expectations of the contributors. Perhaps I let Kermit down by being less the helpful with writing certain sections of the initial draft. Or maybe when you’re in a position where you’re not qualified to do your job, let alone gain promotions, you feel the need to assert some dominance over students. I continue to believe that I got screwed on this paper – when you look at workload and critical facets of the project, I did the most work. If we were clear on how the author order would play out, I would have politely extricated myself from the project much earlier. At the very least, I was owed an explanation of why the authorship had changed.

But when there are political lines that won’t be crossed, everyone gets screwed. Kermit was ridiculed, and I joined in wholeheartedly after this fiasco. If he was smart enough to be able to find his car in the parking lot after work, he knew that students and faculty alike thought very little of him. And his wife knew he was sullying her reputation as well. But students got picked off, one by one, starting far before I joined the group and continuing on to the present, to provide the skill and time to complete work, which was then taken back and published by Kermit.

I wanted to do something about it – file complaints, have meetings, make the professor aware of the crap she had created. But I was warned multiple times to leave it alone – that I wouldn’t be asked to work with him again, andLink retribution was predicted if I tried to mess with a system that had created Kermit’s career, built off of naïve students’ work.

So I didn’t. This is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone outside my family. My parents felt that I should do something or tell someone so another student wouldn’t be disillusioned. I was scared – still am, or I wouldn’t have hesitated to publish this story last night – that my career might be harmed if I tried to fix what I see as a bad situation. But I saw, courtesy of ScienceWoman, this advice to graduate students. Among the first things is to assume that nobody cares about you and to expect the worst. This taught me both things - sometimes people will screw you over with your long-term best interests in mind, and sometimes out of insecurity. Whatever his reasons, “mean” is the kindest adjective I can come up with for Kermit. And looking at my second publication, my first from my graduate career, I see bad decisions. Some belonged to the faculty member, Kermit was responsible for others, and some were mine.

I someday hope to be successful, and will therefore be responsible for younger colleagues. In furthering my career, I hope I never make someone feel abused in their contributions. So maybe that’s the lesson I needed to learn. Or maybe Kermit finds it pretty darn easy to be mean after all.