Thursday, February 28, 2008

Work... doesn't work.

I have this. It's part of a paper and has been included in a few talks I've given. Let's say - for the sake of argument - that it is interesting. If it was interesting and you did look at it, I could tell you that blue and red were collected on different days. (Yellow is where they overlap.) So the question of interest has to do with why so much red and so little blue?

One of the members of my committee asked a question after my seminar about the squigglies that make up the red and blue. The squigglies are important and I hadn't thought to look at them. So I nodded appreciatively, wrote down the idea and came back to work.

I have been less than productive of late due to sheer lack of interest. So it was with some surprise that I found myself opening files because I found myself curious about the answer to this particular question.

All I really knew was that I to pick a spot to start. So I did.

From this pot, I knew I could make graphs of squigglies that were related to the squigglies I wanted. So I did.

Then I squinted at the intermediate squigglies and frowned. "Well," I thought, "no wonder there aren't many blues in that first figure. The blue squigglies are all confused. The overall pattern is shown beautifully by the reds, but the blues are drifting and noisy and rather unattractive." This made me feel sorry for the blues for a minute - the pretty things in life get all the attention.

So I did what I always do in these situations. I sent email to members of my graduate research group that explains my problem, offers what I've done so far, and concludes with, "Please help me. I'm stuck. Many thanks." And someone always replies, tells me I've done something wrong or weird and we start to email back and forth about what should be done and where to go from here. Then I'm not stuck anymore.

I read people in grad school or doing post-docs and I cock my head in confusion sometimes. If you're confused or stuck or feeling bad, you go to your fellow group members, I think. I was trained with incredible scientists and have kept in touch with all of them. I use them as resources constantly for questions like what hotel to stay in at this conference, what they think of the supervisor at that job, where to go next with analysis, what free software is available to do X, who to recommend for reviewers at Journal Y. They send papers and advice and encouragement. I studied off of their old exams in grad school and added my own to the file as I finished classes. I copied styles from someone's prospectus and someone else's defense. We trade slides when doing presentations and hug when we meet at conferences. It's delightful, but I always assumed it was standard. And it's why I visited my graduate program - those relationships were so important to me that I feel compelled to offer them to others, even if from a distance.

For those of you who don't have that sort of expertise and companionship freely available, I'm profoundly sorry. I wouldn't be here or doing this without it.

Anyway, they offered ideas and I searched online and read documentation to try to get the squigglies I wanted. I typed in my terminal window and opened text files. I transfered numbers between Excel and Matlab and specialized pieces of software. Between my brief moments of stunning triumph and more frequent bouts of crushing confusion and defeat, I realized I was happy. Tapping at keys and waiting until I could look at something. Puzzling over a project I know well and trying to figure out where processing errors were and where actual trends of interest were playing out. I clicked and dragged and displayed and napped.

(I sleep a lot when I think hard.) (Actually, I sleep a lot in general. But I feel less guilty when I decide my brain needs to rest and mull things over.)

Then, after two days of thinking and pages in my online lab notebook devoted to documenting the process overall and the outputs of functions and things I think are weird, I have a simple graph in Excel. And I see the blue and I see the red. And if you look at the right regions, it does look like some version of an expected squiggly. It goes up and down and then back up a bit. But the blue has an extra bump. And the red is a bit odd in different ways.

So I emailed my people again.

"Huh," we all said. But they provided more ideas.

There are several things I need from my office computer in order to continue in earnest. But I could try one thing. And I got this last picture. It doesn't look much like the one before it. The reds and blues are refusing to behave in any consistent way and while that could be correct and meaningful, it's beyond me to figure it out tonight. Which is why the tapping on the keys is creating a blog post rather than more files and graphs and results.

So I'm done for today, which is OK since I'm tired. But it's been good - surprisingly good, actually - to analyze data again. To wake up feeling curious and eager to do what I do. To wonder about squigglies and spots and reds and blues and why things happen and how this all relates to the bigger picture. To search and read and make notes on techniques I don't need now but might use later.

My other reason for writing was that I realize that some of you who are without strong communities within your research groups find that support online. And Friend was able to offer advice to another person who writes a blog recently and I thought that was rather lovely. So this is one part of what I do - sans google-able search terms. If you would ever like my help, be in touch. (I might not know the answers, but I have people I can ask.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Snowy (sort of)

"You know," I said to some friends when I visited the frozen north, "in the south? We wouldn't leave our houses in weather like this." I swept inches of fluffy snow off my roof and windows before departing to obtain bagels and precious coffee. Large flakes fell from the sky and coated everything mobile. Stationary objects had long been blanketed in white and I looked out at them once I'd entered my freezing car.

"It's almost uncivilized," I groused, shaking my head at how cold I was and the fact that my coat and gloves were become wet as the snow that covered me began to melt. I drove slowly, taking my foot off the accelerator often to coat through slippery spots. When it came time to turn left, the person behind me honked at my lack of haste and extreme care.

"I know," I said. "Sorry. I'm out of practice. But everyone would have stayed home in the south - we would not have had this problem."

"Oh," I said this morning when I shuffled down the hall, "it did snow." Friend had mentioned that it was snowing in town and there was the barest dusting of white in my neighborhood too. The snow hasn't yet melted, instead forming patterns on the rooftops and nestling at the base of the grass that has remained green. It's pretty, though not at all impressive.

And - like the civilized southerners they are, traffic has been sparse as I've watched out my window where a continuous stream of cars should be and schools are all closed. Though I'm eager to depart this particular region, I will miss many things when I go. Waffle House. Walks every morning, mostly in t-shirts. The utter glory of springtime and all the flowering trees and bushes. Manners and friendliness and gently drawling accents. And the awesome power of snow to make life pause, snuggle in and enjoy the emergency supplies we have stocked for such an occasion.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday Outlined

  • Mom had her gallbladder removed this morning.
    • She sounded out of it when we spoke this morning.
    • We talked again tonight and she said she was sore, but seemed to be doing reasonably well.
  • The department got new carpeting.
    • It feels all bouncy when I walk around.
    • This pleases me more than it probably should.
  • I accomplished very little at work.
    • Made a list by going through old notes.
    • Made pretty figures based on a question I received at my last seminar presentation.
      • It was a good question and I have the data to answer it.
      • If I only knew what the data mean.
  • Then I accomplished even less at home.
    • I took a nap.
    • Answered some emails.
    • Read part of my book.
    • Called my parents.
    • Wrote a boring blog post.
  • The roofing guy comes tomorrow.
    • I hope to convince him that he'd like to waive my $1000 deductible and do the job for what insurance is offering.
    • I don't know that this will work, but I also don't know that I want to put $1000 into a roof I'm soon going to try to sell.
    • In a bad market.
    • Crap.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Not Impressed

"Hey, buddy," I said to my stripey cat when we returned home. Friend bugs me about buying toys for Chienne all the time but rarely bringing much home for the cat. In my defense, he doesn't destroy his toys so he doesn't require as many new ones. But, still, I bought him a feathery toy and a dot - he loves to chase the dot from laser pointers - that attached to his neck. He allowed me to velcro the device around his neck, realized he could not remove it and fled.

Sprout returned to the living room not much later and allowed Friend to pick him up from his hiding place behind the plant. She turned on the red light and he freaked the hell out, racing back down the hall to hide under my bed. Friend followed him after asking where he went.

"Under my bed," I offered. "And he shouldn't be hard to find. He is glowing red after all." I heard her making soothing noises and she returned several minutes later.

"Did you take it off?" I asked and she shook her head.

"He won't let me," she said after telling me the light was quite bright. I wandered down the hall to check. I dropped to my tummy on the floor and opened my mouth to speak to my tortured feline but giggled instead. Then I went to get my camera. Then I reached between the wall and the bed and he let me release the velco and remove the awful thing from his neck. After a suitable amount of time passed, he went to eat some kibble.

But the toy was not such a success.

Patience is a virtue.

Just not one of mine.

When I was younger, birds had an unfortunate tendency to descend the chimney into the fireplace that resided in our basement. From there, they would escape, fluttering around the house in a confused and frightened manner matched only by my own feelings on the matter. I do not like birds - they fly and are therefore much more mobile than I am. They have beaks and could easily peck me to death. I think. Suffice it to say that I’m terrified of the airborne demons and at no point did I want them in my childhood home.

On one occasion, the creature had landed on a tall shelf in the corner of the living room. Dad had propped the front door open, allowing the frigid air inside, and was attempting to herd our visitor out of the corner and toward the gateway to freedom using a tennis racket. Mom, from whom I inherited my distrust of birds, and I were assigned to hold a blanket over the large opening to the dining room. This effectively separates the living room from the rest of the house and given that the bird would be trapped in the living room, Dad felt confident in his ability to make it depart using the open door.

“Do not,” he instructed clearly as he pranced around the living room with his orange tennis racket purchased on sale, “let the blanket go.” When he finally convinced the poor bird to leave its perch, his voice grew more excited and demanding as he reminded us to hold our positions.

At this point, I trusted Dad as much as I trusted that bird, so I peeked around my corner of the blanket to see the flying minion of evil heading straight for me. And though I wanted the bird out of the house and wanted to have as little to do with the process as possible and knew I should continue to hold the blanket and hope for the best, I gave a squeak of alarm, dropped my half of the fabric and scampered down the hall to barricade myself in my room.

“Katie!” Mom said, exasperated, before she fled to the corner of the kitchen. I heard Dad swear, convinced that if I’d held the blanket, the bird would have turned and seen the front door rather than escaping through the gap between the top of the blanket and the ceiling, thereby rendering us under attack and helpless. (Because Brother broke the other racket, we were left with only one.) I listened from my bedroom at the front of the house and called out to check their progress. When they assured me the bird was gone, I walked down the short hallway to listen to Dad lecture me on his original plan and why I’d ruined it.

“Birds are scary,” I told Mom and she nodded in agreement while cuddling me close and we giggled together while Dad looked on with disappointment.

Journal rejections are like birds. They’re unpredictable and scary and hiding behind a blanket only gets you so far. Thoughts of failure are attracted to unsubmitted papers so having a rejected paper sit without a plan is like inviting the flocks toward me, without even a tennis racket for protection.

So my goal, of course, is to get rid of the paper. Pick a place, edit as needed and resubmit. Then I can stop thinking about it. And the birds of doom will hopefully stay away. So I resubmitted Wednesday’s rejection on Thursday. That left time open to receive another rejection on Friday.

Instead of a frantic rush to fill out forms and approve pdfs to get the rejection away from me, I took a breath. I emailed someone who reviews for that journal pretty extensively, and asked for his thoughts on my abstract. I went shopping with Friend, happily clutching my two books to my chest until I found an empty chair and sat to read. I took an increasingly heavy pile of books from her, set them on my lap with the modest paperbacks I'd selected and turned pages to escape into a story. We had lunch and stopped at Target and when we came home, I’d received a reply to my email.

“I think JournalInQuestion would be very receptive toward an article like this,” he wrote. And I nodded.

“I don’t know what to do,” I told Friend. “I don’t want to pick wrong this time. I don’t want it to get rejected again - it’s becoming really hard for me to cope.”

She looked at me with some sympathy. A kind gesture, indeed, considering that I’d been ranting and whining about reviewers who are nasty and editors who should do a better job of picking constructive people instead of obviously unhappy jackasses who are out to kick at people for mostly random reasons. Dead to me, I tell you. Dead To Me.

So I copied and pasted and filled out forms for JournalInQuestion. I saved and continued and wrote a letter to the editor. I made sure references were properly formatted and double spaced. I downloaded a pdf and signed it before scanning and uploading it again. I checked the pdf by quickly flipping through the pages, then I opened the html view of my final proof, eager to be done.

In a rare moment of clarity, I minimized the window, logged out and read a few more chapters of my book. Then I went to bed.

“I will read that in the morning,” I told Friend of my plan. “Then I should see errors I’d ignore tonight and hopefully make appropriate corrections.” She nodded at me.

I woke this morning from a disturbing dream that I was moved to a tiny work area where I could not display my stuffed neuron or pretty postcards or framed journal cover that keeps me from packing up and quitting amidst all these rejections. I was told to quit whining and accept my fate when I reacted to the move of my desk with outrage. I glared around the room at people who had better desks than mine and began to plot revenge. I blinked myself awake to find Chienne had taken the middle of the bed and I was scooted to one side, surrounded by pillows and fluffy blankets. I much preferred my dream yesterday when Friend and I won the race through the maze around the ice cream shop. We had scampered around the man dressed as a brown dinosaur as he tripped up many of the children who were competing and raced toward the beribboned finish line. We crossed first and were awarded a providence in Canada. When I told Friend of our victory, still foggy from sleep and slurring my words, she paused and asked if I couldn’t have won property somewhere warmer.

Anyway, I shuffled out to the kitchen, pleased that there was enough coffee left from yesterday for me to have a cup, and sat down to read my proof. I wrinkled my nose over the beginning of the abstract and decided I’d fix it later. I’m sharpest in the morning - there is about an hour window where I feel clear and creative and stable - and I read critically enough to change wording or reiterate important points. I corrected figure legends to make them completely explicit. I recalled bits of rejection letters and took out some text while adding other sentences. I opened my Word document next to the html window and corrected and nudged and took a few moments to think. Then, pleased with my progress, I uploaded new files and changed details in a few others and looked at the proof again.

Just as I submitted the final document, there came a scratching sound from the fireplace across the room from where I sat. I glanced over and watched Sprout, situated on the arm of the couch closest to that corner, become a bit more fluffy than normal. Chienne, lying behind my knees, looked at me with fear-widened eyes. I patted her before regarding the persistent sounds with some dismay of my own. While I sat and waited, the dog sought refuge in her bathtub and Sprout sprang down to crouch directly in front of the fireplace, eager to greet whatever might enter. I sighed with relief when the scratching noises ceased. While I might now be more capable of dealing with a bird, my experience with mice lends some doubt to the matter.

But, next time, I will at least wait two nights before resubmitting a paper. Probably.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Unedited Post

It is grey and cloudy. I saw but 5 cars as the dog and I walked around the neighborhood. I tugged her out of flowerbeds and plodded along the quiet streets and decided that the wind was cold enough to notice, but not quite enough to sting. I used to compose blog posts on my morning walks with Chienne. Sort through stories, think through topics and decide what I wanted to say. I find I’m now more occupied with the fact that I forgot a Kleenex and my nose is getting runny. Or wondering how the new shoes are rubbing a blister on my fourth toe and trying to decide which shoes I could wear later to avoid that sore spot. I run through the same list of job possibilities - each with their pros and cons - and wonder where I’ll go next.

“How’s it going?” people will ask with great frequency. I’ve not searched in secret - it’s clear to people near and far that I’m actively looking and traveling and interviewing. It’s unfortunately likely that my bouts of misery in this particular place are common knowledge. My recent trip back to grad school proved that I’m likely to remember this southern state and my colleagues with great fondness. I’m glad of that - I think that it was more a question of how I fit in here rather than this particular department or institution being unhappy.

“Hey,” Steve greeted me as I asked someone if a seat was taken for seminar yesterday afternoon. I glanced back - for one of my defining characteristics is that I’m oblivious, so lost in my own thoughts that I will walk right past people without seeing them at all - and smiled at him. He shrugged when I asked him about the status of our project, some six years old now. I nodded when he asked if I had time to meet after the seminar finished.

“I’ll stop bumping into you now,” I told the girl to my left. The seats swivel and I had turned to talk to Steve, glancing her legs with my knees each time. She smiled and said it was fine and I shifted a bit to find a comfortable spot.

I went to seminar this week because I was on campus anyway. I had meant to drop Friend off to get her car and had, in fact, made it to the house she shares near campus. But she sighed when she noted that her roommate was parked behind her and I’d just patted her knee in some attempt to comfort her most recent batch of tears. So, waiting to make the left turn into her street, I glanced at her and the pile of used Kleenex on the floor and told her I would take her and wait until she finished. Unlike my stubborn withdrawal in times of pain and sadness, Friend does better with someone around. I cry alone - and have done so for her more than once in the past couple days - but it comforts me to be able to see her. Plus, at least I know she’s eating - I feed people in an attempt at comfort.

Given that I also eat to comfort myself, I wasn’t hungry by the time seminar rolled around. I’d picked up breadsticks a couple of hours earlier and had zipped up my sweater to hide the stain I’d made when I slopped sauce on my white shirt. So I grabbed a can of soda and sat down with the thought that seminars should have a site like amazon. I should be able to go and type in a talk and see what comments people have left about the speaker. Is he entertaining? Strong accent? Spends 5 minutes on each slide? Does she flip back and forth through slides, a trend that makes me dizzy and mildly ill? Are there pictures of animal organs in her talk? Or are figures done more in cartoons? If I like Speaker A and D but not B and C, will I like this new speaker? Can you tell me what kinds of talks people who like him tend to enjoy? In the absence of such information, I sat through a seminar that might have been interesting had I any background to follow his remarks. So I groused and checked my watch and waited impatiently for the ordeal to end. If attending seminars is how I prove I take my job seriously, screw it. I personally feel that there are reasons other than the laziness of students and postdocs that these suckers are poorly attended.

“My paper was rejected this week,” I told Steve as we walked back to his office. “So that’s always delightful.”

“I had one rejected a couple weeks ago. Second journal I tried, too,” he offered after we’d discussed which of my papers and which journals I tried and how bad the comments were. We went through the same set of questions for his paper and I asked where he’d send it next. He shrugged, looking discouraged and I mustered energy for a pep talk.

“It took me years - two, I think - to get my paper in VeryGoodJournal. Boss and I rewrote the sucker more times than I can remember, but then it got selected for a virtual journal and made the cover with one of its figures. So sometimes good papers just take some time to find the right reviewers. Who are interested in improving the paper rather than noting how smart and cool they are by leaving nasty comments and rejecting it. And who review of a journal of goodness and light rather than darkness and evil. Bastards from the firey pits of hell. But, fine. Whatever.”

Steve paused a moment to let me scowl at the thought of the freaking reviewers before asking me how many journals that paper visited before being published.

“Five?” I said, trying to remember. “Many - I do know that much. It’s a sucky process, and I don’t know how to get around the multiple rejections, kiddo. But I do know if you keep trying, you’ll likely get in somewhere. That’s my skill - not writing excellent papers that are immediately accepted and revered. But pushing and rewriting and pushing some more until somebody understands what I’m trying to tell them and prints it.”

“I’ll try again, then,” Steve promised before we made notes on where to go next with long-neglected project.

I returned to get email straight from the firey pits of hell where morons who can’t write in complete, grammatically correct sentences said something about how the logic was circular and the paper wasn’t very good. I wasn’t sad upon reading these - I went straight to pissed off. They were far worse than the initial reviews and even more nonsensical. So while I did start to wallow in my failure, I’ve decided not to submit to that journal again. They’ve now taken two papers that were very publishable and called them not good enough. And if the reasons were focused and consistent, that would be great. But given that each reviewer has something completely random and different to say - and little of it constructive - I’m done. That journal is dead to me.

So, in answer to the question of how it is going - not particularly well. It’s grey and bleak and while not completely hopeless, everything seems difficult and sad right now. So the plan is to wait on a friend to get back to me on my chances at a different journal and let the re-written paper sit until I have a better feeling on where to go next. I’m going to visit a bookstore and select two books I now want. Then I will read them, letting myself focus on characters in other places and their hopes and struggles while attempting to forget my own.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cycle, Vicious or Otherwise

I rely on a certain feeling upon making decisions. I'm wildly impatient so my lack of a plan for my poor paper bugged me. I googled journals and flipped through my file of papers I'd consulted when writing. I read aims and scopes and looked at tables of contents. Through all of this, I wrinkled my nose and shook my head because nothing was quite right. It's odd, my poor paper. A mixture of loads of technically-complex analysis techniques applied to an interesting, though rarely studied, disease state. So does it belong in a clinical journal where the techniques will be seen as ultra-complicated and difficult to understand but the rationale is clear or do I go for another technical journal? So I hemmed and hawed and typed in author lists and pasted abstract text into three different online submission sites before selecting a journal whose title seems perfect. Maybe. I think.

"These are not that bad!" I cried upon reading the reviews I received upon its initial submission to Rejection Journal. I had taking several gulps of a drink Friend made, grimacing with the knowledge that though I'd asked her to make it strong, I could now likely breathe fire from the quantity of vodka I'd consumed.

"Maybe we should start drinking something else," Friend suggested as we walked through the liquor store after having waffles yesterday afternoon. I'd whined and bribed and her teeth and face had hurt enough that she did not make me drive her to campus. Instead, I spent the day fixing text and reordering paragraphs of the rejected paper that I think is quite good. It's clear and logical and could be rather important. Friend sat across the room, rubbing at her face and grimacing with pain.

"No," I decided after she instructed me to get citrus vodka and I dutifully selected a bottle. "I like the mango drink. Plus, now I have 4 bottles of Orange Passion Mango Italian Soda from Target. So we'll just get more Triple Sec," I picked up a bottle after we decided to go with the cheaper alternative, "and Peach Schnapps, then drink what we've been drinking."

The reason we had to stop for alcohol - for I'm not completely out - was that I checked on the other papers after I triumphantly approved my newest submission and rejected paper was back in play.

"You should spread out the decisions," Friend advised and I said I'd submitted them about 3 weeks apart. But this journal apparently moves faster than others might.

"They're evaluating reviews now," I told Friend and though I'm nothing but sympathetic and worried about her week of hideousness (I sort of expect her to spontaneously combust at some point soon, poor thing. I'd tell her to keep a bucket of water around to douse the flames, but she'd probably drown in it.), she spared a moment to look at me kindly. "I want them to take the paper. I really, really do."

"I know," she offered. "And maybe they will." But if we repeat this episode of miserable failure followed by trying to select a new journal followed by rewriting work I already think should get in, at least I have adequate supplies of booze. And the vague thought that perhaps leaving academia wouldn't be such a bad plan for me after all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

No. Yes. And maybe.

The rejection came today. In the same batch of emails that arrived, there was a note from one of the postdoctoral supervisors I recently emailed.

The former said the paper wasn’t very good. The latter asked if I could talk this afternoon for a few minutes about the job opportunity. I filed the rejection after glancing over and scowling at the reviews. I hit reply to the job email and typed before staring at the words.

Sure. Whatever. I don’t care.

I sighed before putting my head in my hands and indulging in a long-suffering and deeply sad sigh. I knew I aimed too high for the journal and I hoped I could sneak in a special issue and I don’t know where else to send this paper and I was sick with disappointment. I take rejections very personally and felt my stomach cramp and shoulders slump and mood dip dangerously. I am not, however, blatantly self-destructive so I picked up my head and looked again at my email window. I erased my initial reply, mustered as much energy as I could and tried again.

That would be wonderful. My afternoon looks to be very light so I should be at my desk most of the day. My number here on campus is [ ]. Our voicemail system here is unreliable at best, so if I don't pick up here, my cell phone is the next best bet.

I'll look forward to talking with you!

Even typing it exhausted me and I shook my head before laying my head on my desk again. I soon drug myself out of my office and wandered to get my mail. Then I went and flopped in a chair in front of Jill’s desk.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as she looked away from her computer monitor and regarded me over her glasses.

I shrugged before telling her my paper got rejected. “It always hits me hard, which is kind of surprising since it happens a lot,” I mused. “But for today, I’ll feel really stupid and terrible at my job.” I shrugged again and asked how she was.

“My son is going to Iraq,” she said simply and I frowned as I frantically tried to remember which one was in the military. I shook my head at her when I realized that neither of her children were - I would have remembered such a fact. She elaborated on his job and why he’d go to such an unstable and scary place. “I think it’s for the money,” she concluded, “but it’s not worth his life.”

I nodded thoughtfully before cocking my head sympathetically. “I’ll say prayers,” I offered and she nodded back at me. In theory, I feel like we should be taking responsibility for training Iraqis to police their country. In practice, the whole thing strikes me as a mess and I'm not sure what to tell people who have loved ones there. We talked a bit more - she has a doctor appointment on Monday and I told her Mom’s gallbladder would come out that morning. She’s overworked. I’m bored and discouraged. She wishes I’d stay on campus after the summer and understand why I feel it’s important to leave.

“Which means,” I concluded after finding out how to order a couple of textbooks I wanted, “I should get back to my desk. I’m expecting a call about a job I might want. But not really. Whatever.”

I walked back and halfheartedly picked another journal for my poor paper. I called the bookstore to order my books and replied to a couple of emails. I told Carrie I was sorry she was sad lately - I’m sad lately too. I thanked Advisor for telling me how proud he was of my seminar and that he mentored my graduate work. I sent OlderStudent a copy of my CV to use as a template. And I wrote to Jill about the books I ordered.

I gave myself a harsh pep talk when the phone rang. “You try to be peppy, Katie Marie,” I said out loud before lifting the receiver. “It’s what you do.”

I answered and talked to a relatively young woman with a very pretty accent for about 15 minutes. I can do exactly what she needs and would be good at it. She, in turn, does work I find interesting and valuable, though I haven’t worked in that area and could learn a lot from her. We traded information and I found it was easier and easier to be upbeat and positive about past projects and future prospects.

“The problem,” I told Friend after going to her house and fetching her for dinner, “is that she wants to nail something down pretty soon. And this would be my safety job - I don’t want to commit to another post-doc when there’s a chance of getting something at a higher level. But I did like her. And I would be good at the job.”

I came home with a clean car (it had remained salty and gross from my trip to the frozen north) and full gas tank. I was full from dinner and had leftovers in a container. Friend is on my couch with Chienne so I’m not alone with my sense of publishing failure. And I got an email from PrettyAccent. She reviewed the rest of my references and would like me to work for her. She listed various reasons I should do so and attached papers she’s written. And she pushed for a visit and answer by early March.

The visit I can do happily. It’s the answer that I’m not sure about. But given that journals seem pretty sure about telling me no, perhaps another post-doc would serve me well. I’ll keep you updated.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Flirting & Nose, Links & Me

It was the summer between sixth and seventh grade when a boy from class was coming over to my house. Try as I might, I cannot recall the reason for this visit. We certainly weren’t good friends and Brother is considerably younger than I am so I doubt Joshua was hanging out with him. Perhaps he was joining us for swimming lessons? No matter. Joshua was coming over and I was a bit jealous of my friend, Mandy, and her romantic exploits.

I had decided, clad in a one-piece bathing suit and carefully arranging a beach towel with penguins on it next to our backyard pool, I was going to practice flirting. I love the water and was a decent swimmer, though not nearly as brave as Brother or Mandy, both of whom would dive easily into the water while I hesitated, trying to calculate my chances of being hurt while standing in the pale blue metal at the edge. But I had been in the water that morning and my hair dried into masses of curls. I was tan (if one can call very, very freckled such a thing) and felt rather fetching on this particular day.

I decided that I would smile at him when he arrived on our back patio and invite him to join me on his own towel. I would listen when he talked and pretend some interest in his topics of conversation. I steeled myself for this effort - Joshua was a bit of a nerd and was interested in comic books and computers and other topics I found profoundly boring. But I planned to let him admire me while we chatted. And then, perhaps, (avert your eyes! It's getting racy!), I would let him smooth sunscreen on my back. That pushed the boundaries of my bravery enough, I decided and closed my eyes as I thought - for neither the first nor last time - that sunbathing was hot and sweaty and miserably boring.

Just as I was considering entering the air-conditioned house and finding a book, I slipped into a daydream. What if Joshua was unexpectedly interesting? What if he was funny and smart and wanted to talk about topics that interested me? Perhaps he had adored me for some time and upon my slight encouragement would confess his true feelings and I would be so flattered that I would allow him to call me some nights after school. If I were feeling particularly generous at lunch, he could sit next to me at a table.

Joshua arrived - for whatever reason there was for him to be there - and joined me by the pool. I told him he could spread out a towel and smiled indulgently when he sat on his instead of lying down. Not wanting him to stare at my bottom, I rolled over to face him as he looked down at me. He opened his mouth to speak and I prepared myself for some boring comment about what he’d been doing that morning even as I wished he’d tell me how wonderful I was so I could be flattered enough to attempt to like him back.

“Your nose hair is kind of long,” he offered instead.

Situations such as these have repeated themselves at intervals frequent enough to keep me from growing arrogant about much of anything. So while I flutter with happiness at having my E returned by Dr. Brazen Hussy (which was terribly sweet - if I had her address I’d be shipping bottles of alcohol with bows on the caps as we speak) and getting another from Propter Doc, a writer I admire a great deal for her honesty and ethics and work at getting a group of postdocs to form some sort of community. Those links have resulted in a rather large upswing in blog traffic though and I find my stats pages are populated with people coming from them rather than the google searches for transitional relationships (who’s #1? I am! I am!), keeping red velvet cake moist (Sorry - no idea. I was using it to talk about something else completely.), squinting because of eye sensitivity (Wear sunglasses. Or let me know if you have better advice.) or the question game (Such a good way to flirt online.)

I find myself torn, therefore, between wanting to write something wonderful and interesting so that some of my new visitors might come back, and figuratively putting my hands around my nose so nobody can see how long the hair is. (It isn’t long, by the way. It’s more the way my nostrils are formed, I think.) Given that Brazen Hussy made me laugh when she noted the length of my posts and I wrote Propter Doc a comment because I sort of think she’d end up trying to poison me with chemicals if she had to see me every day, I’m leaning toward the latter in some moments. Because I’ve read Propter long enough to feel I know her in some sense. And where she’s solid, I’m flaky. At work, I display the emotional intensity that so bothers her, though I’m never offended when she writes about it. Thinking about those sorts of differences helped clarify what I want from a group in my job search.

My point is that I’m not bothered by different points of view. If I annoy you or you disagree with my choices, I could appreciate your opinion. But if you’re mean to me, I might cry. And then I have to write on my blog about how you’re a big meanie before I feel better.

As I was waking up this morning, I glanced through my links on Technorati. I tend to keep track in some vague sense, but hadn’t checked lately.

“Do you know PhysioProf?” I asked Friend after she shuffled down the hall from the office and started to drink coffee.

DrugMonkey. ScienceBlogs.” Friend isn’t so good in the mornings so I continued to stare at her inquisitively until she elaborated. “DrugMonkey now writes on Science Blogs and PhysioProf shares that spot.”

“Oh,” I said while I clicked over. “PhysioProf links to me,” I declared proudly and watched her eyebrows rise in surprise. “Is that bad?” I asked, immediately worried when I glanced through posts quickly. “He seems a bit political. Likes to curse - is he British?” I tried to think of an American who favors the word fuck so frequently and failed. “I think I like him.” I decided before frowning at her again. “Why? Do you think he hates me? Thinks I’m awful and stupid and deserving of failure?”

She shrugged in a way that was hardly reassuring. I fretted for a moment before shrugging as philosophically as I’m capable.

I fully expect my stats to dip back to their modest state very soon. And if some of you do stick around, please comment so I can read you too. If I drive you crazy or you’re simply not impressed, that’s fine too. Joshua ended up playing Nintendo with Brother while I examined myself in a mirror, feeling rather awful about myself. Brother now has an Xbox, I think, and I’m a bit less sensitive. Time does change some things, but sometimes just a touch. So maybe you use a bit of tact if you feel it necessary to mention my nose.

But the number of visitors is a lovely reminder that some people I enjoy a great deal might like me too. So thank you.

Ridiculously Adorable

I'm going to zoom in more and reduce these photos to just snippets of what they are now, but for those of you who enjoy children and need a Monday pick me up, look how absolutely exquisite my nieces are!

With coos that are normally reserved for babies of the canine variety, I paged through photos this morning with, "Oh, look how pretty!" and "Such big, beautiful eyes!" and "Little noses that look like mine!"

I am startlingly proud of Brother's girls. Smallest One (R) is a wonderful baby and smiles readily now. The rolling over is a bit more difficult, but it's coming along, I hear. Little One (L) is an absolute darling. So when she wants movies and books or balloons or puzzles or anything at all, really, who am I to refuse. Because, well, look at her!

OK, I'm done. We can now return to waiting for the next piece of bad news.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Impending Doom

I am tense.

My black shoes are starting to fall apart and the little bows are fraying (and looking quite sad). So, 30% coupon in hand, I went shopping to search for suitable shoes. Despite two pretty new pairs purchased yesterday on a trip to Kohl’s (I loved the brown style but they didn't have any in my size left in black. So I decided I also adored the black wedges.) and a nice lunch out with Friend, I felt undeniably anxious last night.

“Impending doom,” I decided out loud.

I was searching for a newly published paper yesterday and accidentally went to the manuscript submission site for the journal instead.

“Oh, no,” I moaned. “The reviews are done which means I should get rejected any day now.” The email hasn’t arrived yet and it would be tremendously exciting if my paper actually got accepted, but it’s unlikely. So I’m waiting to be turned down and practicing the crisis of confidence routine that I do upon each of these occasions.

Mom called on Friday night after spending seven hours at the hospital with my dad. She’d been sick and in pain and the doctor decided she needed to have her gallbladder out. Which is less terrifying for her now than it would have been a year ago, but I still offered to go home to baby her after the procedure. She told me yesterday that everyone on her side of the family is sans gallbladder and that I should be aware that mine will likely have to come out at some point too. So while I wait for rejections, I can pass the time by seeing which parts of my body will start to fail here shortly.

I have also employed a careful ‘only apply to jobs you would take’ practice after my first interview in industry for a job I didn’t want. But I’m starting to panic. Well, maybe ‘panic’ is the wrong word. I am growing (very, strongly, intensely) concerned.

It isn’t that I think I’m above doing another post-doc. I could work on grants under someone else’s funding and get advice when I needed it and focus on doing good work and writing more papers. There are appealing facets to those possibilities. Yet I appear to be treating this job search like I treat dating. I want positions that might be too good for me and feel some disdain for those I could actually get.

"How about," I said to Friend,

"Dear Professor Person,

"I saw your job announcement on the place where job announcements go. I haven't heard of you and the place you work, while impressive overall, isn't such a big name in my field. In fact, my graduate and postdoctoral work were done at institutions with stronger programs. I noticed your particular posting because it's within my radius of home. And because I don’t know if I can get a faculty or industry position and sort of need a job in the fall. So, um, let me know if anything on my CV seems interesting. And best wishes to you. Thanks.”

“If you don’t want to get an interview,” Friend offered dryly, “perhaps you shouldn’t write an email at all.”

“I don’t know what I want,” I sighed and frowned at the text I normally use for the draft of cover letters. I made some changes and paused when it came time to fix the very first line. “I saw your announcement, and…” I trailed off and looked at Friend. “And…, um, I…”

I settled on “I hope I might have a skill set that is of interest.” Then I sent out two emails to schools in the Midwest. And I sighed because when I was applying out of grad school, I worried about competition from people like me. I wondered if someone would be doing a second post-doc and would take the spot I so coveted. But if I were to talk to someone applying for her first position, I’d tell her she has far more energy and optimism than I possess. I don’t know what I’m doing here and the longer I’m out of school, the more depressing that thought seems. My papers (and abstracts) still get rejected. The quality of my talks hasn’t improved all that much and, if anything, I’m just meaner and more neurotic than I was before.

And so I wait, feeling anxious and tense. To hear from journals and to send references to jobs I don’t know if I want and to become ill enough to seek medical attention. I am going to visit puppies (!!) in an attempt to relax before starting this workweek - it's my coping mechanism of choice lately. Then I plan to immerse myself in busywork and hope that I can bury the sense of looming awfulness.

(This wasn't a very cheerful post, was it? Sorry about that.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

E is for these 5 blogs.

Amelie of Amelie's Welt gave me an E! Which means I get to be all flattered and award an E to 5 other people. Which made me think of who was being particularly excellent of late.

The first that came to mind was Bright Star with her Project 365 (+1) Blog. I'm truly impressed with how her photography has developed and find her daily photos a fascinating mixture of the mundane and the profound. Impressive with a capital E (at the end, I guess).

Amanda (A Lady Scientist) has impressed me of late with her variety of topics. And she's a dog person. I like dog people.

I took a couple semesters of Geology in undergrad (long story). I was less than enthralled by the material. I never lingered in the hallways to examine the various rocks and fossils in the glass cases and waited rather impatiently for class to be over so I could go do something more fun. Like nap. So when I started reading Chris, I had the vague thought that I wouldn't subscribe for long if he didn't write quite well. Given that I've been reading for a long time now, he must be doing something excellent with Highly Allochthonous that holds my flighty attention.

I'm not sure why, but I'm relatively new (within the last year or so) to reading Dr. Brazen Hussy. But I liked her long before she offered to drink with me when I was so upset. But it was then I decided I'd like to buy her presents. I think her blog is excellent in that there's this view of science that strikes me as ambitious and reasonable at the same time. If you - like I used to - aren't reading, what the hell is wrong with you?

I did, however, have the good sense to be a long time fan of Cee. Upon her recent move to Listening to Frogs, I've enjoyed her more frequent posts. She reads widely and writes beautifully about varied topics. It's good - no, excellent - stuff.

I've been bad (or good?) about not reading stuff I don't like lately. And I did recently update my blogroll to currently active bloggers I really enjoy. So if you're ever bored and want to click over to find new links, I have some I like a lot.

Ice and Sunshine

The middle of the drive back to my house is typically the worst part. I've spent hours in the car already and have hours yet to go. I get achy and bored and think of all the other ways I'd rather spend the time.

Today, however, I noted how absolutely gorgeous it was around me. I started in the gloom of winter. The sky stayed stubbornly gray and the snow piled on the ground looked grimy and icky. I captured a very unhappy Sprout, ran in and out of the house to get water, open the garage door, close the garage door and turn off the last of the lights. It's rather difficult to get out the door without a helpful parent around. And I sighed as I turned right out of my parents' street. Heading back south, I thought with a sigh that was decidedly not eager.

The gloom eventually eased and the land at the side of the road became less wintery and more magical. The trees were gilded with ice that shimmered in the sunlight and I could not have been more awed had I stepped from the wardrobe into Narnia. The sight was unexpected and I was breathlessly distracted by trying to take it all in. The brightness of the pure, white light that bounced off the surface of shiny snow and that tangled in the branches that gleamed with their winter adornments.

"This is perfect," I decided with a smile. The ice had coated everything for miles and miles - I was able to enjoy my glimmering surroundings for over an hour, stopping multiple times to get out and crunch through the ice-covered grass to snap photos. I also took several shots out through the dirty windshield that turned out much better than I hoped. I've cooed over them since they were downloaded upon my arrival home.

I paused The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes - an audiobook that I bought on impulse and haven't listened to in the months that I've had it. But when I finally grew bored and pressed play, I loved it. Best audiobook I've heard in a long, long time, loved it. Watson and Holmes and mysteries and logical deductions. It was fantastic.

The problem, of course, is that beauty seems to come with a price. The ice was falling with musical crashes and thumps as the dog and I peered into the trees, taking a break from English accents and Holmes's acute senses to sacrifice making good time for getting closer to the forests made magical by a winter storm. But even as the ice released its grip, many trees were bowed against the weight. They dipped low to the ground, some branches separating from their trunks to lie upon the ground. I felt badly for them even as I sighed over how exquisite it all looked.

I sighed again as I continued my southerly travel, realizing that it had grown too warm for all the ice and the glistening white had given way to earth tones. I reached the end of the final case in my audiobook as I turned into my neighborhood, filled as it is with browns and greens and nary a speck of white. I pulled into the garage and turned off the car as I waited for the door to close behind me.

"We're home," I told the animals eagerly waiting for me to open the door. And now I'm telling you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Job Search 2008: The Possibilities

Today, I slept. I went to bed early and must have suffered through a nightmare. I woke just after midnight and hurried down the hall, calling softly for the cat. I had this strong feeling that Sprout had gotten outside and was freezing in this wintery weather. But he blinked at me sleepily when I found him sleeping on the couch downstairs.

“Hi,” I greeted him as he regarded me with some suspicion. Normally when I actively seek him out, I want to clip his claws or trap him in the car to travel. So he stayed out of my reach. “I was just worried about you,” I informed him and headed back upstairs.

The initial worried search had awakened me too much though and I found myself flopping on the corner of the couch to check email. I’d sent a note to the group of students I met that thanked them for their time, complimented them on personality and ability and invited them to friend me on Facebook so we could keep in touch. (And so that I could increase my feeling of self-worth by adding people to my friends list.)

As I confirmed New&Political, New&Fashionable and Sam, I smiled fondly that they’d responded. Then I shook my head when I noticed that the guys had upwards of 200 friends. I’m pleased that I broke into double digits.

“Hey, buddy,” I said as Sprout wandered under the coffee table and leaped onto the cushion by my side. “Did I wake you? Are you doing OK?” He purred, the loud sound comforting as I stroked his coat, wincing when I’d shock us from the overly dry conditions inside the house. Once he’s aware that his presence is desired, he generally makes his way to you in good time.

In thinking about these jobs, I’m growing almost frantic with indecision. I keep thinking of all the possibilities and future repercussions and it’s making me rather ill.

“I don’t know that there’s one good way to assure you end up in a good situation,” I said thoughtfully to YoungerStudent as we talked on Monday. “I guess my advice would be to focus on the next step. If there’s a fellowship you want or a project you love, head in that direction. Learn and meet people and do good work, and future opportunities will present themselves. If you find you’ve gone in the wrong direction, there’s time to correct and do something different. So don’t worry so much, my dear. Just educate yourself about your options, make the best decision you can, and don’t think past your current options so much that you're paralyzed by fear.”

In some attempt to follow my own advice, let’s review my current options.

I loved the group. They’re growing their research program and struck me as positive, supportive people. I enjoyed talking with them.

The problem is that they want a skill set I don’t have. So the question has been what kind of risk we’re both willing to take that I can pick this new concept up and be happy doing it.

The current status - officially - is that I'm waiting to hear something. When I write, Director replies within a couple of days and let’s me know they’re still thinking. Unofficially, Advisor spoke to them and noted that they liked me a lot, but aren’t sure I’m right for that specific position. The goings-on now are, according to Advisor, involved with moving money around to see if they can find a way for me to come and do what I do best. Which is lovely and I’m thrilled, but it’s not guaranteed to work out.

I’m not at all surprised that I haven’t heard from my contact again. I decided to take a cue from Sprout and stop pestering him for a little while. He knows I’m interested and he has my information. The only time he’s been responsive is when I’ve waited 6 weeks between emails. So I’m in a state of waiting here too. If they offer an interview, I will absolutely take it. As far as the job, that’s more complicated.

I wouldn’t do science anymore. And while that thought isn’t abhorrent, it a scary departure. Stepping away from research would make it tough - in some sense - to return simply due to the nature of this particular job. I would, however, develop new skills, enjoy a higher salary and not have the funding worries the faculty job would entail.

Then there’s this new one and while I’m relieved and very pleased they’re interested, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel. With a vague worry toward offering too much information, it’s directing some technical aspects for a research center. I read the description and thought I would be absolutely brilliant at the job. I love documentation and training and talking to people about projects. I’d love to collaborate full-time without having major projects of my own, fill out forms and deal with schedules, come up with more efficient ways to manage money and time.

Two students who graduated from Advisor’s group have worked with the current scientist who might hire me and say very good things about him. He replied to my email expressing my pleasure at being invited to interview very quickly and said he looked forward to meeting me. There are a couple reasons I’m not the ideal candidate - so this too isn’t at all assured of working out - but given that it’s a funded position (and therefore not dependent on grant money) and I like so many facets of the description, I’m getting excited about the possibility.

And I’m trying to remind myself that the next step is the only one I can really control. So I’ll take the pseudo-academic interview and try to impress. Then, if things are still up in the air, I’ll bug the industry folks in another month or so with the thought that they might be like Sprout. In need of a reminder that I’m interested and available, then requiring their own time to think and decide if they’d like to come close enough to interact.

Job searching is hard. But writing this out made me feel less sick about the whole thing, so I appreciate your patience in this difficult time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Return to Grad School, the day in detail

“I wish you were around more often,” said YoungerStudent. She had just begun the program as I prepared to depart and I liked her a great deal, though I questioned her suitability for this field of study. “You’re like a bright ray of sunshine.”

I smiled and thanked her, feeling rather accomplished and lovely about my day. And a ray of sunshine is a little like a bubble of happiness. But we should start at the beginning.

I slept well on Sunday night, waking early yesterday morning and wishing desperately for coffee. There was only decaf in my room and I wasn’t sure of the cleanliness of my coffee pot so I decided to wait until I walked to campus to obtain my precious (apparently addictive) beverage. I dressed and carefully arranged my hair into masses of curls, feeling rather proud of the bouncy results. Then I bundled into a large coat I borrowed from my mom and shrugged my bag on my shoulder and set out with mincing steps over snow and packed ice to the entrance to the hospital.

The memories returned - some with greater speed than others - and I found them all pleasant. I walked through the interconnected buildings easily, remembering some of the artwork that hung in hallways, pictures of graduates that were displayed in others. I made turns without thinking, ignoring the signs to follow a path that I once took multiple times each day. I took a set of steps and entered the suite of offices, frowning when I didn’t immediately recall which cubicle had been mine.

I smiled at OlderStudent, the last of those I knew very well from my time here.

“I’m going to get coffee,” I told her. “You’re welcome to join me to chat or I’ll come back after I drink something.” So we set off down a set of stairs to pump coffee into a cup and I barely restrained myself from starting to sip before I’d paid. I made it to a small table and sat across from OlderStudent before sighing with relief and beginning to consume the liquid I apparently require to truly awaken.

She’s doing well - recently had a paper accepted, seems grounded in theory and application and seems to be tolerating the emotional highs and lows rather beautifully. I decided I wanted to learn one of her techniques and she said she would print out instructions and programs that I would require. I now have them tucked in my bag and I smiled at them fondly when she handed them over with detailed explanations and exceptions to various rules. It’s lovely to see her develop into someone with whom I’d happily collaborate. I’m pleased for and proud of her.

OlderStudent introduced me to NewBoyWonder. A triple major for undergrad, he’s now an MD/PhD student just beginning research. I found him to be bright and personable. He had good questions for me and a genuine excitement about the various research possibilities available here. I also know a bit about what he’s trying to do, though my focus was different than his, so we had a good deal of talking to do. But our time together was soon up and I traded looking into his bright blue eyes for the softer, deeper brown of YoungerStudent.

“It’s been hard, Katie,” she said and I nodded sympathetically. She feels alienated by her mentors. They don’t pay enough attention and she finds she’s too polite to demand it. She had questions about how hard to push and how to approach reluctant collaborators and I answered them as completely as I could. We share personality characteristics - enough of them that I empathize with her very easily. Feeling as though you know less than everyone else, that the emotional repercussions of tough meetings or bad performance are more severe for you than they seem to be for others. Missing home and free time and wondering if you’re doing the right thing and making appropriate choices. So it was a pleasure to listen to her speak and I was relieved to hear her describe her projects with authority.

“Look at you,” I grinned, “knowing what you’re doing and explaining it so beautifully.” I found that as a visiting scientist, which is a very good gig, I’m very encouraging. I offer reassurances and pep talks throughout the day, wanting people to feel good about their interactions with me and enthusiastic about their projects. It was, in short, rather delightful. My relief with YoungerStudent, however, was short-lived.

“I’d use a different command line, first of all,” I decided, peering over her shoulder at her computer monitor. “Your method seems reasonable, but it’s really complicated when it doesn’t need to be.” So I shared how I would approach the problem and watched her look terribly confused. “OK,” I said easily, “so we’ll stick with your method until a certain point if it makes more sense to you.” But I wondered if that was the case.

I borrowed a sheet of paper and drew pictures and wrote out command lines. Made notes and watched her do as I instructed and continue to look confused. I would nod patiently after I finished explaining, consider her for a moment and begin again. On my third try of explaining what I felt was a painfully simple concept, she appeared to understand. So we smiled at each other and went into detail of the next step of reorganizing her spreadsheet to reflect this corrected methodology.

“I feel like I’m irritating OlderStudent or other people when I ask for this much help,” she told me. “So I needed you.”

“You might be,” I said honestly. “But it’s a give and take situation. You’ll learn things to teach others and you’ll need some time and effort from more senior students. It’s part of the training process.”

A bus ride and lengthy walk in the cold later, eight of us sat around a table waiting for pasta and pizza to be served. We chatted happily and YoungerStudent smiled at me from the other end of the table.

“I love your command line,” she said and I nodded before sipping soda to avoid my tendency to get overwhelmingly sleepy at lunchtime. “You saved me.”

“I’m glad it helped,” I offered sincerely and turned to face new faces across the table. New&Scruffy spoke slowly and was quite funny. We didn’t talk in detail - simply met at lunch - but I found myself fond of him. He wasn’t nearly as sharp and charismatic as NewBoyWonder, but had his own relaxed charm that I rather enjoyed. He talked about his love for fishing and hatred of seafood. He won’t eat cooked fish, he clarified, but loves sushi.

Next to him sat New&Fashionable. She only removed her expensive scarf for the few minutes that she ate. I found myself admiring her clothes and glasses. Her hair and makeup were impeccable - an impressive trick in the middle of a harsh winter up here. She was quiet but seemed - perhaps because she was pretty - confident. I didn’t get a strong impression - aside from wondering where she got her frames and if they would look good perched on my nose too - until later. Instead, we all spoke casually about conference travel and told funny stories and caught up with personal lives.

New&Political seemed to have selected the right career path, I decided after speaking with him for a few moments. In response to my “Tell me all about what you do and where you’re going. In 15 minutes or less, please,” command (we were running late), he was noncommittal, respectful and very charming in a non-threatening way. He seemed articulate and almost jolly at times, seeming much older than I believe him to be. His patient populations will be difficult - perhaps tremendously so, I thought, though I didn’t share that since I believe there are ways around most problems and prefer to be encouraging in those situations. But we discussed public policy and organ transplants and state versus federal laws in various medical situations. It was rather interesting and while he smiled and shook his head when I asked if he had political aspirations past being involved in scientific policies, he looked thoughtful for several moments afterward. I admire that and hope his passion and personality take him where he wants to go.

New&Formal and I wouldn’t be best friends. She was…not intimidating, though she could have been to some, I suppose. A little too impressed with herself, perhaps, and that doesn’t sit particularly well with me. I actually started collecting the data for her project - it took time and energy. But she did, as we were awkwardly saying our good-byes since we didn’t really click in the time we spent together, compliment me on the documentation I created before I left. I have a file of detailed notes on various software packages and, apparently, those how-to documents have been heavily utilized since I left. This pleases me and I decided that I might like her after all. Perhaps the proximity of our meeting to her prelim exams had made her a bit more formal than she otherwise might have been.

I wrapped up with Sam. I picked Sam as the name for a character in my novel because I had a stuffed koala called Sam when I grew up. He was cuddly and sweet, but always seemed like a wise plush toy to me. The Sam who’s here deserved the name, I decided. He was the tiniest bit goofy - taking off a bright red cap and mussing his hair while he adjusted his glasses and talked about his friends. He’s choosing graduate programs as he finishes his undergraduate degree so we discussed options and classes and possible electives. He struck me as bright and wonderful. He may not be as popular as NewBoyWonder, but he’s a more solidly smart guy. I’d work with him on a moment’s notice.

After I shook hands with Sam, I fetched Advisor and we made our way to the lecture hall. I was hooked up and clipped a microphone to my sweater, feeling my stomach flutter alarmingly. I hadn’t been nervous as I pretended I was wiser in addition to older. I confessed my problem to the seminar coordinator and he smiled easily.

“It’s a big room and large crowd,” he soothed. “Most people are a bit nervous.”

Members of my committee, save Pete (who I didn’t see at all), greeted me warmly. One said I looked wonderful, which was a sweet compliment as I’ve felt rather icky of late. The senior member gave me a quick hug and encouraged me to collaborate with his huge group of students. The last of the three, a man who is sweet as a teddy bear, offered a couple of excellent suggestions at the end of my talk. A couple other professors approached me afterward - some to say hello, others to compliment my performance.

“That’s the only seminar I’ve actually understood,” New&Fashionable offered after the crowd cleared and we stood to talk for a moment.

“I noticed you looking interested, and thought you were terribly sweet,” I noted, smiling at her.

“I didn’t get all of it,” she explained, “but you explained concepts at a level that I could figure out and then when things got complicated, you always summarized it in a way that I felt like I could follow. It was great.” I patted her arm fondly, gave Advisor one last hug and waved to the remainder of the group as they dispersed for the evening.

Only YoungerStudent remained and I insisted she keep in touch if she needed advice or help or a pep talk. That’s when she called me a ray of sunshine before I stepped into the cold, gray evening and retraced my mincing steps made in black flats toward my car in the hotel parking lot. I enjoyed getting impressions of young students. They delighted me when they focused on bits of descriptions they’d clearly memorized and looked relieved when I asked easy questions and expressed interest in them as people more than projects.

As for where I go from here, that’s unclear. I’ll interview up north again for an interesting position that lies somewhere between FacultyJob and IndustryGiant. But in the meantime, I’ll head south again. Battling snowy roads to return to work seems a very small price to pay for the last couple of days. It really has been a wonderful trip.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bullets of returning to grad school

  • I had a very nice day.
  • I like all of Advisor's current students - some more than others, of course - and rather enjoyed my role of listening and offering advice and encouragement. It made me feel all important and mature.
  • My talk went well - I received compliments.
  • There are stories worth telling - and I will, of course - but I'm very tired.
  • But arriving back at my hotel to see an invitation to interview for a job I'd forgotten I badly wanted was absolutely delightful.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Well Fed

I turned left from my parents’ street this morning, smiling even as I shivered in the cold. I was heading north for this trip and was happy over the familiarity and sense of rightness that caught my attention from the first moments of the drive.

As familiar as the drive was, my sense of excitement over seeing people seemed odd. I took a personality test several months ago and was scored as an introvert - 100%. Such an extreme seemed non-ideal, but as I thought about it, I realized that - save a select few folks - I felt happy and calm and rested when I was by myself. I am lonely sometimes and adore Friend’s company and the random visits from other people I love. But for the most part, I embraced my solitude. The isolation keeps me well. I therefore wondered if this trip - filled as it is with people - would exhaust me.

Yesterday, I prepared. I had lunch with Mom and Little One after selecting books at Borders for the small boys I’d meet on this trip. While we read new books and ate our pasta, I smiled across the table as Little One opened the flaps in her Little People book and counted animals and listed shapes. She struggled a bit with the colors though.

I related this struggle to Violet and she and her little one went over colors with M&M’s. Blue was the immediate answer for each color and when she looked concerned, I said he might just be bored or still picking it up. He’s a delightful child - full of curiosity and noise and happiness. Violet went adopted him more than a year ago and they seem to have adjusted beautifully to each other. It’s not at all odd to see her as a mother - she’s always struck me as strong and maternal. I did smile at her apologies for her cluttered house before I waved them off. It was the first time I’d seen her free of make-up and her shiny hair swinging freely rather than styled into the sleek bob she favors. It suits her.

“Stop,” I insisted when she apologized again for the simple dinner. We had chicken and vegetables and rice while we sat around her comfortable table with her son. Her dog - a huge shepherd mix I immediately loved - waited semi-patiently for someone to drop something. “I won’t have you apologize for a lovely home filled with toys and videos and snacks and sippy cups. Nor will I have you regretting a dinner I enjoyed very much that let us have conversations I’ve missed dearly.” So, after hours of talking about travel and children and men and money and work and stories of what comes next and what came before, I hugged her son. He hadn’t let me wipe his nose as he suffers through another cold, but I did get to read to him a bit. And I started to understand the words he favored and he’s sometimes grace me with a smile. I smoothed his black hair back from his forehead and thought he and Violet made a lovely pair. I cooed once more to the pretty dog and hugged Violet tight before taking my leave.

In short, I left as I went in - feeling full of energy and happiness.

I arrived at Violet's feeling pleased, though a call had been necessary to clarify directions much as I bothered Repressed Librarian this morning when I turned the wrong direction on the last street. Her voice surprised me when her appearance did not. I expected - from her Facebook photo and my mental image of her - that she’d be lovely, and she was. Her voice matches her personality better than I expected though. Lilting and bright, it was very easy to listen to her speak and I found myself returning her smile with great frequency. She claims she doesn’t sleep enough, but has this delightfully boundless energy when she talks about friends and her work.

“I can’t imagine anyone being angry at you,” I said once when she paused in a story. “You’re like this little bubble of happiness!”

I recall reading her blog when she wasn’t nearly so bubbly. I’ve long had tremendous admiration for her - she took an unhappy situation and worked to change it. That’s not trivial - the choice to suffer through the status quo rather than exert effort to demand changes of myself is one I’ve made more than I’d care to admit. So to see someone - especially someone I find smart and charming and capable and beautiful - make changes and find this happy energy is impressive and wonderful and inspiring and awesome and more good adjectives than I can name.

She showed me some of her work and even as I admired it, I found myself fighting back a pang of envy. Not that she does something that makes her proud and eager to work harder, but that I don’t have that. So as she described deadlines and showed me pieces of her life, I found myself a bit lost for what to offer in return. I don’t know where to go from here. I want to be a little bubble of happiness when I talk about work. I am rather a mostly deflated balloon. Sad and squishy and seeking a place under a piece of furniture to rest for a bit because I don’t particularly want to deal with my life. I don’t know that I would feel that pride and sense of accomplishment if I’d showed her papers I’d published. But I waved those feelings away so I could enjoy her as much as possible in the short time we had.

And it was a cool feeling - the first of my blogger meetups. Though Friend read my blog before we met, I knew her before I started reading her latest incarnation of an online journal. So having RL finish stories or answer questions was wonderful. Having a place to start and a sense that I already liked her a great deal made me eager to meet her and I enjoyed it as much as I expected. And I love knowing what she drives and where she lives - a real grown-up’s house with pieces of furniture and art that I very much want to own - gave her this depth that I find incredibly cool. Making eye contact and hearing her voice were new, but the sense of her as a person was already there. I found I liked her too much to worry overly hard over what she thought of me.

In short, I drove out of the restaurant and once again turned the wrong direction before sheepishly turning around. But the difference between the wrong turns before and after brunch was that I’d eaten a delicious meal at this adorable restaurant and felt full. Not just of food - though the frittata really was delightful - but of this wonderful feeling that I met a new friend.

A day that includes two good meals is normally good for me. When they are shared with two women I like a great deal - allowing me time to learn about their lives and share stories of my own - the day becomes rather amazing. So I'm not 100% introverted after all, I think.

Friday, February 08, 2008

On the other hand...

I bugged Industry Giant again. And he replied that he was out of town on any days that would conveniently work on this trip, but how about the following week? And he asked me to fill out some formal forms that I took care of months ago.

I find myself - inexplicably and irritatingly - torn. First, I crossed this particular job off my list early last month. I decided I couldn't deal with pushing that hard to get a simple interview, and if they wanted someone that aggressive, they weren't looking for me anyway. But then I had the opportunity to nudge and I got impatient and pushed and now I'm unsure of how to react. I liked the idea of a casual meeting because I was in town. I find I'm weirded out by the idea of a formal interview with the inherent travel and stress and expectations of me being all prepared and professional. So I'm waiting to reply that I have done the formal stuff and, um, I don't know. Do I say yes for next week? Or do I back off and explain that I'm not really in a hurry? I just wanted to make this a single trip and if that won't work, he can take his time? But if I didn't want the freaking meeting, why did I push so hard to get it?!

I miss Little One. One of my biggest problems with living far away is that I miss so much of my nieces' lives. Smallest One has turned into this tiny person, moving out of babyhood and into focused attention and rolling over and smiles and blowing bubbles. We sat and stared at each other for a while while I marveled at how much she's grown since I saw her at Christmas. And Little One asks for my attention and says she loves me. We read books and watch movies and I can fetch her things and cuddle.

But all that reading and watching and fetching kind of wears me out.

"I'm so tired, Little One." I sighed as we put in another movie and added the finished Care Bears book to the pile that included the story of Frances and Thelma and the tea sets, Snow White, Pinnochio, Cinderella, several Berenstain Bears, a book of riddles and some others I can't remember but my throat is scratchy from reading. And I don't want to watch Cinderella III with the singing and dancing and magic wand so Anastasia is going to marry the prince instead of Cinderella. Plus, Little One decided she wanted Dora right in the middle so I'm not even sure if Disney made the story right or if the freaking wicked stepsister won out in the end. And, if so, what happens to Gus and Jack, the mice? And when did it become Jaq (as printed on the back of the Cinderella III DVD) and not Jack (as it was in the old book I read)? And why do I care about this stuff at all?

It was also decided that I couldn't share the beds in the back bedroom with her. Only Grandma would do. So now I am without a place to sleep and unsure of what to do with myself.

I had a professor in undergrad who said planning a trip was always more fun than taking it. In your imagination, the location looked exactly like the brochures. There were no lines at the best restaurants. It never rained when you planned outdoor adventures. You would never fall ill or injured. The anticipation was the best part and reality usually held some disappointment.

I don't want to be the one saying that an interview only seemed cool in theory. I don't want to like the idea of time with Little One more than actual time with her. I want my parents' trip to Door County in a few months to be as lovely and relaxing as they picture it as they read through the brochure welcoming them to dream of smooth pebbles by the shore and picturesque lighthouses and resorts next to the water and adorable places to shop and eat.

So. This trip - one I have cheerfully anticipated - will be a good one. I got headachey on the drive, but it was otherwise uneventful. That's good. I had a nice dinner with my parents - there was a salad bar and I got to put many peas on my salad. I like peas. So that's another good thing. I will sleep on the couch (even though I hate sleeping on couches) and hope for a quick nap tomorrow. I will cuddle and play and love the two children who currently sleep down the hall, even when I'm really quite tired and unused to the rigors of living with youngsters. And then, on Sunday, I'll be back in the car, on the way to meet friends and visit places.

I suppose I'll figure out the problems as I go along.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

That's why I ask.

"I've never been invited to give a talk there." Steve said when I had dinner with him last week (or whenever that was.)

"I don't know that I was either." I said of my upcoming trip and seminar. I graduated from an excellent program at a highly regarded university. But when Advisor and I talked last summer, I said I'd like to come visit, he casually mentioned giving a seminar and I pounced on the opportunity. I'm still in touch with my contacts in Italy, but that talk hasn't happened. So I rather like the idea of visiting and noting on my CV that I had multiple invited seminars this year. I sent an email to Advisor asking about a date and then set up the whole thing with the seminar series coordinator.

I ran some errands this morning in preparation for my trip. (Work is really slow, so I'm taking over a week off to prepare for and travel to deliver a 60 minute seminar and the travel around such an event.) I put the suitcase in my car with the newly-changed oil because I have to trick Sprout to trap him in his carrier and it takes time for him to forget about the evil bag. As I was washing my hair and thinking happily through the next few days of seeing family and meeting friends and driving roads that became intimately familiar over the years I spent in grad school, I realized I could write to Industry Giant. I'm still interested in a particular job and while I emailed my contact directly, submitted my materials online, and called to leave a voicemail, I always meant to nudge him one more time before admitting defeat.

I put on pajamas and loaded the dishwasher before composing a quick note that stated I'd be in a nearby city to give a seminar at my former department of excellence at highly regarded university. And if he had the time and desire to meet, I'd be happy to stop by to talk. Satisfied by my last message, I decided to take a nap in celebration.

I woke to see he'd replied almost immediately. He said he's been traveling, apologized for the delay and asked me to let him set something up. I blinked at it for a moment, surprised and very pleased. In my recent mood, I was sure that they were uninterested and unimpressed. And while that would have been OK, I'm pleased that I'm at least in the category of 'if she's going to be around anyway, let's at least talk to her.' As to whether this will actually happen, I'm not sure. But I am glad I sent the email.

Even if I don't hear from him again. (I'll let you know if the disappointment is strong when he hasn't replied by the time I reach my parents' tomorrow evening.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

My Local Forecast told me it was cloudy and would stay that way for the next hour or so. I asked Chienne if she wanted to go for a walk this morning and watched her start to prance in happy anticipation. So I smiled and went to fetch shoes and socks. I left my jacket at home, knowing the heat and humidity rendered it unnecessary. But as soon as I stepped from my driveway to the street, I pulled off my glasses to clear the sprinkles of water from the lenses. I informed my dog that it was raining, but she - though terrified of thunder - tugged me along in a sign of her willingness to cope with the sprinkling rain.

It was pleasant at first. I like gray days with ominous clouds and gentle storms. Plus, Chienne was nervous enough to move along at a brisk pace, not forcing me to tug her away from an interesting smell or wait while she looked around. But as we turned the first corner to make our loop, I realized wiping my glasses on my shirt was becoming useless - both cotton and slightly-scratched plastic were soaked.

“This,” I informed the hound as she glanced back at me through eyes squinted against an increasingly impressive rain, “is not cloudy. This is rain.” She turned and continued her trot toward home, pulling me around the next two corners in quick succession as we climbed the last hill before finding our house again. As we hurried up the incline, I nodded to people in cars as they drove by with looks of amusement.

“It said ‘cloudy’ online,” I wanted to tell them. “And it’s really not raining that hard. We’ve just been walking for 20 minutes and when all you have is rain and rain and more rain - even in that short time - it adds up. Soaks your clothes and makes them heavy. Makes glasses useless so they’re carried rather than worn and the world becomes a blur of vague shapes and colors rather than vivid and crisp as seen through my prescription. When rain is all there is, I get wet.”

And when rejection becomes my focus, I get sad. However, today was fine. There really was nothing to dread about it, other than the anticipation of more bad news. I have papers out there that could be rejected, one of them any day now. I have a job I want and it’s getting to be time for Director to be in touch. Or there could be an unexpected strike - like the abstract rejections - that I consider a negligible worry until the awful event actually occurs. But today was standard - I daresay it went well. I had an appointment that was pushed back, but I used the extra time to answer a question with VIMD. I walked into the equipment room right before a group of men claimed it. But since I had it first, I continued my work, coming and going as I pleased, feeling quite smug about the whole thing as they had their meeting around me. I did some work and took care of a couple errands. Then I came home, just over four hours after I left in the morning.

On the drive home, it was sprinkling again. When I got to the largest of the freeways I take, it was raining quite hard and cars stopped completely. I saw that the lanes of traffic were weaving through the remnants of an accident, though the bulk of the two cars had been moved to one side as the police and passengers milled about, assessing the damage through eyes squinted against driving rain. Traffic slowly picked up speed and in a mere 4 miles, the rain ceased completely and there was sunshine.

It’s odd, I decided happily, for I do like a good analogy and this one seemed obvious. Something about the global forecast not meaning much when you’re taking the last step and you’re already soaked from the past 20 minutes of your walk. Or the fact that brightness and warmth is minutes away isn’t so comforting as you stand in blinding rain next to your wreck of a car. All I perceive is my immediate environment. I know I’m down. I wait - not prancing as Chienne does while she waits for me to clip her leash on - but in a resigned mope because things haven’t been going my way lately and I fear more of the same to come.

The only option I see is to keep moving forward and see if things get better. And, if not, bring on more crap so I can deal with it and move toward something good in the future. With that in mind, I focused on my upcoming trip because I am looking forward to it. I’m going to take a couple days to visit my parents and hang out with Little and Smallest Ones. Then I’ll drive further, meeting with friends and former colleagues in a busy schedule that has me prancing with happy anticipation. I miss some of the people I knew in grad school and it turns out that nearly everyone I want to see can make some time for me.

My hope is that going back - remembering how far I’ve come and some of the obstacles that seemed far too daunting in the past - will give me a more global view of my life. And this bit of gloom and doom will, I hope, seem more fleeting and bearable.

Procrastination, simply.

Yesterday I pulled the covers over my shoulders and under my chin, decided everything on my list could wait a day.

So wait it did.

Now it is today.