Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What I know

  1. My cell chemokinase surface receptor of choice mediates angiogenesis in addition to invasiveness. This is a good thing for trying to explain some of my results. I think.
  2. Writing a book is hard. Editing said book is much easier and the novel is becoming quite readable. I think.
  3. Spider webs catch gnats. Or so said the pest guy when he arrived despite my telling the girl at the office that I didn't want him to come. Pest guy said I had to pick my poison. He laughed when I told him I desperately wanted the spiders to repopulate and noted that they'd call me soon to see how it was going. Unless the gnats become violent, I think my situation will likely be the same.
  4. One can develop the ability to catch and kill gnats by slapping one's hands together. I'm now awesome at this.
  5. Chienne begs for attention after barking fiercely at men who arrive to service my air conditioner. She sits, and waves her paws in the air in front of her chest. I've had dogs sit pretty, but this one is the first one who throws her paws around while doing so.
  6. I yell fiercely at stupid, large dogs who try to bite Chienne on the neck three times while we are taking a walk. She's fine (she didn't even growl until the third time, confused about what was happening), but I will call animal control on this family if that dog is loose again. It's way to aggressive to be unleashed in this neighborhood.
  7. I have been having bad dreams lately after a long stretch of pleasant sleeping conditions. I keep reading that people don't want to read about dreams and since I'm one of the biggest offenders in telling dream stories, I won't bore you. But I could.
  8. After ignoring my novel completely for months, I now am moderately obsessed again. I worked on it nearly all day and thoroughly enjoyed the process. But it's sucking up time that I don't really have.
  9. I should be writing a manuscript that demanded all my attention last week. I'm still reading papers to figure out my graphs.
  10. I'd rather write my novel than read papers.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Conversation

"I have a gnat problem." I began with the pest control people finally answered the phone.

"Oh, we don't have anything to treat for gnats. When we sprayed, it would have covered most bugs, but not gnats."

"Right. The gnats appeared after you sprayed."

"Oh, well, our spray wouldn't attracts gnats! It isn't our fault you have gnats."

"But the spiders all died."

"Right. The spiders die. That has nothing to do with gnats."

"Well, what if the spiders controlled the gnat population by catching them in webs? So once their natural predator was removed, I arrived in gnat hell!"

"Oh. Well, we can come spray again tomorrow."

"To kill more of the spiders that I need to catch the gnats?"

"Yes."

"No."

*****

Me to Mom (morning phone call): "Goodness, it's hot out."

Me to Colleague (walk to lunch across campus): "It's a long walk to be taking when it's so hot out."

Me to Friend (mid-day email): "Very hot."

Favorite of temperature exchanges?
Ken to Me (after I returned from lunch): "How are you?"
Me: "I'm hot."
Ken: "Darn right you are!"

I looked at him, confused, until he winked at me. Then I blushed and said, "awww..." Flustered, I fluttered my hands and said, "No. Well, I am, but not in that way. But you're sweet." I shrugged and sat down, flattered and not knowing what to do with myself. Ken grinned and shook his head at me.

*****

"Aunt Katie? Where are my Care Bears?"

"Which ones, sweetheart? I heard you couldn't find Birthday Bear. But Grandma and Grandpa got you a Cheer Bear."

"Birthday Bear disappeared!"

"He disappeared? Well, maybe he'll turn up later." I found myself smiling widely by this point. Little One's babble continued and I lost track of the conversation. I must not have been doing well with my part of the exchange because the next thing I understood was, "Love you. Bye."

"She was done talking with you." Mom explained when she picked up the phone.

"I figured."

*****

Bored last night, I copied and pasted my novel into a large Word file. Nearly 200 pages of 11 pt Arial text currently exist. From the very beginning though, there's a lot of descriptive paragraphs. So I'm deleting them and adding dialogue. Lots of conversation to illustrate feelings and points and important events.

There's little you can't explain in conversation, I'm finding. The trick, I think, is finding enough people that I like and trust enough to share my thoughts and secrets and stories. Until I do, we're likely to get back to lots of descriptive paragraphs here.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunday Preparations

“I, uh, was going to start by telling you how much I appreciated being with you again. I’d been here several times in the Spring and enjoy worshiping with your congregation. But instead I’ll remind myself that humiliation has a place and express my apologies for arriving so late.”

The congregation murmured something soothing, filling the air with southern manners to ease any discomfort our visiting pastor might feel.

“I always preached at 11. Other churches I visit start at 11. But I know you all meet at 10. I just… Well, I didn’t even realize until I pulled into the parking lot, wondered why you were so early, then saw the sign. Terribly sorry. Very embarrassing, this.” He shook his head, the black robe that had fluttered along behind him as he moved quickly up the aisle settling around his body.

“I understand you’ve read the scriptures? And sang the songs? So I’m ready to preach? Fine. I really am sorry about this.”

I had told myself that 10AM would find me in a building with stained glass. I’ve been feeling off lately and needed to sit and stand, sing and listen, worship and pray. I had trouble getting motivated this morning, but was cheered by my discovery of a pair of pretty lime green flip flops with white straps that matched my sweater set.

I smiled and said good morning to people as we moved toward the building from our cars, easing into a grin when a woman complained about the heat. It is warm – even Chienne panted through our morning walk. She believes that shade should be appreciated and likes to sit for a moment under the nice trees she finds. I, on the other hand, prefer to hurry home to the air conditioned environment in which we live. I reminded myself that some of the congregation seemed to enjoy the current temperatures, sighed, and walked farther inside to escape the humidity.

I found a seat toward the left side of the large room. Filling out my check and glancing through the program eased the wait for the sounding of the hour. One of the elders – a middle-aged man with a deep Southern drawl – stood to greet us. We started with a prayer that our visiting pastor was safe and perhaps running a bit late. Nobody had heard from him that morning and we hoped nothing bad had happened. We then moved through the shared readings, confessing our sins, singing our songs – both the hymns that change week by week and those shorter songs that remain constants in our worship services.

I rather prefer the latter. The sounds are rich, words familiar, and the tunes linger peacefully in my memory. We are forgiven. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace.

Throughout the service though, I was struck by the feeling of anticipation. I would catch heads turn out of the corner of my eye, glancing toward the back of the church, wondering if our pastor had arrived yet.

My thoughts drifted – as they often do – but in a rather new direction. I do not believe Christ will return in my lifetime. He hasn’t so far, so why in the next 60 years? I find it difficult to believe that whatever signifies the time has come will occur in the near future when so many have waited before me. So I feel no urgent need to repent and prepare for meeting my Lord. After all, I took this quiz online and it said I wouldn’t die until the end of March (or was it May? The month began with an M.) in 2067. So there’s time.

So when I screw up, I assume there’s time to fix it. If I drift away from God – not praying, not really including Him in my general flurry of thoughts – I’m not overly concerned. He always guides me back and I’m always willing to return, so why stress about it?

What struck me was that my congregation wasn’t feeling stress. We were just waiting in a productive way. If he didn’t arrive, we were OK. Perhaps we looked around when hymns started, waiting for a signal to stand up, feeling a bit like a flock with a fellow sheep in charge. The readings were a bit off when people paused between different words, but we meant what we said so it was worthwhile to speak. The choir stayed seated while a woman sang The Lord is My Shepherd in what I think was Korean. It was beautiful and somehow special being heard at a small town church in the South.

We’re preparing as if he’s coming, I realized. We’ll read and wonder why those 2 scriptures were chosen because I didn’t immediately see the link. We stood and sang and greeted each other and I felt my heart lighten. I go to church – among other reasons – to connect with the loving, patient, peaceful side of myself. It’s there, but it sometimes gets squashed under the irritable, impatient and busy. That gentle side emerged throughout the service as we continued to move forward, hoping our leader would eventually make his way to where we waited. And there was joy and peace in that preparation. So as I watched people take turns glancing toward the back, I realized we were united in purpose, wanting to be ready if he did arrive to speak to us.

And we were.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Answers

There were a couple comments about my hair color. At no time did I mean to deceive you and make you think I had lighter hair. But I always picture people online completely wrong. Anytime I happen to see a picture of someone, I'm shocked that my mental image was so inaccurate.

But, with hopes that it won't freak anyone out too badly, this is a photo of the side/back of my head. That's the camera
strap dangling in the lower right corner. I tried to crop it out (because I'm not so good at self-portraits apparently), but then you couldn't see the pretty curls at the ends. I can see gray in the photo. This does not please me. This is also washed/dried while I slept/unbrushed and unstyled hair. But it does show the color.

I answered Psychobunny's super power question, Veo asked about the book, JustMe was also curious about my hair, and ppb thinks Sprout is majestic. He completely agrees.

Psyc Girl asked about my future plans. While I have no desire to teach a course, I wouldn't mind having a lab. I like the research. I enjoy fixating on a question and looking at it in various ways and spending days getting charts of numbers to find that one trend in 20 is actually significant. I love that I have time and freedom to think and play in areas I find interesting and important. It's very cool.

I also like grad students. The problem is that I wouldn't get a lab because I'm a good mentor or I have interesting ideas or I'm a nifty person. If I end up with a lab, it will be because I somehow convinced someone to fund me. And I'm not bad at writing grants, and I'm in an area with relatively high funding rates (even in a hostile environment, healthcare does OK), so it's not impossible to think that it might someday happen.

Anyway, let's say that it does. I have my own office and some space for my students. I picture myself standing in said space, staring at said students, saying, "So..."

I think people work differently. Some - like me - vary from obsession to complete apathy. I either work all the time or struggle to even answer email. I also like to jump right in. If I can't see data, I struggle to formulate a good plan. What delights me about my current task is that I keep moving forward and learning more, then resting to think of a new hypothesis to check. It flows, but there's no real master plan. I also tend to test well, so exams don't tend to freak me out. I read when I'm writing and tend to fall behind in other times.

Now I've met very successful people who read texts rather than papers. Who like to have every step planned before beginning to acquire data. Who read a tremendous amount and can quote any numbers of studies when someone talks about nearly any topic. Which is great and I appreciate their talents and skills, but I don't really get it. It doesn't work for me so I view it with some confusion. I don't know how to build a friendly lab with a complete skill set.

I think freedom is important - one must discover how to work effectively. I also think guidelines are helpful. Finish courses by a certain point, plan prelim before a given date, try for first publication after 2 years, etc. I think finding the line between friendly encouragement and suffocating pressure is critical and I'm not sure how to do that. Especially since I can't really keep my own productivity constant.

"So," I remember asking Advisor as we sat watching the Chicago River, "did your student ever pass the qualifier? Last time I talked to her, she thought they'd just waive the requirement." I said so with a disdainful sniff, and he shook his head at me.

"She did pass it, but I don't view it as a necessary hurdle, actually."

"You don't?" I was confused and frowned at him. The qualifier was the hurdle for my class. We studied together and suffered. I broke down and sobbed for 2 nights straight as the written exam approached. I did fine - we all did in my year - and I thought that student's inability to do the same meant she should leave the program.

Advisor disagreed. "If you pass the classes," he noted, stealing a fry, "I think that should be good enough. If someone has severe test anxiety, then I don't see what good one exam you cram for then forget is going to do. What's it prove?"

I thought for a moment. I don't like the "if I did it, you should too" philosophy. If the exam isn't necessary, then people shouldn't suffer to take it. I'm just not sure.

Given a lab, I like to think I'd do regular group meetings. Be completely up front with my students about expectations. Back them up when problems occurred. But bad stuff happens sometimes - I'm not convinced all the pain is avoidable. And grad school can be a rough process.

So I guess I don't know. I'd rather spend the day making histograms with pretty error bars than teaching someone else how to do so. So I'm at a good place in my career in that I still have time to figure it out. Though if anyone has ideas on how to build a good research group from the ground up, I'd definitely love to hear them.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Any questions?

As this is my 600th post (or so says my Dashboard and I rarely save drafts indefinitely), I thought I'd offer people the opportunity to ask any random questions you might have. As this is still a work in progress - and an informal journal at that - there are likely all kinds of loose ends lying around. I'll take the opportunity to update some of my stories, but if you have questions (though I don't expect you will, honestly), ask away.

How is the Little One?
She's perfectly wonderful and rapidly approaching age 3. Her little sister should arrive in mid-September and Little One has decided she now loves Care Bears. I believe this is due to the baby's room being decorated in Care Bear decor. Little One, if my predictions are correct, is going to be a selfish and jealous little creature.

I predict this because I was largely the same. Upon buying 2 Care Bears before Mom went to the hospital to have Brother, I decided I wanted them both.

"No, Katie." Mom said, holding my hand as she waddled to the car. "Birthday Bear is for your new brother. You can keep Tenderheart."

"I want them both." I insisted and tried various levels of demand and, that having failed, whining then sweetly coaxing. I finally handed over the tiny yellow bear to the tiny male child that was soon produced. He still sleeps with it. I - at some point - got over my outrage that he got a toy that otherwise would have been mine. It was not a fast process.

Still working on that unfair project?
Yes. Yes, I am. In fact, I just asked the other day - in an email to VIMD - if she could think of a project where I could contribute and receive credit. She replied - as we have been relatively friendly in recent meetings as I work without complaint, waiting to see if I can learn anything and being efficient and polite - that she would certainly ask that my name be placed on any papers that resulted from the extensive work I'd done with her. And she'd think about other project where I might contribute.

Will it be worth it in the end? I'm honestly not sure. It's a judgment call as to whether a favor I do will turn around and help me eventually or whether I'm just wasting time. I am pleased that thing - in this particular moment - appears to be going my way.

Fred
His wife had the procedure today. He was home from Iraq to be with her so they could mourn their loss together. I was very sorry, but not surprised.

What in the world happened to The Plan?!
Right. Well, I never did anything good for my health, so that kept starting out on the wrong foot. So I just sort of lost track of balance and decided to work as much as possible. I am, however, considering a resurrection of The neglected Plan. I miss it. (And it was never a conscious decision to stop doing it. I think I was traveling or had guests or something else was going on. Let's at least say that's what happened.)

Oh! Wasn't there a boy? Who called? With a weird ringtone?
There was. I think he didn't call back. Maybe it was me, but I'm pretty sure it was him.

I was not all that disappointed. We didn't click and while I miss being infatuated and being in a relationship (and I do), I'm not willing to force it. He wasn't right. I knew it. So I'm glad it's over.

And the precious animals?
They're pretty much the same. Chienne still hides in the tub when there are fireworks or storms. She loves taking walks, but I have to tug her away from the interesting smells. She gets along with the cat, but is terribly possessive of any person's attention when he tries to snuggle.

His Sprout-ness has settled in very well over the past 10 months. He still adores his laser pointer and chases the dot with intense energy and passion. He's gaining a bit of weight - likely because he must eat his kibble or watch the dog (at some point when I'm not watching) devour it. So sometimes he falls off a perch when he's looking out the window, but otherwise he's a cat. In contrast to Chienne, I didn't really want him. But I'm very glad to have them both.

In the event that anyone can think of a question - any question, really - I'll be happy to answer in the comments. (And now we can all picture me standing a podium, looking around the audience with an inquisitive look, then smiling bashfully when I realize nobody wants to say anything. So I'd murmur another thank you and walk back to my seat.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Black and Green (or just green)

My parents both worked when I was little. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa in their light brick cottage on a busy street. The neighbors were mere feet away, houses separated by about the width of a driveway. Billy lived in one of the houses located so close to Grandma and Grandpa's and I liked him very much.

He, much more mature and two years older, would often get bored and likely enjoyed the way I laughed at all his jokes and generally doted on him. So we spent a good deal of time together before I started school. When Billy would tire of hide and seek, he would propose a game of tag. But he was much, much faster than I was. So he decided that we'd each have safe zones. I was big on safety even then, and was mollified enough to listen carefully to the rules. Since the yards were relatively small and the driveways moderately wide, he decided that there were two basic zones in our play area. The yards would be green. The driveways - all blacktopped - were black.

"So," Billy explained while I looked up at him and thought about how cute his sandy hair was, "you can be safe when you're in green. I'll be safe in black. But when you leave your safe zone, the other person can tag you!"

"Why would I leave my safe zone?" I asked, confused but already scampering toward the soft grass that would keep me from being tagged.

He walked over so he was also behind the house and looked at me. "There's no game otherwise. We'd both just stand around."

I thought for a moment, then looked around. I had a sandbox and the pretty lilac bush in Grandma and Grandpa's back yard. There were flowers in the alley. Enough to keep me busy. But I didn't want Billy to go home, so I giggled and chased after him when he'd sprint though the grass.

"You have to come in the black zone, Katie!" He eventually coaxed with increasing intensity. "It's not fun otherwise."

"But I'm safe if I stay here." I insisted.

"But how is that fun?!" He demanded, and I eventually acquiesced. But I didn't like the feeling of heightened emotion when my tiny feet left the soft grass for the blacktop. He'd hide around the house, sometimes letting me get away to sigh with relief when I'd reach the grass again, sometimes laughing when he tagged me gently.

I mention this because - as Boss was out of town this week - I have not left my house apart from a trip to the store and several walks with the dog. It's not a big deal - there's nothing on my calendar and I am working from home. I'm doing a lot of analysis, made figures and did some writing. It's been largely productive and nobody's said anything about staying home when the department is largely empty anyway.

But I don't know exactly why I do it. Why safety is so prized and fun somehow scary. But given the opportunity, I will often opt for complete isolation. I read blogs and have talked to Mom twice a day to check in (She's doing quite well, though therapy was painful today. Her therapist seems very pleased with her progress though and she's not been sick lately. Yay!). I've written email, though it's mostly professional in nature. And it's not that I couldn't stand seeing anyone, it's more that - given a choice - I just won't.

The thing is that isolation builds on itself and I was raised to believe that this lifestyle is very wrong. So I start feeling miserably guilty as I spend days according to my own schedule. "It's not fun otherwise! There's no game to it!" I start to say to myself. Or I hear my parents cluck in disapproval when I opted out of a party or the prom. They grow concerned when I don't go to the office - they worry over the lack of contact, fret that I won't meet anyone to marry, wonder if I'm missing out on something that makes life more fun or exciting.

"It stresses me out." I confided to Grandma years ago. I was 16 and had fled the Snowball weekend at my high school when my friend went home sick. She went back the next day. I did not.

Instead, I drove to town and rode the elevator up to the fourth floor of the retirement home where Grandma had a studio apartment. Instead of ice breakers with M&Ms while sitting in a circle with strangers who might become friends, I made cinnamon raisin toast with peanut butter and curled up in the mauve apartment of the woman I loved most.

I didn't encounter the confusion of my parents there. They had understood I wasn't having fun, but thought I should return when my friend went back to the high school to sleep on the floor and risk embarrassment in some strange activity designed to build trust or confidence or self-esteem. I soaked in comfort and love at Grandma's, spending the night while we talked and read books and she assured me that there was nothing wrong with me. That this weekend wasn't all that important and if I wanted to not be there, then I shouldn't be there.

She's been the only one who sat in the grass with me. If there was a place I felt safe, she loved me too much to push me out of it. Perhaps she trusted that others would do so. For her, there was unconditional acceptance and pride.

"I'm glad you left." I remember her saying as she stroked my hair as I started to feel badly about myself again. "It's important to know when something doesn't work for you. It takes courage to walk away, to find something better. And you know I love spending time with you. If you feel better being with me and I feel better being with you, then we must be doing something right."

I can still hear her voice in my head if I really focus. (Now I'm crying. Hold on.)

OK, I'm all emotional now so I can't remember my point. Something about balance and there being a different tipping point for different people. Then this other statement about how people - much as I might avoid them sometimes - are important. Those that coax me out on the blacktop and those I particularly adore that sit with me in the grass.

I think that was my point. That and I really, really love my family. Oh, and I'm going to the office tomorrow. Because I have meetings.

Well, and - to summarize - the black and green game is really sucky if one person refuses to leave the grass. Just in case some of you would like to play.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why don't you like me?

"You should call her." Mom advised a much younger Katie. I think I was in 4th grade and I was having trouble with a girl we'll call Jill. Jill was pretty and blonde and athletic and she was one of many gossipy girls in my class of 40 of so rural students. We were friends, I thought, having secured a coveted invitation to her house after school. I rode the bus - something that left me wide-eyed and a bit scared since I was used to the short walk to the single-story brick schoolhouse - and we walked to her house behind her older brother. We talked and played games and probably made fun of other people in our class. I don't really remember.

I do recall crying at home one evening, having been hurt by being insulted or ignored - I can't exactly remember that either. It really was a terribly cliquey environment - being so small and isolated - and I was even more dramatic in grade school than I am now. I think - and let's say this happened just for the sake of my story - that Jill said something to Mandy about me. Then Mandy reported that Jill didn't like me and had been talking about me. I never wanted anyone to talk about me so Mom, during our after dinner ritual of doing dishes together, was subject to my emotional outpouring over this tragic event.

"I can't call her!" I said. "She talked about me! She obviously hates me. What would I say?!"

Mom shrugged and regarded me with sympathy. "I don't know why she talked about you, but the only way I can think of to find out is to ask her. Just ask if she doesn't like you or if you did something to hurt her feelings. Usually people who are mean are hurting somehow. So if you find out why she wants you to feel badly, maybe you can help her feel better. And that helps you too."

I picked up the phone at her urging and looked at her, frowning with great fear. She encouraged me, sitting down and waiting while I dialed.

Jill answered and with my eyes locked on my mother's, I blurted out, "Why don't you like me?" Then I started to cry. Mom made the sympathetic face that I often mimic now upon seeing someone do something silly that I somehow understand. We kind of scrunch one side of our mouths and wince a bit. Oh, I think, I probably would have done the same thing, but that's not a good move there.

There are a couple of things that I learned from that exchange. The most important is that people who create misery are often very unhappy. So one should treat mean people with a certain amount of sympathy, but also be very careful around them. Having been depressed myself, I can state that it's too easy to drag people around you down. I was, at times, selfish and unkind and uncaring about any unhappiness that I created around me.

The second is that confrontation is valuable, but uncomfortable. Jill stuttered and stammered while I wept copiously, finally gasping out that I heard she'd talked about me and I'd never talked about her and I thought we were friends! "Why don't you like me?"

"I like you." She finally said. And I hung up, facing Mom, more confused than when I started. She, perhaps slightly bewildered that my sometimes mature and intelligent facade had washed away in a storm of tears, gave me a hug and patted my back. Then she started to talk and imparted the third lesson.

"Katie," she said slowly, thinking as she talked, "some people just aren't meant to be your friends. I don't know why, but some people won't like you. Sometimes it'll be something you said or did, and sometimes it'll be harder to figure out. But there are always other people who will like you and who won't talk about you. You just have to wait until you find the right girls who will be true friends. And try not to be so hurt and surprised when the wrong girls treat you in a way that's not so nice. It's hard, growing up."

Mom was right, though it took me some time to believe it. Jill and I had a love/hate relationship over the next few years. In high school, there were finally enough people that we separated from the small groups and merged into the larger population that was more peaceful for me. I could fly under the radar, mostly unnoticed except for academic achievements and non-athletic activities. I think Jill had a couple of children, but I didn't keep up after we graduated and I went off to college. All was eventually well.

Except that feeling still pops up. In the current environment, I've heard - many times - something that a professor has said about a trainee. Whether secondhand or directly, I'm aware that if they talk about others, they talk about me.

The poster sessions during the retreat - one of which contained an offering of mine - were very well attended. The hour flew by amidst nearly constant visitors in my little corner. People I'd seen and not met mostly, though there were a few strangers as well. I happily answered questions and asked some of my own, comfortable and engaged in conversation. Yet the major professors - those with all the control and funding - skipped over my poster, stopping to glance over the small crowd that had gathered before moving on. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't relieved. Those guys scare me. But still. They don't like me.

At another poster session, I was standing next to Steve, discussing data analysis and summer travel plans. The SPB approached and gave Steve a couple of instructions for the next session, then stood next to us for a moment, looking around. He left with a single nod in my direction, not returning my smile. In the few seconds before he walked away, I opened my mouth to ask why he didn't like me. I closed it softly, then smiled at Steve when he walked away to note his orders. Wandering back to my seat, I considered my response.

Asking someone a direct question like that - in my experience - creates more discomfort than anything. It's awkward, and in my situation, it's unnecessary. For numerous reasons, I won't be staying to try to make this work. If I were, I'm not sure what my next move would be. Luckily, I don't need to figure it out. I do wonder - what I've done or said or not done that triggered this odd disdain and disinterest with those faculty members. But it's just not meant to be.

It's not overwhelming either. I'm talking about 2 particular men here, but both are brilliant and powerful and they loom huge in my consciousness. There are other professors who are friendly, answering questions and stopping readily when I asked if we could discuss something. I also have an incredibly supportive group of guys in my department and I feel completely at ease when talking with them about matters both professional and personal.

It took me until college to find true friends - women who would accept and love me, and only talk about me when they were concerned. The genuine friendship I experienced when I finally found it convinced me that the right place - the right people - are worth the search. When it's good, I know it. It's not scary to confront one of my girls, ask for favors or apologize when I've screwed up. They were and are amazing women - I'm rather awed that I get to know them. I have confidence that eventually I'll find that amazing work environment.

It's close sometimes - there are elements that are delightful and those when I feel absolutely blessed to be here. But I don't like the feeling I recall from elementary school upon facing some of these people.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dr. Bright Side

Chris wrote a lovely post about the perks of being a post-doc. Since few people whine more than me (I had to go to a retreat! At a nice hotel! And eat and drink and listen to interesting talks! Weep with me, people!), I thought I might offer my thoughts on how being a post-doc doesn't suck so much at all.

(For better post-doc posts, perhaps you could visit the new Postdoc Carnival.)

Flexibility
I stayed at home with Mom for over a week and am planning another weekend at home in the near future. I've spent time in Hawaii, Seattle, Cleveland, Chicago, the Poconos, and Destin in my time here. I work from home a great deal and have suffered a major depressive episode that left me largely unproductive for several weeks. I spent hours and hours in therapy. At no time have I been threatened or berated for my performance and have been consistently encouraged and coddled.

Granted, this is likely due to having a delightful boss who is among the kindest men I've ever met. But said freedom did happen during my postdoctoral time, so it's possible to achieve this kind of lifestyle.

I should also note that I've written 597 blog posts in my post-doc time. This is 598. That's a lot of time spent writing. I've also read and befriended some amazing people who live on the other side of my computer. Not all jobs allow one this quantity of time to pursue a hobby.

Scientific Freedom
I'm funded on a training grant that pays my salary and provides a basic framework of scientific questions. But I opted out of work with small animals and have focused on problems that I find compelling. I've spent the past 2 weeks analyzing data that Boss thinks has long since been archived and deleted. I predict he'll be completely supportive of the paper I'm drafting and will - as always - work diligently to rework my words and ideas so that they're simple and clear and publishable.

The ability to latch onto a problem and develop hypotheses, optimize methods and write results with slowly decreasing supervision is a nice feeling. As my time in science grows larger, I find I'm more informed, more capable of doing the work without getting stuck and discouraged. It still happens, of course, but I have more experience to know that there will be a solution and I am capable of finding it.

Recognition
It turns out I'm a bit of a whore for accolades, small as they may be. But getting papers published is delightful. Getting reprint requests, compliments and questions, invitations to Italy to give talks (we still email, though he's not set a date for the invitation. The option is, I think, still open though. I hope.), being placed on an impressive roster of speakers for a small meeting in September... It's enough to make me flush with pleasure. People think I know stuff! And they'd like me to write book chapters or travel to speak to their research groups! I'm still at the point where I think they're silly - I don't know much at all, really - but it's such a feeling of delighted surprise when each new thing happens. I like it very much.

Finances
OK, this one does hurt a bit since I make about half of what some of my peers in grad school pull down. But I can afford a lovely house, eat out often (too often, perhaps), shop often enough to be content - all that good stuff. I would like a new car, but mine still runs fine. I have a bit of residual credit card debt (which is sad since my education was all free. I'm lame.) but rarely feel that I can't afford things I need. I do make considerably more than the NIH average though and it's not like I'm living in complete luxury.

I also don't have money for resources at work. This has been the big drawback of this particular position. It's possible to obtain funding, but it's cumbersome and time consuming to do so.

Possibilities
I also feel I'm at a point where I want to move on. I like the feeling of being free to make this next big decision, though it's a bit scary as well. I could be anywhere next year! Doing any number of very cool jobs and picking a new house and meeting new people. There is a continuous process of learning - what works in science and on a personal level - and these years (and the one to come) have provided me a great deal of information. I'm very comfortable meeting collaborators and listing my strengths. I'm learning who to ask about less familiar areas and what characteristics of an institution and department are vital for me to be content.

This is an incomplete list, I'm sure. But I've felt ill today and have been analyzing and writing and lying around moaning. I believe the retreat (Are we still weeping at my misfortune for having attended? Anybody?) has sickened me, but Friend thinks I'd have a fever if that was the case. So instead of listing symptoms and generally whining, I decided to remind myself of how lucky I am to be here, doing this, and to have time to figure things out from here.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

retreat (v.)

to flee, backtrack, run away without looking back, often while very exhausted from too many hours of togetherness with colleagues

I am home.

While the retreat wasn't nearly the horror that I dreaded so completely, I don't think I'd go again. I didn't sleep well. My head hurt progressively badly. I spaced out during some decent presentations that just kept coming. And even having skipped the major social event last night, there was just far too much of the people and talking and energy.

To be fair, there are many positives to events such as the one I attended. It is - or should be - a perk of being in a given department. To look around and note what you've done well, find some shared vision of where you hope to go, a chance to learn and discuss, to present your work and gather compliments and ideas, to step back and take a break from the daily tasks, eat and drink and yawn together. And - in all honesty - I thought this event was done very well. The schedule was smooth and stayed true throughout the meeting. There was humor and people provided attentive questions and comments. I very much enjoyed talking to some colleagues and feel more comfortable with my knowledge level of what goes on from the large scale view.

All of that is lovely. I'm glad I went so that I know it's not awful. I did get something out of it.

But.

I can't take that much of many people. Dawn happens to be someone who hit my tolerance level and continue to shove at it. I believe, for example, in being polite. If someone mentions she just passed her preliminary examination but sighs over not knowing what she wants to do after she graduates in another year or two, I will congratulate her on her achievement and offer my confidence that she'll figure out her next step. There is, after all, plenty of time. Dawn, in contrast, will speak of how difficult her exam was and how wonderful her performance was, then will tsk and shake her head over "anyone our age who doesn't know what they want to do next. That's just sad."

"You shouldn't get married if you can't live in the same city as your wife!" She declared after hearing about a colleague's wedding plans. "That's just wrong."

"It is very disrespectful to show up late." She agreed when a delightful woman mentioned she felt badly for being tardy on the first day. "If people come to your talk, it's horrible to miss theirs."

I blinked at her in surprise the first couple times she did it - said the exact opposite of the soothing and kind remark I was making. But that's OK - she has a right to her opinion, I suppose. But - given that I never agreed and was often abashed at people's reactions to her - I tried to distance myself as much as possible. It's bad when you start to see your retreat buddy as a liability.

I did voice my disagreement in each case, making strong statements that attempted to smooth over the awkward moments after her comments and offering my support of people's choices. First, I think it's fine to get married when you want to, regardless of your living situation. Don't feel too badly about being late to talks - there was never all that much to miss and I don't believe in making someone feel worse about a situation she already regrets. But, honestly. Who says stuff like that?! To strangers!

Dawn thought she forgot her glasses as we were ready to leave, insisting upon unpacking her bags, requesting a key since we'd checked out hours earlier, returning to her room then finding a housekeeper to track down the pesky item. This took more than 30 minutes and a careless "Sorry." was offered for having made 3 of us wait when I was desperate to get home (I'd Had Enough.) The whole situation irked me more than it likely should have, so I sighed and faced the window. I feared I'd yell at her if she tried to tell me one more inane story with far too much detail (Her: "He went to MIT. No, UAB. No, Minnesota. Wait, I think it was Texas!" Me (to self): You were telling me about his cat. I don't care where your friend went to school unless it plays a role in the story. Hell, even if it plays a role in the story! Just get to the interesting part!).

I'm inadvertently making my point by making my complaints, lame as they are. When I focus on learning more - about the department or Dawn - there exists the possibility that I won't like all I find. It turns out that I'll never be great friends with Dawn, though I had high hopes. The department is highly impressive - filled with brilliant minds, tremendous resources and awesome potential. I think that's wonderful and wish these people all the best. I just won't be here to see it after this time next year.

It isn't that the department and Dawn are wrong. In fact, it could be that they're absolutely correct. But I don't fit - they rub me the wrong way, making me eager for distractions, the quick passage of time and escape.

So, for me, for here, for now, I pick the verb. I would like to retreat. But I don't need to do so immediately - there's time to finish up and look for the next place that might work better for me. And in knowing more about what I'm turning away from, I become more confident in my decision. That's good.

So, the moral of this story is that retreat - noun or verb - isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Oh, and Mom is feeling better. The doctors think it was a virus that seems to have eased. Her fever is gone, appetite is slowly returning and she sounds much, much better. I adore you all that thought of her. And if you ever have a retreat, I will happily come.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

retreat (n.)

a time - usually 2-3 days in duration - for a group of people to gather in order to speak, learn and drink themselves stupid.

"Does this seem weird to you?" I asked Dawn about an hour into our drive deep into the south on a muggy day. She rolled her eyes toward our companions eating dried fish in the front seat and I smiled and shook my head. "That we're all driving for several hours - leaving together and arriving mostly together - to check into a hotel so we can talk for 3 days? Why come all this way?"

She shrugged then disagreed with me that it was weird. "I'm looking forward to it." She declared and I sighed. My retreat buddy failed to share my disdain for the event and I told myself firmly that I should be a better sport. Wrinkling my nose at the odor of stale fish flesh, I resolved to try.

We arrived at the hotel - amidst people I see every day - and waited for someone to park the car as we unloaded overnight bags, laptops and posters. We then waited in line - behind people we work with every day - to hear that our rooms weren't yet ready.

"The hotel is very pretty." I offered, trying mightily not to be pissy. And I looked around at the gracious, historic structure in approval. It is lovely here - the rooms are as welcoming and lovely as the lobby area. The glass in the window is rippled from age as it rests in frames painted bright white. The drapes are thick to keep out the oppressive heat, but colored a pale mint. The furniture is deep mahogany and sits - sturdy and elegant - next to overstuffed chairs in muted tones.

Checking our watches, we decided traffic had slowed us down and proceeded to look for the conference site, nearly 3 blocks away. It's not far - and the downtown area is also very pretty - but I was sweating by the time we reached our destination. We had met several other retreaters on the way, and the atmosphere was decidedly different. Away from work, we were somehow lighter. It was nice to see familiar faces in a strange environment. To joke and talk as we wandered new streets in an attempt to find our meeting place. To complain halfheartedly about the travel or heat or time away from our lives, united in purpose despite any unpleasant feelings.

Arriving at the building after receiving friendly directions, we were welcomed by staff and directed to a large room with tall ceilings that held several round tables surrounded by wonderful chairs. Padded chairs with gently curved backs and arms. Sturdy tables that held papers and pencils and the sodas and refreshments we quickly joined a line to obtain. Armed with Diet Coke, fruit, vegetables and pretzels (albeit stale pretzels), I found my seat and settled in.

I thought to turn off my phone, then checked to see if there was a wireless signal. There was and I made a face of approval. This wasn't nearly so bad as it could have been. The preliminary talks - state of the department and the like - were informative and entertaining. The men presenting were bright and funny and if the invited speakers were less so, it was understandable that their air would be more formal than those coming from our own group. I fidgeted a little toward the end of our time in that room - sparing a moment to sigh over the length of the day tomorrow - but chewed my pretzels as quietly as possible and finished my second can of soda.

We returned to get our keys - neatly labeled and ready - and found our respective rooms. I met my roommate - an adorable young woman who is as peppy as she is sharp. I'd like her tremendously if her phone would stop beeping in a demand for electricity she seems determined to ignore. I, conversely, start each time it shrilly beep-bloops. I had time to admire the view of the library across the street, bounce on the tall, fluffy bed, then checked my email on the free wireless (!) here before answering Dawn's knock at the door to summon me to the reception. We found finger food - delicious and filling enough to call it good - and drank decent white wine while the room warmed with many bodies, all eating and drinking and socializing. I felt a moment's guilt over not trying to meet new people, but glanced around and saw everyone conversing with at least one other person.

This was nice, I decided.

Then reconsidered.

There were several people moving about the room, speaking just loudly enough to overhear. They were inviting selected people to dinner.

"Don't fill up." They'd say, turning away from most of a group to speak only to certain people. "We're going to dinner later. A few of us. Are you coming?" After one man caught my attention, I watched him drift around the room, inviting some, excluding others.

This is what I hate. The subtle politics and odd favoritisms. As the important and loved members slowly congregated to leave, I made my excuses as well, a bit soured on the event, though I'm trying not to let it overshadow the lovely parts of the day. But this is why I don't fit. When left out, I withdraw even more, and I did. Coming back to my room after arranging to meet Dawn in the morning for more free food at breakfast.

Mom isn't feeling well at all (More prayers please? Thank you.) so that worried me. I have more data to analyze that isn't going all that well. And I'm neither favored nor particularly liked here. But I am here, listening and participating, freshly showered (I hope some of my smellier colleagues can say the same tomorrow) and sitting on my comfy bed writing for my blog.

Day 1 wasn't so bad at all.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ow.

I'm headachy and sleepy. I have not yet packed and I'm to leave tomorrow for the retreat. The house is semi-clean and my analysis - which was to inspire a lovely post - failed at the last minute. I think I know what went wrong, but I'm too discouraged to figure it out.

So I'll take another Advil. And rest for a little while. Then pack.

I don't want to go.

But I will.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Thunder

Thunder has sounded sporadically for days. It warns of an upcoming storm – one that might bring precious rain for my flowers and unmowed lawn - that never materializes. So Chienne hides in the bathtub and I eagerly glance out windows in hopes of seeing soothing water fall from the sky. Though it has darkened a bit, I’m losing hope that any precipitation will come.

Likewise, my motivation threatens and thunders, then dissipates before anything substantial happens.

Cleaning supplies litter my bedroom and bathroom – a vacuum in the former, a steam cleaner in the latter. There are paper towels and garbage bags and dirty laundry. Clutter is scattered through the living room and kitchen as well. I thought – hours earlier – if I started in the bathroom, I could use the empty garbage bag there to pick up the trash everywhere else. Then I could vacuum, put that away, then steam clean the closet again. Yet I tend to walk to the bathroom, sigh, then return to the living room.

Demanding much of my attention – compulsive as it is in at least one respect – is the Penguin Project. I am listed as third author on a paper that – though much delayed in its submission – is rather impressive. Since the primary findings are outside my scope, it makes sense that I slid down the author list. This, by the way, is why I dislike working with some junior faculty members. Penguin is still trying to get first author papers and when working with students, that’s not ideal. Therefore, he and his student are sharing first authorship and I come next. So, fine.

Yet my findings are interesting in my field, I think. I rarely get datasets this large – I can do real statistics! – and can’t seem to let myself completely move on. I used a sensitive histogram metric to measure this feature. Then I found another method while working on a different project and thought I could apply it to this dataset. Which I did. It sort of worked! If I use a one sided statistic, I can get a significant p-value! And – based on my histogram results – it makes sense to do so. So I made a figure yesterday, thinking that if I could visualize the results better, I might come up with some compelling discussion for the paper I can’t resist writing.

Then last night I decided that I could change some of the methods to get at the true question I’m asking. So I dropped Friend off to get her car this morning, then returned home to work on my precious data. After making the appropriate correction, I slowly made my way through the patients and finally calculated statistics. And one of them remained significant – 0.033! – as persistent and real as, I think, inexplicable. I wanted to confirm or deny Penguin’s arguments, but find I lack the confidence to do either. But I do think there’s something here. Something worth publishing and discussing. A line to put on my CV in an attempt to validate the time I spent here.

But I’m flat – perhaps tired, maybe worried. I don’t want to attend the retreat and leave Chienne at home without me. We’re conquering the peeing inside problem with careful attention. I drag the dog out – fireworks or thunder be damned – each night to potty and insist that she does so before returning to the safety of her bathtub. Yet I’m resigned to my fate as the retreat looms ever closer. I have my poster printed and my abstract book sitting menacingly on my desk. I found someone else to drive and I much prefer riding – with my book or laptop in hand – than driving. He even found enough people for his car to get reimbursed for the trip, which means I don’t have to contribute for gas. And I like staying in hotels and should learn a considerable amount while there. Yet I pout.

Mom is doing better, becoming increasingly independent and sounding strong a larger percentage of the time. She still has her moments of sickness and miserable pain, but I’m exceedingly proud of how well she’s coping. And I hate that I’m so far away and can’t pop in for a visit. Hate it. I talk to my parents twice a day, but it’s not the same as being there and helping out.

I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong. Friend thinks I might need more anti-depressants, but I refuse wholeheartedly. I want to move north with a desperation that continues to grow. I like people who – when unhappy – work to change their circumstances. But I also admire making the best of what one has. I am here for the near future and while I’ll continue to watch job listings carefully, I don’t want to hurry my post-doctoral time and leave valuable projects unfinished. So I want to make this time happy – productive and focused and lovely.

So I’ll clean my house a bit – that always makes me feel better. Then I’ll shower – another nice trick to relax and calm down. Perhaps I’ll make a grilled cheese for comfort dinner. Cuddle with the dog and see if Sprout will let me pet him without playfully but painfully biting me. Then I’ll call Mom and mull over my data some more. And fervently hope that the upcoming retreat provides fodder for blog posts more interesting than this one.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I meant to tell you.

Dawn has returned after resigning.

She sent email while I was home with Mom and said she stopped by to share her news, apologized for not keeping in touch, and said she'd see me when I got back to the office. I grinned and we exchanged hugs when I discovered her at a lunch meeting I sometimes attend. I took a seat beside her and she explained what happened.

"Boss asked me to write a letter to the NIH explaining why I'd left the position. I don't know if that's demanded for the grant or if it's something he wanted to do himself."

I shrugged, guessing the former but unsure.

"So I called my graduate advisor and he suggested honesty, but without burning any bridges. So I wrote one, signed it and left it in an unsealed envelope so Boss could read it. I told him I'd be willing to discuss revisions so he should let me know if that was necessary. I'd decided that he wasn't to blame and I wasn't angry, so while I was harsh about EB (Evil Boss). But I wrote that I was happy here and miserable there and didn't see a good way to make the collaboration work. But I said nice things about Boss and this institution. A week later, Boss called and said there was a position with the SPB (Supreme Polar Bear) if I wanted to discuss that."

I nodded and smiled, relieved that Boss had made things right for her. She'd been given an opportunity with a powerful group that should yield several impressive publications and a nice salary that's far higher than the post-doc average. I was pleased, but not particularly surprised. Boss is kind and fair, so I rather thought he'd find a way to help Dawn.

What surprised me a bit more was the email I received last week. It mentioned that someone new would be starting soon and might also be attending the retreat. I sighed at the thought of sharing an office with yet another woman placed in a painful research environment. Then I finished skimming the email and found the cancer of interest was different than it had been. At this, I raised my eyebrows. Boss had terminated a collaboration? Starting a new one was not shocking - Boss has tons of ideas and can devise a project with nearly anyone who crosses his path. But turning away from an established project with hypotheses and preliminary data?

My assumption is that from various conversations with Dawn and Jill and secondhand information about Winnie's experience, he decided it was an inappropriate training environment. Since he was funding the position completely, I'm thrilled that he found a different group for the next scientist. I hope she does well, and I'll try to remember to let you know when I meet her.

For something that demanded so much of my attention when it was going badly, I'm not sure how the happy resolution kept slipping my mind. Perhaps there's a personal lesson there.

"Are you happy?" I asked Dawn before we made plans to carpool to the retreat.

"I am." She said after a slight pause. The discovery that there are terribly selfish people in the academy isn't a pleasant one. The acknowledgment that we are pretty powerless is also uncomfortable. Yet we continue to learn and work and research. My hope is that someday - when it's our turn to control this environment - that we'll use a different, better set of rules.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Gatorade Ring

I woke this morning to coax Chienne outside, making sure she pottied before my carpet had yet another problem spot. Sprout, her feline companion, caught my attention by his plethora of things to do this morning. Apparently he's very busy.

  1. Meow at Katie to refill the water bowl. Darn dog keeps hogging all the water.
  2. Swat resting dog on nose while running by the couch.
  3. Miss.
  4. Try again.
  5. Try again.
  6. Try again.
  7. Spring away when dog growls and snaps.
  8. Find Gatorade ring that FavoriteFriend offered last night!
  9. Bat at ring.
  10. Chase ring when it rolls away.
  11. Bat at ring some more.
  12. Decide to bury ring in the couch.
  13. Carry ring to piece of furniture.
  14. Jump up.
  15. Oops, dropped the ring. Jump back down.
  16. Jump up.
  17. Place ring on cushions and do prep work.
  18. Slide one paw deep between the cushion and the back of the couch. Realize arm is too short.
  19. Fully commit and slide both front paws behind cushion.
  20. Attempt to remove paws.
  21. Fail.
  22. Lie down to brace back feet upon the couch, using them to pull front paws from their prison.
  23. Succeed.
  24. Observe Gatorade ring.
  25. Nudge Gatorade ring toward the back of the couch.
  26. Pounce when Gatorade ring has a mind of its own and veers in an unplanned direction.
  27. Nudge Gatorade ring - once again - toward the back of the couch.
  28. Attempt - using the right paw - to stuff Gatorade ring behind the cushion.
  29. Succeed.
  30. Look proud.
  31. Pride turns to dismay when - upon retrieving paw from the hole - the ring comes with it.
  32. Offer a look of disdain when Katie laughs.
  33. Stuff ring down again.
  34. Pull paw out with much flexing of claws and great care.
  35. Using both paws to jab at ring, burying it deeper in the cushions.
  36. Arch back when dog attempts an investigation.
  37. Bury both arms in an attempt to get the ring back out.
  38. Find mouse toy previously buried there!
  39. Continue to dig.
As Friend still sleeps in the office, Chienne pants on the floor after our walk, and I continue to analyze data, I believe the cat triumphs over us all in terms of productivity.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Update

I am mostly content. Having obtained deodorizing products, my bathroom now smells of fresh linen in a rainstorm on a mountain. So I think it's mostly clean and I will do more tomorrow. But for now, it's getting better.

I am analyzing a dataset in a different way. If the penguin's interpretation is true, my idea will work well. It might - and if so, would result in a paper - but it might not. Regardless, I'm curious and capable and having a moment where I'm rather enjoying pushing buttons and filling in lines in spreadsheets that will be input into some statistics. Good times.

Mom is doing OK. Therapy hurts, but she is stronger and more independent each day. Darvocet seems to be the right way to go for her, so that's a good thing to know. She says Dad is wonderful with the exercises, but is not great with mid-night sympathy. I got angry when he went outside without a communication device (cell phone, walkie talking, anything) to deal with yard work, leaving her without a way to get off the couch. But he came in while Brother was on his way over from work.

My poster is printed for the retreat. I'll pick it up next week. If Friend's car gets re-fixed appropriately, she can spend 2 nights with Chienne while I descend deeper into the south for a stupid retreat. I sigh just thinking of it.

Tomorrow I get to go to Cousin's for dinner. I like Cousin and her family.

The screen of my laptop keeps going black. I can always plug it in, touch the space bar and get everything back. But I'm backing everything up just in case and hoping I don't need a new computer here soon. Though I would sort of like a MacBook... Still, it's not really on the budget at this point.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cleaning the closet

Before I showered, I reeked of urine.

Chienne – both taking Prednisone and afraid of fireworks – had accidents during the night because she was drinking more water than normal and unable to conquer her fear to go outside through her dog door. She used my closet and the carpet there is now quite smelly.

“You’ll want to use the special enzymes.” Friend advised, having scrubbed at the carpet multiple times already. “But,” she warned, “it stinks. So you might want to move your clothes first.”

I brought special break-down-urine enzyme cleaner back from my parents’ and sprayed it each day. The bottle advised to wet the carpet thoroughly with the spray, then cover with a damp towel until it dried naturally. On the second day of that routine, I walked in to find Chienne peeing on my damp towels!

“What are you doing?!” I shouted at her, causing her to jump from her squat. “No, no, NO! No peeing in the house! Outside.” I emphasized each syllable then followed her from the room. She was ducking her head like a bad dog and I was gesturing wildly toward the back door. She tried to climb in the bathtub – her fireworks hiding spot – and I drug her out, lecturing all the way. I pushed her out the back door, followed her outside (I wasn’t done lecturing), and blocked her reentry. She refused to leave the tiny patio, so I locked her out, found her leash, then walked her in the front yard for 30 minutes until she finally stopped pulling me toward the house and pottied.

At some point though, I have to open the door to the master bathroom (where my closet is located) and deal with the residual mess. So I braced myself, sprayed more cleaner and knelt to scrub with hot water and sponges. The sour smell of ammonia was sharp and deeply unpleasant. I grew frustrated, sternly warning the dog that she wanted to stay far away from me when she poked her nose in to explore my newest project. I took a break, realizing that the garbage bag I knelt on to protect my pajamas didn’t work perfectly. My ShopVac leaked a bit as I vacuumed up the gross water I sopped on the carpet and I sighed at the bathroom in general.

Perhaps I was making progress on the smell overall, but I was certainly creating a mess to do so. Garbage bags, dirty water on the floor and in the bucket, my clothes and hands damp and smelly.

“Ick.” I said simply, and wrinkled my nose at the whole thing.

I think I’m in the clean up phase at work as well. The months I spent ignoring some powerful people have caught up to me. Even as I make small peeks into the job search world, I need these people to allow me money and toys and advice. And so I need to clean up my mess.

I’ve tried to interact with them, though it’s often demoralizing and I feel painfully out of place once I leave my safe niche and the warm offices of people I like. Sometimes there are moments where it’s good though – I learn something or am granted access to equipment or a bit of funding. So I continue to try.

I even signed up to attend their retreat. I dread going, yet it’s coming up and I have yet to think of a reasonable excuse (save Friend refusing to stay with Chienne), and Boss – in an email this morning – came as close to ordering me to go as he’d ever get. I think he said he “hoped I’d be able to present my work in person.” because I told him I might use the time to go home instead.

But I registered online. I wrote an abstract, then submitted my poster for printing today. Tomorrow I’ll pick it up, then next week, I’ll pack a bag and drive farther south (in the middle of summer – genius location selection!) to spend a couple of days in a hotel to listen to people who work mere yards away from me. It’s ridiculous, but my poster session is in the morning of the first day, so at least it’ll be over quickly.

The problem, I think, is that as I clean one mess, I just make others. Just as I mopped up water that leaked from the vacuum – nose wrinkled in distaste, I now sit in meetings where I’m unnoticed and unheard, even when the area is one I study. It’s frustrating and makes me sad. But I keep going and trying and allowing myself a break when hiding becomes irresistible.

The hope is that progress occurs while the work is being done. That the pee smell will eventually dissipate after I clean and clean. That at some point I’ll be recognized and respected in the presence of people who have historically been indifferent or unimpressed.

I suppose it is happening. There was a time I would have been unable to tolerate the smell for long enough to clean. When the time comes to get in my car and drive to the dreaded retreat, I think I can do it.

“Katie,” Mom said one day, taking her mouth from the phone as she talked to Aunt, “there’s a bug on my foot.”

Without thinking, I got up, walked over, held the tiny insect between my thumb and forefinger and put it outside.

“You didn’t scream or get a tissue or anything.” Mom said, looking surprised. I smiled and nodded since I still don’t like bugs. But I suppose as I grow up, there are more unpleasant tasks that I can tolerate. I can pick up a bug, deal with bodily fluids and waking every 3 hours to care for Mom, go to this retreat though I’ll be self-conscious and uncomfortable while there, and clean the closet some more. It’s getting better, but it’s not there yet.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Miracles, Prayers and an update on Fred

Does anyone remember Fred? The story was told more than a year ago, so if you’ve no time to read the link (which is actually something I read from time to time in an attempt to amuse myself), I shall summarize. I met a man online, had a date with him, was overwhelmed by his desperation to obtain a wife, didn’t see him again, but kept in sporadic touch via email. I sent books to him on his first tour in Iraq. I ordered a wedding gift from amazon when he – on his third engagement – obtained the wife he so desired.

The couple has, in the few years that have passed, been trying to have a child. Fred’s utmost desire is to be useful. He wanted to be a solider and joined the army. Doggedly patriotic, he serves to the best of his ability. In his last email, he reported that he was part of the team that unloaded pieces of helicopter wreckage from a vehicle and the sense of loss of his fellow soldiers as well as the enormity of the danger that exists was difficult for him. It’s the first time he’s voiced a word of unhappiness or fear to me.

Fred mostly sends forwards urging action against people or companies who aren’t completely conservative and “Godly.” Since my interpretation of faith differs from his own, I generally delete them, more than happy to drink Pepsi whether or not they put “Under God” on their special cans, refusing to sign some petition in support of our President. I do look at the pictures he forwards to a group of friends – I know not who the others are, nor do I particularly care. It is more out of lingering curiosity that I sometimes answer his emails. His outlook is so different than my own that I continue to wonder how life is for him. He always looks happy – whether on a retreat with his wife or decorating their new home on base or standing next to some impressive piece of military equipment. A broad smile creases his round face and reveals crooked teeth. And I find myself smiling too, pleased that he's so happy.

His bride, conversely, looks sullen. A large woman with various medical problems, she had surgery the week after they married to correct some ailment. Perhaps she loves him – I very much hope so since he clearly dotes on her. I also hope she’s happy, though I was a bit offended that when I asked for their address to send a wedding gift, she asked him to send multiple emails inquiring over when it would arrive. I decided that she wanted to be home when the package came and happily sent along tracking information. I successfully fought my impulse to send email asking after the thank you card I never received. It seemed catty. Mentioning it on my blog is clearly the way to go.

The cause of my answering his most recent forward was that his wife had – after more than a year of trying and with medical assistance (of what type I’m not sure) – become pregnant. I reminded myself to send a gift as her due date approached sometime in February, and offered a prayer that she would be well when Fred left for Iraq again. They’ve tried so hard for so long and he wants a child so much, but has remained completely confident that they will have one. After each failed attempt in the past, he sent reports that they were struggling, but continued to try.

God will provide.

I smiled when she successfully conceived about 2 months ago. Fred was thrilled, lamenting that he’d be abroad when she grew heavy with child, but eager to meet his offspring when he returned. His last email reported that his wife, at her first ultrasound, was told the baby’s heartbeat could not be found. Her doctors attempted to schedule a DNC which she firmly refused. The baby was a miracle from God and she would allow it all the time it needed to grow. Fred embraced this attitude, deeply saddened he was not with her, but profoundly proud that she believed a miracle would occur.

He wrote to ask for prayers for their child. That his wife would hear the heartbeat when she returns to the office for another ultrasound tomorrow. That her doctors would not insist on a DNC when one couldn’t be found. They want God to save their precious child, and Fred continues to speak to her belly on speakerphone when he calls from overseas. He tells the baby how hard they worked to create him/her. How long they’ve waited and how much they want this. How the baby should grow and become strong.

But, I thought, reading his words, the baby is gone. Doctors would not have suggested the procedure if they thought there was hope. And so I prayed for comfort and strength. I find I can’t ask for a miracle. I’m terribly sorry, which is what I wrote, and I know how badly he wanted to grow their family. He replied that they were firm in their belief that the baby would be healthy and wonderful. Again requested prayers for a good result tomorrow. And sent me hugs as his sister in Christ.

I keep puzzling over it. Because in my mind, the baby is gone. And it’s sad and awful and I hate that it happened to this couple. But it did. There will not be a heartbeat tomorrow and so I cannot ask God to provide one.

So is it that I don’t believe in miracles? I certainly think God could provide them and has done so in the past. I know He listens when we pray and guides us as much as we allow. I also know there is a limit to my understanding and that sometimes there are terrible events and circumstances. I don’t think it’s punishment or even necessarily a lesson. It just sucks sometimes and it’s beyond me to truly comprehend it, though I’m aware of theories that provide at least some satisfaction.

Given that I believe God can provide a miracle – even a heartbeat at a sonogram tomorrow – I also believe He won’t. I’m not sure why. Because there are people and things I wanted desperately – to the point of aching at the very thought of losing them – that I have been denied? Because I’m exposed at work to suffering via both disease and treatment? Because I loved someone and believed and hoped and let myself think that I’d be able to start my own family, only to see that I never had that particular man in any substantial way and that any fantasies of happily ever after were just that?

It was after that point that I reminded myself that “Your will be done.” Isn’t just a line in a prayer. Expecting that if God loves you, His plans will align with your own desires strikes me as immature. Wanting something doesn’t make it right – be it a job or relationship or publication or new car. And though a baby is – to me – a whole other level of utmost importance, sometimes terrible things happen. And wanting something – even something you think is good and right and wonderful – plus believing in God does not necessarily equal one getting what one wants or even deserves. I don’t know why. But I do see that as being true.

I want desperately to get married. I don’t see it happening though, so I feel rather silly whining about it. I’m lonely though, miss feeling affectionate toward someone, long for flirtation and smiles when I think of someone I hope is thinking of me.

“You’ll get married.” Dr. Counselor said many times when I was still seeing him. “God didn’t put that desire in your heart to deny it.”

I shook my head at him each time. “You don’t know that.” I’d reply. “People want all sorts of things that – if obtained – would be bad for them. I might have other things to do here. And though I wish you were right – that my longing for a partner means I get to have one – I think that’s a rather foolish way of thinking. Plus, if one says, “God made me want this, and won’t let me have it.” then how does one not get angry with God? Frustrated and withdrawn and sulky? And that’s not good. It seems there should be trust – faith – and trying to predict His will is a good way to mess that up.”

He would frown and nod, then brighten. “Well,” he’d decide, “let’s say that until we know differently, God wants you to find someone and get married.” And when I think of those moments, I’m glad I don’t see him anymore. Dr. Counselor could be one frustrating, little creature himself. Though likely right about my decent into pessimism.

I guess I don’t know if I’m envious of Fred’s faith or think him a fool. Probably more the latter. But I do wish – just a little – that when things look darkest, I was able to know that God loved me enough to provide something that was attributable to no one but Him. That He would reach and shift reality just for me.

But I try to keep my requests reasonable. Please help Mom not be so sick. Please be with us as she gains her strength. Guide me as I’m figuring out where to go from here, and please demand my attention when I forget to give it freely. I’d like You to bless my church, for those people have given me a warm, safe place to worship and a Pastor who I love. Please provide comfort and peace to my patients and those I see in the hallways. Give them rest and energy in the appropriate proportions and lead them to people who will listen and help. Watch over those of us in danger – regardless of what form that might take. I’d like someone to love, but You know that...

I do not think the universe is evil. Nor do I think it is particularly kind. People help each other, but can also be inexplicably cruel. I choose to recognize the duality – that to gasp with joy sometimes means that other moments will find me sobbing in despair. And so I didn’t respond to Fred’s last email, not wanting to do a single thing to change his hope, but not able to participate in it. It hurts too badly to be disappointed, I think. I prefer to be realistic and practical, but I sometimes miss the moments when I was brave enough to ask for miracles and expect that my friends would offer similar requests on my behalf.

I pray that God is with Fred and his wife tomorrow. That much, at least, I can do with all sincerity.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tuesday morning, still home

I woke at 3AM, ready to help, but without a Mom to care for. I got sad and wandered the house, took a shower, unable to rest because I had energy that I was ready to give and nobody to take it. I finally ended up on the couch, Sprout curled on my lap, and the soft fur, warm body and gentle purring lulled me enough that I could rejoin Chienne in the bedroom and rest.

It is difficult to alter routines. I physically hurt upon arriving home - the strain of helping Mom move around, the different sleep patterns, having people and noise when I'm used to quiet. But now I miss the noise, want desperately to walk down the hall to peek in on Mom in the morning's early hours, providing company when I inevitably find her awake. There is a tangible feeling of loss - my primary purpose for the past week is now hundreds of miles away.

So perhaps be prepared for posts to come that lament my single status and lack of my own family. Just a small warning.

I did talk to her this morning. She's doing well. Dad, however, sounded tired, offering that she didn't sleep well last night. It sounded to me as if last night was normal - he was up to rub her calves and try to ice and help and feel useless. He will adjust into waking again though. She liked sleeping in the guest bedroom, finding the 2 mattresses on the daybed raised her high enough so stand on her own. She had a nice time with Aunt yesterday and it sounds as though Aunt cooked enough to feed any army for several days. They see the doctor this afternoon and she promised to call on the way home.

I did bite back advice several times - I would do things differently, but they are doing fine. I need to let them be.

As for me, I made coffee in a super-clean coffeepot (thanks, Friend!) and had a couple of grapes (again, expressions of appreciation to Friend) after sleeping on clean sheets (I owe Friend a lot). I have answered email from work that I've ignored and must tackle personal correspondence later today. I have reading to do and work to consider. I need to try to force my focus back to what I do here.

The one constant - thanks to Friend's wireless router I installed at my parents' house (seriously - I have the best Friend ever.), I stayed involved with blogs. There is considerable comfort in reading about problems and accomplishments of people who live on the other side of the computer. I keep saying it, but I really do appreciate the thoughts and well wishes, having you read about moments that were likely dull for you but difficult for me. And I loved being able to read and think while here at my house and home at my parents'.

Now if I can remember where my cable channels are instead of pressing buttons that correspond to my parents' listings, I should be all set.

Oh, and I listened to more of The Thirteenth Tale on the way back yesterday. Seriously, people. Excellent, wonderful, amazing book. It's as good a book as Friend is a friend.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Monday, the back home version

Physical therapy - after an inauspicious start - went really well for Mom today. There was stretching and moving and I was very proud of her. We stopped at Quiznos to pick up lunch, Walgreens for a prescription refill (I called doctors and got things arranged this morning), and WalMart for knit nightgowns rather than the ones that aren't soft and stretchy.

With all our errands, we didn't arrive home until 11:30 rather than 10:30 as planned. I was eating part of a cookie when the clock said they day had moved into afternoon. I glanced over to see Mom crying, felt my stomach turn, and wrapped the rest of the cookie and tucked it in my purse. I found a spot to sit on the couch and let her bury her face in my neck, her sobbing breaths tickling my neck even as I cried on the top of her head.

"This is silly." I gasped, trying for control. "It's not like I'm leaving forever and ever. I can come back soon."

She nodded, twisting her face as she tried to stem her own tears. I clung for a moment, realized it wasn't going to get any easier, then released her with a few more kisses and murmured words, then walked to the car. I spent a great part of the drive home weeping - it was rather awful.

But I have returned home to a clean house that doesn't smell like me. It's odd. Chienne was very pleased to behold my homecoming and even braved some fireworks to sit on my lap for longer. She is now hiding and I have taken Advil for my headache and am preparing to sleep without waking up every 3 hours. In my own bed. With my own bathroom and shower. And no noises I don't choose. (Well, we still have firecracker idiots, so make that few noises.) I ordered pizza and have unpacked the few things I brought home. I basically wore 3 pairs of pajamas for the past week - Dad really kept up with laundry so I just kept cycling through. As wonderful as it is at my house, I miss Mom terribly and am struggling to transition out of being a major player in her care.

This is hard. Feeling pulled in two directions, getting used to waking at odd hours and taking care of someone then leaving, being back in a life that felt very far away and now doesn't feel right anymore. I'm a bit unsettled.

So I'll shower and read and sleep. And I'll leave you with a photo of Chienne and Little One on the couch at my parents' house from a happier trip home. Given that I saw my mother in a lot of pain on that couch, it's good to remember that it's not normally a place for illness and misery.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sunday

Time is measured in 4 hour increments. Mom takes medicine at the interval, so I'm tuned into thinking that far ahead. I like to stay close to those marks so that any misery isn't allowed to escalate.

Having been up with her at 3, I went back to bed around 4:30. We often talk while the pain eases and I reposition ice packs and help her as she shifts and alternates between sitting and lying down. I put in a Friends DVD for quiet background noise and kissed her forehead before heading down the hall, reminding myself to wake again at 7.

Dad went to sleep last night around 10 after a screaming argument. When Mom snaps at him - as she sometimes does lately - he yells back. Last night was very unpleasant. At one point, he was so enraged that I could see how badly he wanted to hit something. Though he's never struck any of us, I positioned myself to attack should he change his mind. It's clear I have issues with my father - deeply buried, of course, but there is enough animosity and blame that when he angers me, I'm resolute in whatever my argument happens to be. He sent a fan flying into the wall and headed down the hall.

"It's always about you." He shot over his shoulder. So Mom and I yelled - unplanned but in unison - "I'm/She's the one who's sick!" He stomped back to the room, continuing to grumble about how he was wronged in the argument when I told him to be an adult.

"Is she being an adult?" He pouted and I raised my eyebrows and asked if he was seriously saying these things. So he helped her up, then went to bed. And started the next morning with his typical list of things that were wrong and people that were stupid.

I do make things worse in validating Mom's feelings when she's annoyed or hurt. I see her point and the next offense seems more heinous than it otherwise might. So it's good I'm going home. When out of my normal routine, she is my only focus. Dad has a schedule and follows it. He'll figure out how to mesh that with Mom's once I'm out of the way.

I did get the house cleaned and organized yesterday. Friend was shocked that I knew how to dust, having removed felt-like dirt from objects in my house. Though my childhood home was nowhere near as bad, I did do a thorough job, removing clutter by throwing it in the trash or in baskets for storage (then forgetting where I put stuff, leading to a late night search for the other walkie talkie) and making a grocery list for today. I still have to hear the "Someone left stuff on the table." or "Someone should go through those papers." But now I also get "Someone threw that away!" or "Someone put something where I can't find it!" Which is at least different.

But I cause arguments even then. I can call him names in my head, but Mom feels the need to defend me. Which is OK, but I'm realizing that the complex that fears I must be constantly irritating to those around me came in part from growing up with someone who was constantly irritated.

So I left them arguing this morning to head to the store with my neatly organized list and Mom's Kroger card. I found an excellent parking space before 8AM and wandered a nearly empty store. It was cool and brightly lit and I walked slowly (having twisted my own knee this morning, leading to a horrified exclamation from Mom) while collecting my items. Stuff for dinners, a few breakfast items, snacks for lunch and throughout the day. Mom is able to eat and is undeniably stronger. She does have resources if Dad doesn't handle things, though I suspect he will. I hope.

I returned home feeling overwhelmed with satisfaction, realizing as I drove with the air conditioner as high as it would go that it's the first time this week that I was successful. I got everything on my list, some of it was on sale, and it was safely loaded into the back of Mom's Liberty as I drove home.

"I did it." I smiled as Mom looked up from her book and she smiled. "It's the first time this week that I haven't screwed something up." She frowned and opened her mouth to disagree as Dad began to say we hadn't enough room to store all this food in the house. I rolled my eyes and went to put groceries away when Mom called that she'd like to sit at the counter and watch. So Dad and I helped her up and got her situated on a stool and she tucked bags into an old tissue box so they could be reused later, then sliced a cantelope while she coached me through washing a whole chicken to make chicken and noodles later.

With a wrinkled nose, I made sure it was well rinsed, then tucked it in the crock pot with stock.

"That grosses you out?" Mom asked as I closed my eyes and muttered, "don't think about it, don't think about it, don't think about it." while transferring chicken parts to rest alongside the body. I peeked open one eye to nod at her.

"After all you've dealt with from me this week?"

"I neither know nor love this chicken." I offered and she shook her head and pushed a full tupperware of juicy, pale orange fruit toward me so I could put it away. I cleaned the fridge so Dad can find things. There is plenty of food in the freezer for times they don't know what to have. I'll put together and cheesy potato casserole today, then Aunt can finish chicken and noodles when she's here tomorrow. Dad offered that he could do soup and sandwiches, so the makings for those are in the cupboard and meat drawer.

As frustrated as I get with the man, when Mom asked for a bologna (I sing the song when I spell that) sandwich, he brought it to her open faced so she could see the smiley face he drew with mustard. And he just came inside, breathless and sweating, because he thought he heard me yell while he was out in his garage. (Though I didn't. Mom's sleeping. I'm writing. All is quiet and well.) So he might deserve more credit that I can give him at the moment. But they'll be OK.

Because I must head home - tomorrow at noon.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Saturday

  • We went to therapy yesterday.
    • The drive went well.
    • Therapy was OK - she did a lot more than she thought she could.
    • She came home in tremendous pain and couldn't get her legs to stop hurting.
      • We tried pain meds.
      • Massage.
      • Ice.
      • Each helped some but not enough
  • She had a shower today.
  • Dad went to a cruise in last night and mowed the lawn today.
    • Sometimes he's great with her.
    • Other times I want to kick him in the shins.
    • Like this morning? Mom had to use the bathroom, so we got her in there and she wanted to prop up her feet. Dad insisted on brushing his teeth in the sink that would be most in the way. So I was forced to correct him, which irritated both of us. He's not malicious - just oblivious to better choices, I think.
    • Still. For crying out loud.
  • She is sleeping, though she tends to wake me up right in the middle of a sleep cycle. (That's OK, but explains why my mood continues to deteriorate.)
  • Friend called last night to report car trouble and gently suggested it was time to come home on Monday.
    • She's been amazing and I've imposed on her a great deal.
    • I do have a job, dog, cat, house, life. I guess I'm an adult and need to tend to my own affairs.
    • And there are many moments where I miss my house and puppy and quiet life.
    • Yet I dread leaving with ever fiber of my being. I'm worried and stressed and don't trust Dad to take care of her as well as I do.
    • Aunt is coming on Monday afternoon to stay - that will make me feel better.
    • That being said, I will cry and cry and cry (as will Mom) when I leave.
  • This is hard.
  • But we are hanging in there and continuing to improve.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Thursday

I woke this morning to wretching, wincing even as I scurried down the hall. I held Mom's bowl and rubbed her back as she was sick, murmuring sympathy and trying to mask worry that we just couldn't beat this sickness. But it's ending better than it began. She hasn't been sick since 5AM. We've switched meds (Phenergan instead of Compazine, all Hydrocodone; no Tramadol) and she has eaten several times today, done her exercises and is moving around a bit better.

"Check on your dad." Mom requested later this morning, and I kissed her forehead (checking for fever as well as displaying affection) as I moved toward the back door.

"He's OK. Moving around." I reported.

He headed out to finally epoxy his new garage floor and Mom was concerned about the heat. I flatly refused to help, though I did finally go out - walkie talkie in hand - to see the finished product.

"I'm heading out." I reported to Mom. "Dad's shoes are too big for me. It's hard to walk in them."

She laughed and asked if I was almost to the garage.

"Almost." I reported back, glancing around. "Your fence garden looks really good, Mom."

"Does it need weeding?" She asked. "It's been a week since surgery, so I haven't weeded. Are the green beans ready?"

"I don't know. I'll give Dad his water, then go look."

I made it to the garage, congratulated my father on his work, snapped a couple of pictures for Mom, then walked back to the fenced yard to see Mom's plants.

"Where is stuff?" I asked after depressing the button on my walkie talkie.

"Green beans first." She reported. "Then sugar snap peas, then tomatoes, then pumpkins along the back fence."

"It's really pretty, Mom." I sighed. "Everything's so healthy. Flowering and growing and, Oh! Producing food! The beans are ready! Some of them, anyway. I'll take pictures so you can see."

"How are the peas?" She asked. "I didn't have any last week." I was too entranced by the bounty of green beans I was harvesting into a basket to notice, though when I took Little One out to see Grandma's garden, we noticed there were many peas as well. I shall harvest those tomorrow.

I weeded as I went along, gently moving soft leaves over to find beans that were just the tiniest bit fuzzy from their successful growth spurt. Everything was soft from the recent rain and fragrant in the moderate heat. I lifted my face to the sun as I sat on the ground, searching for mature beans to place in the basket, and reporting to Mom that her seeds had done very well. I tried to rest her tomatoes on small pieces of fence - they were heavy with fruit and lying on the ground. I brought in the single ripe tomato and nodded with satisfaction over the many green ones that are just waiting to mature.

"You'll have lots of pumpkins." I said, bringing her the basket of beans and the tomato to touch and smell. "You'll be better then and you can look at them yourself."

She nodded, then sighed. It's hard. She spoke to a friend at work to ask a question about the lump in her throat and began to sob as soon as she heard the familiar voice. I took the phone and talked when she handed it to me.

"Hi, this is Katie. She's struggling a bit, but doing OK. I think it's just hearing someone from her normal world and realizing she's not normal yet. She's tired and frustrated and sad." I explained to a sympathetic woman while I handed Mom tissues and patted her soothingly.

"It will get better." I said as she winced while walking this afternoon. "I know it feels terrible and hard and far away, but you are making progress and this will get better."

"I made the wrong decision." She said, still sad and discouraged. "I shouldn't have done this. I wasn't strong enough. I just can't do this."

But she can do it and will get better. It was elective surgery that she really did need. This is hard, but it's not life-threatening. She has support and help and the doctors are trying to give us meds that help rather than hurt. It will get better - there will be easing of pain and increased range of motion and the ability to sleep because she's tired rather than drugged.

But today isn't so bad either. We're moving forward and since I brought in some spearmint sprigs, it now smells of summer and mint rather than stale sickness. Progress. Finally.