Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Troublesome Shoes

Mom sends me email when Dad does something funny. He often fails to see the humor in his behavioral missteps, and is sometimes offended when people laugh at him. So when Mom can’t find a private moment to call, I’ll get a note from her. As I shake with giggles in my house, I picture her laughing at her computer at home. I love those moments.

She recently sent a message that contained 2 anecdotes, both of which I adored. The second one revolved around a new pair of flip flops. The cold Illinois winters fail to lend themselves to open shoes, and his favorite pair were somehow lost between this summer and last. She picked up a new pair and he was wearing them one evening.

Mom was heading down the hall toward the bedrooms from the kitchen and stopped to find Dad standing in the middle of the living room, staring at his feet.

“Are you OK?” She asked, standing in the doorway. She said she barely restrained laughter when she realized there was tread on the bottom of his new shoes. When he tried to walk, the rubber grooves would open, then close around the carpet, rendering poor Dad motionless as his shoes clung to his current spot.

“I’m stuck.” He told her, continuing to frown at his new footwear. “And now my toes hurt.”

She said she started to laugh, then stopped when he glared at her. After gathering her composure, she offered the idea that he could take the shoes off and walk about freely. He very seriously considered her suggestion, nodded, then removed his feet from the tricky sandals. He pronounced his dislike for them and walked from the room, leaving them determinedly clinging to the carpet in the middle of the floor.

I’m not sure the humor translates if you haven’t met my dad. But I think it’s hysterical and I actually have a point to make with the story.

I glanced over my shoulder yesterday when Dawn’s cell phone rang for the fifth time. She was seated at her desk and intercepted my questioning look.

“I know who it is.” She said. “I’m not answering it.”

“OK.” I said, curious but accepting. I avoid phone calls a lot – I don’t like the phone.

“It’s EB.” She offered after I’d turned back to my desk. I checked on the data I had running and swiveled my chair back to face her. When she didn’t elaborate, I cocked my head.

“Problems?” I asked, dreading the answer. In fields such as mine, it is vital to be extremely collaborative. As post-docs, we generally have a number of mentors. There are two men besides Boss that monitor my progress. One is Dr. Icing (so named for this post). The other has remained unnamed because we rarely speak. I do work with many of the faculty in his department though and he keeps tabs on my work.

Dawn is working on the project Winnie started. If you recall, Winnie was very unhappy before she died. While part of it was likely the typical postdoctoral angst – I’m not good/smart/motivated/talented/etc. enough – she also was overwhelmed with responsibilities. She worked between two labs – ours and EB’s – and basically ran EB’s. She was in charge of all paperwork – applications, revisions, publications that didn’t contain her name as an author, trained new students, taught some classes and was expected to complete an extensive research project that collaborated between the two labs. If it's not clear, I deeply resent that EB took advantage of her. So you might bear in mind that I'm hardly a reliable source - I have no use whatsoever for the woman.

I therefore mentioned to Dawn upon her arrival in January that it might be wise to watch her commitments early on. Winnie mattered to me and I didn’t voice my concerns strongly enough last summer. When she said she was working nearly constantly, I didn’t express strongly enough that it might not be healthy. Instead, I wallowed in guilt that I wasn’t working nearly constantly. At the time, the batteries had been removed from my pager – I didn’t want to answer to anyone as I hid in my house for days on end. I hated returning phone calls and if I found that avoiding them for a few days generally made people give up. I wasn’t doing much work at all, putting forth the minimum effort required to avoid my kindly boss going through an awkward conversation about disciplinary action.

I find it lovely that things turned around for me. That the world of academic research can nearly crush a person, yet also contains environments where one can rest and heal and take time before trying again. I now answer pages promptly. I can’t remember the last time my stomach clenched with panic upon hearing my cell phone ring. I go to work, I’m making progress, I’m proud of what I’m doing lately. It’s nice. It's not constant sunshine and it still sucks (a lot) sometimes. But it is better than it was.

Anyway, back to Dawn. She apparently uses my avoidance strategy herself. EB had been out of town, I was told, and during her absence, Dawn was expected to handle a number of lab responsibilities.

“It would be fine,” she ranted, “if it worked both ways. But they’ve come out and told me that they wouldn’t help me with my project! So why should I be expected to help with everyone else’s stuff?! It’s a one or two way street. You can’t refuse to help and expect me to assist you in return. It’s not fair!”

I nodded – in both agreement and sympathy – but expected that she would eventually buckle and do the work. It’s what I’d have done. Hell, I still deal with great inconvenience to work on Project A when there is absolutely no benefit to me. It’s a job that should be earning an undergrad some extra cash, but because Boss asked me to work with VIMD and I’m good at organization and communication, I continue to do this lame project in addition to coping with an increasingly full research calendar. I might gently complain sometimes, but I’ll always back down and do as I’m told. I wouldn’t want to cause problems, after all. Especially when Boss has been so wonderful to me. He doesn’t enjoy conflict, so I make sure things run smoothly.

Dawn gave more details, then went to check her messages.

“She’s been avoiding calls for days?” Ken clarified, glancing up from the notes he studied after Dawn left.

I nodded. And worried. I don’t like the idea of someone going through mental anguish because work is too stressful or difficult. But Dawn is rather strong – I decided she’d be fine and went about my day.

I was sitting in the office alone this afternoon. She walked in, put down her bag and sighed. I turned around to ask how she was, assuming she’d been in EB’s lab that morning and that everything was fine.

“We’re meeting at 3.” She told me. “Boss, EB and me.”

“Good.” I said cautiously. “It’ll be good to get everything cleared up.”

“No.” She said. “EB told me – after calling 4 times yesterday – that she wouldn’t meet with both of us. I could meet with her alone or not at all.”

“Really?” I said, a bit surprised but not shocked. You don’t screw with some PIs. They get offended and superior and there must be bowing and scraping to make things right.

“I told her I wasn’t comfortable meeting without Boss. When Jill told him about it (Our secretary has been keeping track of these goings on with Dawn), he called EB and asked if we could all get together to sort this out. She told him I’d been uncooperative, insubordinate and unhelpful. That I should have met with her long before now and that maybe I should find another lab in which to collaborate.”

“Wow.” I said before I could stop myself. I was impressed and fascinated – even at my worst behavior, I’d never been reprimanded so.

“So,” she continued, “I told Boss that I’d been responsible for all my own training. That they hadn’t been helpful at all to me and I didn’t feel that I should sacrifice my own well-being to help with other projects that shouldn’t involve me. If she wants someone to run her lab, she should hire someone. It wasn’t fair to Winnie – from what I’ve heard from you and others – and I won’t be part of it. So I’m making copies of emails that contradict what she’s saying. I’ve made notes on what’s been done so far.”

I frowned at her, bewildered. We are post-docs. They are distinguished professors. If we’re treated badly or worked too hard or paid too little, what of it? If our new flip flops cling to the carpet as we try to walk across the living room, we are stuck and our toes hurt. That’s just how it is.

My advice on how to be polite and apologetic and sweet didn’t seem to fit with her plan so I didn't offer it. It seemed like she was going to fight instead of backing down. But it failed to make sense to me. Fighting is scary – she’ll make people mad and she’ll likely end up losing and she’ll have to start a project over – losing months of work, she’ll need to find another lab in which to collaborate, Boss might be disappointed. I don’t want to fight again – the defense experience took it out of me. I tried and lost and eventually things turned out OK. I felt sick just thinking about her trying to battle EB.

“What are you going to do?” I asked quietly.

“I want to leave her lab.” She replied, going to her desk and organizing the copies she’d made of emails and schedules and notes. She wasn’t going to defend her work. She was going to attempt to leave a bad situation. The shoes weren’t good – stupid things keep getting stuck on the carpet – so she was taking them off.

Like poor, sweet Dad, it wouldn’t have occurred to me. But I had to acknowledge that it made sense. If the shoes don’t work, don’t stand there and stare at them, hoping they somehow change and stop holding on to the carpet and hurting your toes. Take the suckers off and find some better flip flops! So I bit back my questions and watched her flip through her papers silently. What if Boss doesn’t back you up? I kept thinking about it. I love Boss – I don’t want to test his loyalty or priorities. I want to believe he cares about us and works in our best interests. Putting it to the test didn’t work with Advisor. I desperately don’t want to know if Boss would let us down. I don’t think he would, but I don’t have confidence in it either.

“I think you’re brave.” I told her and she shrugged and smiled as she gathered her things, her hands shaking. "And I'm so sorry you have to go through this."

"Me too." She sighed. "I didn't want to wait until so late in the day to have the meeting - just get it over with. But I slept until noon today." I smiled with the knowledge that I do that too. When stress gets overwhelming I sleep a tremendous amount, wondering why I'm not doing more to prepare for a talk or meeting or test instead of napping so freaking much. Perhaps we're all more similar than we think, I decided. We fight when we see no other option and the battle seems important. And if people are pleased for us and proud of us for doing so, that's lovely.

“You could pray for me.” She said as she walked out the door to meet Boss so they could go to EB’s office.

“Consider it done.” I replied and I have prayed for her. Somehow though, I think that someone like Dawn has wonderful things in store for her. In her quest for just and fair treatment, her belief in her capabilities and strengths, and her refusal to buckle under because it would be easier, she appears quite formidable to me.

1 comment:

EA said...

I love your story, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, it had me rolling on the floor laughing, my husband does the same sort of thing. Metaphorically, I get it because, while in the physical world I don't stand around being stuck to the carpet, in my inner world, I do. I can get really stuck in my own mental boxes...it find it really debilitating and frustrating.

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