Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The goal, I decided as I pressed my back into the exterior wall of the hospital, is to get out alive. Secondary to survival is to emerge in a superior state than existed when one arrived. And third - for goals should come in threes - one should aim that the process be no more painful than is absolutely necessary.

I smiled at the man even as I made room for him on the narrow sidewalk leading to one entrance of the hospital. A tall, thin fellow, he rose carefully from his wheelchair and moved toward the minivan waiting for him several feet from the door. He was accompanied by three women - one his age and two who were older.

“Sit in the front,” the woman I assumed to be his wife said. “Are you in pain? Going to fall?”

He shook his head without speaking, but in order to take a step, he placed a foot a bit forward, tested its ability to hold his weight, and paused before shifting forward to scoot the opposite shoe toward his goal. If it is possible to hurry while moving extremely slowly, the two older women behind him were doing so. Mincing their steps, they fluttered behind the man like two very busily concerned ducklings, speaking quickly and gently as they asked him questions and offered advice as he covered the short span of sidewalk between the door and his ride home as I stood aside and waited.

The four of them moved past me and I didn’t stay to watch him settle into the passenger seat. Instead, I moved into the hospital for the third time that day, resuming my brisk walk toward my destination.

On my second trip to the hospital, I had seen another post-doc and we both stopped to exchange greetings. I don’t recall our first meeting, and we've talked only a few times before but I’ve long liked her. Of Middle Eastern descent, she’s exotically lovely and has a bubbly grace that I’ve never seen replicated. She’s one of those people I think could be a friend, but I’ve never tried hard enough to create a personal relationship.

“Hi!” she said with a smile and I grinned back, feeling frumpy for a moment in my cable knit sweater when faced with her tailored ensemble.

“How are you?” I asked. “I heard you took a vacation.” Dawn sits near her and mentioned that she was out of town when we had lunch several days ago.

“I went to Florida,” she told me, pronouncing all three syllables in the name of the state. I tend to mush it into two. “It was wonderful.”

“Where were you?” I asked and she offered the name of a city farther south than my family typically ventures on the gulf side. She said she had a fabulous time. We moved aside to allow residents to swarm past us in the hallway before she elaborated.

“It was warm enough to walk on the beach in a bikini. The water was cold, but as I was walking one afternoon, I saw dolphins swimming near the shore.”

“Oh,” I sighed. “How wonderful.”

“I’ve never seen them so I decided to get in. The water was very cold but I am a strong swimmer. So I moved into the ocean until I was in up to here.” She placed a hand at her shoulders. “Then I tapped the water,” she dabbed her hand on an imaginary surface to indicate how gently she moved her hand, “and put my face in to call to them. Sound travels through water, you know.” I nodded - I do know that.

“One of them started to come a bit closer - I’ve heard they can be friendly creatures - and the rest were swimming farther away. Dolphins are quite big and I was amazed as I watched them, trying to coax the friendly one near to me.”

Her wide eyes looked dreamy and I smiled as she recalled her adventure. I waited for a moment, thinking again that I should take a vacation. Then I asked how her research was going and watched her expression transform into the mask of resigned stress we so often wear.

“I am busy,” she said, face and voice and stance losing all traces of the carefree wonder and joy that had infused her story of the dolphins. “And there are problems.” I nodded with sympathy and shrugged when she asked how I was.

“One of my papers got rejected this morning, so I submitted it somewhere else just now. I need to finish something across campus, but there are always people using the equipment I need. But there’s a faculty job that I’m interviewing for, which makes me feel rather special that they’re at least considering me. And I’m doing a new project that’s time consuming and tedious, but if I can get something to work, it should be quite cool.”

“Very good,” she said and I nodded. “Did you ever get SPB to allow you more resources?”

I laughed without really meaning to and shook my head. “We’re currently going around on that point again. I don’t know that the results will be much different.” I thought my expression - resignation, disappointment, inferiority - was likely easy to read.

“I am sorry,” she offered and I nodded my thanks. “I continue to have problems too,” she sighed and I cocked my head inquisitively. “It does no good to speak of it. I have decided not to complain and argue and try to make things change. It is hard for me since I always speak my mind and fight what is unfair. But, here it does not work.”

“Just adds stress,” I agreed and we nodded at each other in understanding.

“It seems sad,” she noted, “that two women like us - smart, young, beautiful, kind - cannot find a way to be successful here. Or when we do well, we feel like it has been such a battle.” I nodded - feeling a spark of anger. If it was just me, I’d write my complaints off as a statistical outlier. But finding peers who struggle - women I find smart and talented and wonderful - makes me seethe against the powers that be who don’t allow the same distribution of resources - equipment, time, money, encouragement, friendship, good collaborations - across the board. The fact that it has been women and minorities who I’ve personally seen struggle makes the disparity even more heinous in my mind.

Regardless, we agreed to meet for lunch or drinks soon and she went one way while I went another. The equipment I needed remained in use, so I returned to my office to page some people, reply to email and make some measurements in what appears to be an endless process for this new project. I later returned to the hospital once more.

On that last trip, I noticed the particular gentleman who was departing the hospital. I stood aside so as not to impede his progress, smiled when he glanced at me with a brief nod, offered a brief prayer that he’ll heal and find each happiness afforded him in however many days remain of his life. I hope he’s settled comfortably at home. That he doesn’t have to return to the building that I entered. That his family doesn’t have to wait in a room with moderately comfortable chairs so they can know how he’s doing.

I remained glum, thinking life could be terribly unfair and difficult sometimes, the contrast all the sharper when hearing of friendly dolphins and beautiful beaches that I don’t visit in favor of work. I decided to repeat my threefold goals as I anticipate the ending of this post-doc while moving past patients in wheelchairs waiting for elevators - survive, improve and endure only what is necessary.


"It seems academic blogs can get overwhelmingly negative at times," I told Friend over dinner this weekend. She gave me the look that indicates I have said something wildly obvious and therefore moderately idiotic.

It's not that I mean to be depressing. And in an environment with a boss I adore, excellent collaborators, incredible freedom to work from home and a very decent publication record from years that could otherwise be characterized as a moderate failure, I realize there are people who have it far worse than I do - I know that I've been mostly lucky. But it hasn't been ideal either. And on some days, that fact seems overwhelming.


Propter Doc said...

I'm sorry that there are so many people in difficult positions at your institution. That is bad.

Yes, academic blogs are negative sometimes but perhaps not for the obvious reason(that we like to whinge or complain), perhaps it is because it is harder to share our successes. Would the readers understand that small bit of code that you perfected the other day, and appreciate the improvement it represents to your research? Or if I got my analysis back and it was perfect? I think the successes are more piecemeal and difficult to explain, and require less analysis. You wouldn't really be inclined to write a long post analysing why something went right, for fear of bragging.

Estrella said...

I don't find your blog depressing. In fact, I thought this entry was rather uplifting ... the kindness and concern shown by the three mother hens toward the hospital patient, the wondrous description of dolphins, and your mention of a quick prayer you sent up for the gentleman. I wish you the best with all that you're working on/towards!

Amanda said...

I agree somewhat with propter doc as to why academic blogs are negative sometimes. However, I think it has more to do with the ability to talk about these things in a relatively safe atmosphere. By remaining somewhat anonymous we can write about the harder parts of our jobs and realize that it's not just me. It's good to know that I'm not weak, or stupid, or inferior, or fill-in-the-blank. That these feelings and occurrences happen to everyone. That I am not a statistical outlier.

Then again, it is horrible that these things do happen to everyone. Good luck on everything you're working on and I hope that SPB comes around!

Amelie said...

I'm sorry for the rejected paper. Lunch with the other post-doc sounds nice, have fun!

Propter Doc has a good point, but at least for me it is also that I'd like to tell it as it is, which often means hard. Even though we enjoy the science we do, it can be hard work for a number of reasons, and I would not want anyone to get into this business without knowing (as I feel I did).

Anonymous said...

Man, I'm jealous about the dolphins! Super cool, she's very lucky.

Academia isn't exactly the most women-and-minority-friendly world, so I've heard. Don't discount the kudos you deserve for pushing past all those crappy obstacles.

- Anna

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