Monday, March 31, 2008

I believe I picked the wrong battle.

I should preface this by saying I love Boss. From the moment we met on my interview, I found him to be nothing short of completely lovely. I’ve grown increasingly fond of the man and his wife and the lines between mentor and beloved friend have blurred. This neither surprises nor disturbs me - I tend to go all or nothing with people and given the choice between loving and ignoring Boss, I’ll go with the former. I’m just emotionally intense like that.

The other important fact is that Boss does not like conflict. He wants it kept as far from him as possible and for everyone is his sphere to be happy. Perhaps with a nice glass of sweet tea! He’s gracious and diplomatic, unfailingly kind.

I actually don’t mind conflict. I’m rather vicious when cornered and brought our grants manager to tears within my first year here. (There’s a chance I said she was terrible at her job and very mean. I don’t know - I think I was provoked.) But it takes energy to piss people off then deal with the fallout and I don’t tend to feel the need to summon it. Since I have such warm feelings toward Boss, however, I never want to see him uncomfortable. I do my best to give him a happy and productive post-doc and when I can’t, I stay home and work from here. And he’s good with that.

As I look over papers and try desperately to frame them into something publishable despite tiny amounts of actual data, I look back on these postdoctoral years not with bitter regret, but with a resigned sense of moderate failure. For the life of me, I can’t remember asking outright for the money to do experiments. This isn’t as outlandish as it may seem to those of you who do real science. If you give me a salary and computer and some data (hell, I can simulate my own if need be), I can do something with a chance of publication. I wanted to do more though and that requires thousands upon thousands of dollars.

I remember starting here. (I had to order lab coats. I said I would never wear lab coats, but Jill insisted. I had to go across town, try on lab coats, select lab coats and have them embroidered. Then I had to go pick up the lab coats and thank Jill for providing the grant money to cover said lab coats. I have worn one of the two coats exactly once when I was very cold in my office.) After ordering my computer and making sure travel money was available for conferences in appealing locations, I then asked where I should acquire cash to run some experiments. Boss looked very uncomfortable, shifting in his chair and staring down at the yellow legal pad he tends to carry. So I asked around and found internal funding through committees and collaborators. I did the work I could pay for and stopped short because I ran out of resources. And now that I’m trying to publish, I’m facing the ‘why is your sample size so small’ questions. And aside from the delightful alliteration, it’s a valid point. (Damn it all.) And the answer is quite clear - I didn’t have what I needed. And the question of why I didn’t battle for the necessary resources seems a valid one.

It’s not that I’m incapable. I fought for a desk. I pushed and nudged and bothered Boss with stubborn determination. I hated where I sat and that I couldn’t have all my files and books and pretty desk items! I railed against it! It was too important to ignore! And I won - I can usually obtain what I want by sheer and articulate force of will. And though it took much patience and pouting reminders, I acquired a space I love. There’s room for my framed journal cover. And my neuron and photos and calendar. The sheep I got in England that holds my business cards. Everything is pretty and comforting and happy. (And, yes, cluttered. It's how I imagine the inside of my brain looks.)

When it was announced at a group meeting that travel funds were running low, I frowned. I didn’t attend the major meeting last year, neatly sacrificing a trip to Europe so I could recruit patients with the precious money I had available. But this year’s meeting is in a city I enjoy. At a hotel that I love so much I have a vintage poster of it in my bedroom. I booked a single room for myself as soon as the housing site opened to ensure my presence in its lavish interior. It’s all gilded elegance and I’ve compared every conference hotel to this one (it was my first). The beds are never as fluffy with mounds of quality linens. The pillows never as plentiful and soft. I wanted to stay there and was disappointed to learn that it may not be possible.

Upon further reflection, I became indignant. (I do that.) I look better on paper than any of the others, I decided. More papers, more talks, more abstracts. Who published a book chapter? Me. Who interviewed for multiple faculty positions? Me. Who is pushing through rejections and revisions and pushing to get papers reviewed? That’s right - it’s me. And given that I’m also the only one who didn’t have big ticket travel last year and who uses virtually none of the grant money for research, I want to go to the meeting! I suppose I could make a shorter trip and skip Niagara Falls and have a roommate, though those are rather big sacrifices. And honestly, who prefers to avoid sacrifices? (Yes. Me. Again.)

Then in a fit of what could be called adolescent angst if I were a decade younger, I decided that since I hadn’t used money for studies, I was going to spend some on myself. I wrote a detailed email to Boss about why I should attend the meeting. It was followed by a couple of notes requesting textbooks I’ve always meant to purchase. And in an elegant example of ‘ask and you shall receive,’ each request was met with approval and I registered for the conference and bought $500 worth of books within a week.

In the couple of hours that felt like a miserable eternity (I am still ill. Pity me, please.) spent on campus today, I stared at the new textbooks neatly aligned with ones I already owned. I sighed. Then coughed. Then moaned with the pain in my ribs. Then I thought of the papers I was trying to write and ones that won’t get written.

Instead of a high-impact paper resolving the issues that marred my dissertation, I wrote something more hopeful and interesting on a new topic. I had extra time since my main project stalled, new opportunities presented themselves and I, desperate for something to do, pounced on the collaborative opportunity. I also took a meeting with Quiet Mentor that initiated a small project that I thought was fascinating and important. I met people and have a stronger grasp of the oncology field in general. In short, because of my boredom, I became a resource for random collaborators. And it was a role I was happy to fill. I like going to meetings and seeing the big picture. I enjoy learning from biologists and clinicians - I think they’re very cool in ways I don’t always see. I also got to present project ideas to funding agencies to fill in my monetary gaps and add some lines to my CV there.

It has not been all bad. Nor was it Boss’s fault that I didn’t have the right amounts of money at the perfect times. Instead of asking, I pouted. Instead of demanding, I found other things to do. When he asked what was up, I had answers - collaborations and book chapters written from graduate data and papers we were finishing up from my thesis work. Then there was about a year of work - recruiting patients and analyzing data and making presentations. Then we’ve moved neatly into interview travel and more writing of stuff that isn’t all that important because I haven’t done all that much.

I think the moral of the story might be that I didn’t do much because I didn’t want to. I’m capable of getting what I need and selected an environment that is undeniably warm and supportive. Yet it seemed easiest to shrug and say, “oops, no money!” when faced with those funding battles. So when I look at job opportunities - marketing and development roles in industry or support positions in academic research - I think that sounds more in line with what I should do. This was my shot at independent research and while I did enough to argue that my time here was worthwhile, I’m fully cognizant of every single failure. And they seem to be very, very large to me.

“Now, Katie,” someone might say, “did you not fight and fight and fight for funding recently?” And I would hurry about to fetch you some sweet tea to enjoy while you opened the presents I bought you because you’re my favorite-est person ever. That particular experiment mattered to me and I wanted to do the work and tried desperately - with great effort and at great length - to get the necessary resources. And I failed. And then I was very, very sad and disappointed and otherwise upset.

So when Friend offers that I might be giving up too soon, I shake my head. It does make me sad to think of leaving this world - the stunning freedom and exhilaration of discovery. The exchange of ideas and the glory of good collaborations. It’s wonderful, really. But it’s also very difficult and the current funding climate makes it even more so. And whatever it is that enables people to bounce back after rejections and criticisms, that keeps that battling for resources and demanding the ability to do the work they love - I don’t think I have it.

And, so, given the opportunity, I will sell out and step away from the research. I wonder if I’ll miss it. But then I think of my grant that sits mostly unrevised. Of the papers that are slowly killing me because I want to publish something - for the sake of Boss and the training grant and my lovely collaborators - and don’t quite know how to make this seem good enough. I love the curiosity, but hate the sense of despair when I realize I won’t be able to answer some of these questions. It’s just too hard to make the projects come together and the difficulties inherent in funding and approvals and documentation mean that my research doesn’t always happen. So the idea of having money and support to aid forward progress rather than impede it appeals to me. And I hope I’m able to obtain a job that encourages that in some role.

I also hope they give me a pretty desk when I get there.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


I took two precious Vicodin last night and felt all my pain drift away on the magical cloud that is that particular narcotic. I love Vicodin. Probably too much. But the rush of euphoria as the pain that consumes my attention begins to recede is a thing of beauty. But I did sleep, waking this morning in a pleasant rush to check if I felt a bit better. Disappointment weighed heavily on me when I realized I didn’t. Bummer.

Feeling very sluggish and growing convinced that the smell of medicine was seeping from my pores, I decided to leave the house. I piled pdfs on a USB drive, tucked tissues and cough drops in my purse and headed off to work. After printing and faxing and filing, I arranged some documents in a pretty pink folder (with paisley print - my filing cabinet is utterly fascinating!) and headed back to my car. I guided it to Friend’s house, eager to greet her upon her return.

“Hello,” I greeted her tiny felines when I unlocked the door. “I know. I’m not the right human. She’s on her way though.” I sat on the couch all four of them joined me within the minute. So I murmured to them and stroked their coats and tried not to cough and scare them away. After several minutes, I called Friend and tried to decipher her words despite extremely poor signal. Then I began to wash bedding for her, tossing her quilt in the washer with the detergent she uses and watching the machine begin to churn. I returned to her living room, and when cats failed to join me again, dug out some papers and a blue highlighter and started to read. Three articles later, I realized I had learned a few things. And focused on work for almost an hour!

My pride was interrupted by a particularly vicious bout of coughing and as I moaned from the pain it caused in my muscles, I realized I didn’t want to read anymore. I coaxed a cat on my lap and smoothed a very pretty coat until I heard a car out front. “She’s home,” I told them with a smile.

“Hello,” I welcomed her when she walked in.

“Hi,” she said to me, and then she greeted the cats that moved toward her. I followed her outside as we unloaded her car, hauling in bags and boxes and still more boxes.

“I bought stuff,” she told me as I set a box full of binders next to the one that contained snacks and pills. “Costco.”

“I see that,” I replied. I watched as she unpacked, smiling at silly t-shirts, nodding with approval at pretty skirts and thanking her for my gift of sleeping pills. Thinking her very thoughtful, I placed the box carefully on top of my folder of papers.

“What’s the plan?” I asked once, leaving things open to see if she wanted to talk about her mom or the trip or work tomorrow.

“I should put the dark clothes in the dryer,” she replied and I nodded. “I’m not ready to be alone, I think,” she commented later and I nodded again. “When you called and said you were here, I decided you either really missed me or were extremely worried about me.”

“Both,” I said. “I did miss you - I didn’t have anybody to talk to! And it’s all weird when you’re not around. And I am concerned about you too. So I will take you home with me and feed you since that’s how I offer comfort. That works.”

So to my house we came, tucking bags in the trunk and picking up cheese biscuits and salads on the way. It’s at least a 30 minute commute from her dwelling to mine and the drive went smoothly. I didn’t even have to swear at people.

“Wow,” I finally said. “We are so fascinating.” I received a look for my statement. “Well, we haven’t seen each other for a week and we have absolutely nothing to say. That seems sad.”

“My head hurts,” she offered. “Right here,” she made a circle in the center of her forehead.

“Oh,” I said. “My head isn’t bad, but my ears are killing me. And every muscle aches from coughing.”

“My hip hurts from driving. Maybe I’ll take a bath and see if that helps.”

“I took Vicodin last night,” I confided. “I love Vicodin.”

“Yes,” she replied. “I figured that out.”

“I figured out how to refocus one of my papers,” I told her after thinking for a moment. “But it may not work.”

“I don’t know what I’ll work on tomorrow,” she replied. “Now that I’m finished with my project and moving on to something new.”

I nodded.


So I’ll say I wish you were here, but only to have you sigh in utter joy and relief that you are not. Perhaps as we both grow healthy, we shall become more lively and interesting. One can hope.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Put simply?

Codeine sucks. Doctor lied. Everything hurts.

Revising paper? Too hard. Reading books? Too hard. Napping? Freaking Impossible.

Took walk. Took shower. Took Sudafed Severe Cold, Tylenol Cold PM, antibiotic, anti-depressant, many cough drops, cough syrup with codeine and vicodin.


Not well yet. Growing desperate. Sympathy appreciated. Putting me out of my misery even more so.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Illness Update

"Just give me the [long and vicious stream of profanity] codeine!" was what I wanted to scream, but didn't, as I waited in the pharmacy. I'd met with my doctor, nodded when she told me to take antibiotics, asked politely for something that would ease the cough and help me sleep, and grouchily proceeded through traffic to go pick up medicines.

There I waited some more, watching people come with money and leave with precious chemical compounds that would fix - or at least help - what was broken. I heard good things about steroids, wondered if I might like to try them at some point, then returned to daydreaming about my favorites, the narcotics. Ah... precious pain-killing, sleep-inducing drugs. But I watched the man with a ponytail and giant tattoo stand behind an older woman in a tweed suit and gorgeous heels, and thought that we were drawn together as disparate members of society in our quest for prescription medicines. Then my name was called - replacement cough syrup found and packaged - and I happily paid the fee (less than $1 for the syrup with codeine. Why is that?) and walked back to my car, translucent white bag swinging at my side.

I inched toward home, still cursing at the drivers who were in my way, pausing to cough and blow my nose.

"Will I ever feel better?" I asked Doctor after she'd clicked the squares and pressed the buttons to send the Rx to the pharmacy for me. "Because I hurt all over - my ears and head and neck and shoulders and even the muscles in my torso! With the coughing and gagging and lack of sleep!"

"Soon," she said. "Hopefully by the time this weekend ends, you'll be good as new."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stories in Snippets

I’m so in. And, now, poor.
There are many, many societies in my field - our choices of memberships are as plentiful as potential journals. There is one in particular that has rather stringent requirements for full membership. As with anything that is exclusive and decided by committee, I decided I wanted it without really knowing why. I let my student membership lapse a couple of years ago then was invited to join because I published something in the society’s journal, so I carefully filled in the blanks on an application and asked Boss and Advisor, both full members, to write the requisite letters.

The membership committee met this week. And I was congratulated this morning. In the next sentence, I was invited to go pay my dues.

Field Specific and Sort of Cryptic
Industry positions are available from three giant companies. Our toys come from ConsonantVowel, MoreThanOneManWithSameFirstName, or AlmostSoundsDirty. If you want the toy to do your bidding in some novel or complicated way, you must learn the proprietary programming language of one of those companies. I’ve never done this.

My relationship with the toys is more casual. I don’t tell it how to peel and slice potatoes, set the duration of frying or the quantity of salt. I simply approach, say, “French fries, please,” and wait. If perchance the fries are not edible, I frown at them and start searching for someone to do something about that. And if someone wants mashed potatoes instead, I blink at him for a moment and tell him that fries are pretty darn good. Are you quite sure French fries wouldn’t suffice? If not, I heard Tom used to mash potatoes - you should talk to him.

My background indicates that potential employers expect me to be able to alter the French fry formula or make some au gratin dish. And my training has prepared me to learn those skills. Basic lack of interest and patience means I’ve directed my attention to other areas, but I now feel confident enough to tackle this particular potato problem. And some people with whom I’ve spoken have indicated that I could take a class and start to practice while I’m completing this fellowship. Which is actually a good suggestion.

But the problem comes in picking a giant from whom to learn recipes. Because I’m complicated and not particularly wise, I’m considering employment with three places. Each of those places uses a different company. So the choice of whether to go visit ConsonantVowel, MoreThanOneManWithSameFirstName or AlmostSoundsDirty would be dictated by who makes the offer I want to accept. Because why learn to talk from ConsonantVowel when I’ll have to lose some of those habits to make AlmostSoundsDirty work? Yet some of the skills would translate. So I’m stuck without knowing what to do.

Performance Anxiety
“Deep breaths,” I urged Marlie silently as we sat in the conference room yesterday. “Don’t be scared - you’re doing fine.” But she continued to stutter and pause, clenching her hands tightly in front of her. I winced with sympathy - the chances of my giving a meaningful scientific presentation in a second language are as high as delivering a profoundly moving modern dance performance. I wouldn’t know where to start.

I also recall how nervous I would be before group presentations when I first started here. I wanted to make a good impression on the various faculty members. Prove Boss had made a good call by hiring me. Encourage them to talk and collaborate with me. And so I’d prepare and practice and my voice would tremble a bit for the first slide until I’d get lost in the material and forget to be nervous.

The thing is, this group is extraordinarily gentle. They’ll ask questions but never want to see you flounder. Someone is always willing to save you if we see you struggle and even Shouty over there is offering a genuine, if misguided, desire to help. So we squirm uncomfortably when it takes Marlie a moment to process the request to move to the previous slide. Then she feels self-conscious - even though she’s doing fine - and we don’t know how to help.

“You did a nice job,” I said quietly when I moved to help her turn off the projector. I showed her the power button, reminded her to press it twice and rubbed her shoulder when she thanked me too profusely. “It’s all coming along,” I rasped, my voice shot because of all the coughing. “The project, your comfort level - it’s lovely to watch you grow so quickly in this environment.” She looked at me and I hope she knew I was sincere. For some of us, the process can’t be rushed. For me, there was a moment when I stopped being freaked out about talking to this group. Likewise, interviews got less terrifying over time. I don’t know what to offer other than gentle encouragement and support, though if you have ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Texting Talent
(I deleted the first two messages so I’ll have to paraphrase Friend here.)

Yesterday, in the last moments before noon, my phone made the series of beeps that indicates I have a text message. I don’t indulge in such behavior, shrugging and saying I don’t know how to text and that it seems too hard and time consuming to type in letter by letter when I could simply talk to you or send you email. I type very well! Why abandon a workable system for something clunky and inelegant? But Friend explained that texting was easier from her parents’ house with its sketchy signal.

Friend: SpongeBob toys at Burger King! Go get yours today!
Me: Ok
Friend: A response! I’m so proud.
Me: Ok
Friend: And the proud is all used up now…
Me: Ok
Friend: And the proud is now replaced by despair that you will ever overcome your lameness and uncoolness.

(I think that was established by the fact that I enjoy SpongeBob, smile, shrug and go to group meeting.)

Friend: And now disappointment, as we all bet you would reply OK.
Me: (Hours later, summoning a great deal of patience to click through letters): Sorry

Then she asked another question and I called her, unable to deal with the texting stress. But Friend did make the trip safely, sounds quite good, is sleeping far more than I am and is dealing with shopping and children and parents. I'm pleased and relieved it's going well over there and pray that continues.

And I miss her.

Sick. Still. Seriously.
I didn’t sleep well at all, finally making a nest on the couch as Friend recommended to try to sleep mostly upright. I woke with another cough drop tucked in my cheek. I remain a very rabid chipmunk. I’m vague and slow and can’t do anything very mentally taxing. I hurt everywhere above the waist and wish I didn’t have to breathe at all. I’m so tired of feeling badly and not sleeping and just want to be better! So if someone so much as looks at me wrong, they’re likely to find themselves the recipient of an attack. So I think I’m staying home and trying to focus enough to revise a paper.

You’d think that would mean the world is safe from my fury. Yet electrical boys are still outside, messing with wires and going up in the sky to play with power lines. I came home to find my clocks all flashing yesterday. If they take away my power today, God help them.

Happy ending
I changed the blog pictures again - we’re back to the header I used last spring because I was too lazy to take more photos and deal with Photoshop. I see the same trees and flowers though - those images are still applicable. And I’m absurdly happy when I click over and see the pretty blossoms.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wednesday, the illness continues.

Down to my last precious tablet of Sudafed and final swallow of the wildly ineffective Nyquil, I decided at some point last night that I would leave the friendly confines of my home today. I tried with valiant effort to sleep but failed with spectacular displays of coughing and hacking and gagging from the coughing and hacking. All told, after 12 hours of sleep effort, I’d managed about 90 minutes of actual sleep. I did, however, make it through most of Friends, season 4. I woke up around 8, a cough drop tucked into my cheek as if I were a rabid chipmunk, clinging to the futile hope of wellness if only the menthol goodness would work.

I whimpered while I stumbled through my morning routine. I drank coffee and walked the dog, pausing to cough so hard that a cruising officer stopped to ask if I required assistance. I thanked him, pulled Chienne away from leaping on his police car and continued trudging through the neighborhood, blowing my nose and coughing all the way.

Returning to my house after greeting the electrical repairmen across the street - no real idea of what the crowd of them were doing, I took a quick shower and washed my face, wincing at how awful I look. I plugged in and turned on my hair straightener, determined to remove the ponytail lines from hair that is growing far longer than I normally wear it. Then I moved to the closet and sat in the wooden chair that normally holds a pile of clothes. Mom must have put them away, I mused, and settled back to observe my wardrobe choices. I still hadn’t made a decision several minutes later, though I did realize how very many button down shirts I have. All but two are striped - blue and purple stripes, black stripes and brown stripes and gray stripes, blue with pink and brown stripes, pink with black and white stripes. I must want to be a zebra, I concluded and smiled.

Still later, I realized I was sitting in a dazed stupor more than selecting something to wear to work. I sighed when I came to my feet, making the single step that would take me close enough to paw through the hanging clothing. I finally picked up a hanger containing a pale green twinset. I’d wear it with one of my five pairs of gray pants, I decided. But then I remembered that my brown bag was still packed. So I could wear brown pants instead of gray and then use the same bag. But my brown shoes are still new and might hurt. This all seemed very complicated and confusing so I sat down again, draping the lightweight sweater pair across my legs and blinked at the pants I could possibly wear.

Having decided not to repack a bag, I ended up in brown and halfheartedly flattened my hair into something resembling a style. I dabbed on eye cream and protective serum and moisturizer then sighed at make-up. With a wary glance at my reflection, I deemed this a formidable project and began to dab and blend and brush. After a couple minutes, I wondered at the efficacy of just dumping loose powder liberally on my face, rubbing it in with my palms and calling it good. I finally gave up, gathered the trash scattered throughout the house (Tissues. Everywhere.) and placed bags in my trunk after tossing my bag inside the car.

I think I’ve mentioned I take my own trash to the nearby dump. After growing irrationally irritated with my waste disposal service, I angrily declared that I would do it myself and thereby save a huge $18 per month. (That’s right, less than $20. Maybe someday I'll buy myself a pony!) It gives me a ridiculous sense of accomplishment to drive in to the fenced area, wait in line with the other garbage-laden cars and toss the bags into one of the three available dumpsters. It wasn’t so much of a thrill today for some reason.

I groused about having to stop for gas, forgetting that my tank was empty, then stopped at the drug store to load a cart with soft Kleenex and bags of cough drops and boxes of daytime tablets and bottles nighttime syrup and orange juice and soda. I reached the car, took Sudafed, unwrapped a cough drop and set off toward campus. I don’t really remember the drive, which probably isn’t the best of signs. I vaguely recall closing my eyes to enjoy the gentle breeze and sunshine as I waited for a bus. I have definite memories of every single person I saw ordering me to see a medical professional.

“I’m going to give it a couple more days,” I said to the first three people. Then I would stop to cough, wipe away tears from my right eye and blink up at them again. They always seemed farther away, but insisted that I make an appointment immediately. Finally, thinking that might offer better drugs, I obediently picked up the phone. I’m to go on Friday afternoon.

Marlie talked at our group meeting, a rather luxurious hour where everyone at the table has a doctorate, post-docs are outnumbered at least 2:1 by faculty members and there is pizza and soda aplenty. Given our disparate interests, these afternoon meetings can be utterly fascinating. For Marlie, the merging of her animal studies with the added insight from people who work in patient populations, chemists, biologists and folks with very technical specialties should have been tremendously helpful. And many times, these presentations are. But today was a poor example.

One of my fellow fellows offered an idea. It wasn’t a bad idea, necessarily, though it wouldn’t have worked. After he talked and talked and talked (and he shouts certain sentences for some reason - even in casual conversation - which I always find disconcerting), Boss was able to say, “Well,” before being interrupted. I bristled at the lack of manners, also nothing new with this particular post-doc, and settled into a glare he didn’t notice. He finally stopped talking and Boss told him why he didn’t think the idea had a chance at success. I nodded in agreement.

When the exact same idea was proposed a moment later, with many of the same explanations and ideas he’d used just moments before, I looked at Boss with impatient confusion across the table. He shrugged at me while Shouty McShouterson continued to talk. When he finished, I took a turn at explaining to him why I agreed with Boss and how it was a cool idea, but not really applicable here.

When he started again, I glanced around the table to see uniform expressions of displeasure and allowed my glare to slip to the wrong side of vicious. My cough drop was almost gone, my patience was as plentiful as the amount of sleep I got last night and he was pissing me off. He finally stopped, interrupted Boss again, but the latter regained enough control to adjourn the meeting before I could throw a minor fit.

Then I came home. Still miserable, foggy and slow from exhaustion and disease. Such is my life of late.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Diagnosis: Not So Bad

“Hey,” I greeted Steve last week when I opened his door and scooted a chair beside his. He waved since he was swallowing the last of his lunch and I raised my eyebrows. “Am I early?”

“No, no,” he said, wiping his mouth before crumpling and tossing a white napkin in his trash. “I was eating leftover lasagna and dealing with email. Your timing is perfect - I was finished.” I sniffed experimentally, wondering if I was going to have to open his door to the hallway to be able to breathe. But the odor wasn’t unpleasant - green pepper and oregano, I decided, so I left the door closed and sat down.

“Are you wearing cologne?” I asked absently as I dug my laptop from my bag and stacked some of his papers in a neat pile before placing them aside. Steve and I have known each other since I started grad school in 2001. We’ve gone boating and he hit me with the sail. We’ve shared dinners and conversations and laughed a good deal. He sat next to me on the insanely long flight to Kyoto, drank the last of my wine when I didn’t want it and let me lean into him while I tried to sleep. So I didn’t really think about making room for my computer or asking before I flipped through his papers.

“Aftershave,” he replied without looking away from his computer screen where he was typing a quick response. Laptop open and files ready, I sat back, crossed my legs and waited for his attention.

“What’s up?” he asked, swiveling to face me before removing his glasses to clean the lenses on his shirt. “Remind me.”

“Squiggly lines,” I said and he nodded. “But I actually want help with something else.” He nodded again and squinted over my shoulder as we started looking at data from the institution where I last interviewed. I went over what one post-doc there said and what I thought and showed him everything I’d seen.

“So,” I summarized, “they’re having these problems and I’d like to help them out, but I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“Why,” he began and continued to list reasons why they should collect and process and check data differently. I sighed and waited for him to finish.

“Sweetheart,” I said, for I use endearments when I correct people to prove that I still hold them in high regard. “They collect data like this and they have for years without these types of problems. So I know you’d do it differently, but they do it like this. I need you to help me troubleshoot here. Don't look back. Start from here and diagnose some problems for me.”

So he sighed and nodded and we wrote down some general ideas. He assured me that he didn’t have strong feelings about the problem and waved me off when I said I felt dumb for not immediately knowing. It’s part of what I enjoy about Steve - I can be honest and sarcastic and he laughs rather than worrying over my mental state. Though he did come to my desk once when I was so depressed. Awkwardly, he asked how I was and what was up. I finally turned my chair to face him fully, cocked my head and asked what he was doing.

“I don’t know,” he admitted with a shrug. “But I’ve heard people are worried and they know we’re friends.”

“Ah,” I said, patting his arm. “You’re on a fact-finding mission then.” I waved off his promise that he wouldn’t repeat anything I told him and continued to speak. “It turns out I’m not so great right now,” I said, understating the problem. “But I am working on it and will be better soon.”

He’s much more comfortable with me now - though I still get moody and mopey, I am far more stable than I once was - and we happily moved on to my squigglies. As we were waiting for data to load, I asked about his papers and watched him wince.

“I did some new analysis on our project,” he offered hopefully and I smiled before shaking my head at him.

“Steve,” I said patiently, “do you need to do more analysis?”

“Probably not,” he answered with a frown.

“And do you need to write papers?” He nodded sheepishly and I smiled, delighted by the thought that he was an assistant professor and badly wanting him to succeed in that role. “So you’ll revise the one I saw - add some emphasis on the significance - and send it out! People won’t beg you for manuscripts. You’re going to have to put it back out there.”

“I know, I know,” he said and when I continued to look at him, he promised that he would try. Then he asked what my plan was for the near future.

I sighed then smiled at him. “It’s much easier for me to figure out your problems than to identify and fix my own,” I said after a moment. He nodded, said something generally encouraging, and I walked from his office.

More recently - this morning, in fact - Friend asked if there was to be a blog post today.

“Probably,” I replied. “I could write something about being tired and sick and not very productive. Oh, and rejected.”

She nodded before heading off to points east to visit her family. I’ll miss her while she’s gone and really, truly hope (a lot) that her trip goes well. While she was preparing to depart, she listened to me take the call about the faculty job I interviewed for in December.

“They liked me,” I told her after I hung up and she watched me quietly. “But they want someone with the specific skills I don’t have and don’t really care to learn.” She nodded. “He said he knew it must be disappointing, but I don’t think it is,” I mused. “I’ve either made my peace with it because I saw it coming or I truly don’t want to do that particular job. Either way, I don’t feel crushed.” She nodded again, looking a bit worried. “What I don’t understand is that he didn’t sound overly enthusiastic about me joining them in some other capacity, but was absolutely insistent that we talk again before I made my final job decision. What’s the point? If someone else wants me, he might change his mind and offer me something?”

Perhaps, I decided after she left, it is time to mope. With the journal rejections and employment uncertainties and horrible illness, I tried to muster some sense of impending doom. Perhaps I truly am sleep deprived because I couldn’t do it. I’m a bit down, yes, but I’m working and reading and trying to figure things out.

I still don’t know what’s wrong with that other institution’s data. Steve still hasn’t submitted his paper. I have no firm idea of what happens next should none of these job prospects play out. I’m entirely sick of the taste of cough drops but more horrified by how much it hurts to cough uncontrollably. So the overall assessment, I suppose, is that things are hardly ideal. But they don’t appear to be all that bad either.

Monday, March 24, 2008

More Harm than Good

When I was heading off in a futile search for sleep yesterday in the early afternoon - my cough allowing for very, very little rest at all of late - I mentioned to Dad that the front window wouldn’t stay open.

“Do you think I should just get a new one?” I asked, exhausted and already moving toward a bed. He was examining the window carefully when I left, peering at the mechanism and locks and springs. What followed was zero rest for me and a great deal of drilling and pounding and swearing from him. I eventually got up and stumbled down the hall, blinking rapidly and telling myself that some people could tolerate just a few hours of sleep each night. I was not dying. I would be able to sleep for hours on end once again after the cold loosened the grip it has in my chest.

“So the peg needs to go in the hole and then we need to pivot to get the other side in,” he explained, already moving the window and leaving me to clutch at one side while I tried to figure out what his plan was. After being scolded more than once for allowing something to slip out when it should have stayed in or pushing when I should have pulled, I hissed at him that I was sick! Then I contemplated coughing directly on to his bald head as he knelt to peer at his project.

“I’ll do it myself,” he finally said, exasperated.

“Good,” I clipped the word short, even more frustrated than he. “I think you should put it back and leave it alone!”

I flopped on my loveseat and tugged my laptop toward me then continued to glare across the room.

“He’s going to break my window,” I reported to Friend via email, who was safely at her house across town.

“Oh, now he’s tearing up the walls around the window,” I wrote. “And he won’t stop!”

So I watched, torn between irritation and fascination, as he struggled and swore and eventually got the pegs in the holes and pivoted the other side in and the springs functioning properly so the window is good as new.

Then he went to fetch spackle and paint to fix the gouges he put in my walls, afterward wandering the house with his little paintbrush to find places to touch up, proud of and pleased with his afternoon’s work.

Later that day (which was yesterday), I sat at my kitchen table, a bag of potatoes in front of me and knife in my right hand. I attempted to replicate Mom’s smooth motions to remove the brown wrapping from the white chunk of carbohydrates, frowning when I saw that I was reducing the object to a fraction of its former self by taking far too much flesh with the peel.

I’d never make it in the military, I decided, since I heard somewhere people have to peel potatoes there. I also am startlingly stubborn and lazy, and I don’t think they like that. I tend toward following only the rules I think are wise and should apply to me. And I only work for people who are kind and patient - I don’t like to be yelled at or reprimanded. Oh, and running is hard. Why not just put a dog on a leash and stroll wherever I’m going? So much more pleasant.

Dad joined me in the kitchen and watched curiously over my shoulder as I worked.

“I’m not doing very well,” I noted, and he shrugged before saying he thought they looked fine.

“I’ll help,” he announced, and set about trying to find a peeler in my utensil drawer. “This is a cool spoon,” he reported, turning to show it to me and I nodded. “Hey, a slicer! For pizza!” He sounded so impressed that I asked him if he wanted it, but he declined.

“Is this a peeler?” he asked, turning to show me an item.

“That’s a corkscrew, Daddy,” I answered, hoping he was kidding. “For bottles of wine.”

After a few moments of, “This measuring cup is dirty. I’ll put it in the sink for you,” and “A garlic press? Cool - let’s use it!” (which was followed by a comically crestfallen expression when I announced I had no cloves of garlic), he found a peeler and sat next to me to mangle his own population of potatoes.

Mom joined us not too much later and silently viewed the scraps, picking one up that held a great deal of potato attached to it. She raised her eyebrows at me while I tried to look innocent. Then she looked over at Dad, diligently carving out an eye of the potato with the pokey end of his peeler.

“Why don’t you work on the vegetables, Katie?” She finally suggested, shooing me toward some broccoli. She set to work on the rest of the potatoes, peeling them quickly and neatly and letting Dad use the larger chef’s knife to cut them into chunks and drop them in a pot of water.

“We tried,” I told her when she was looking down at the pile of scraps, my work clearly identifiable from her own. She just shook her head and affectionately smoothed my hair on her way to the trash.

Still later, I blinked at Friend who sat across the room. We’d had dinner - fish stuffed with crab and peppers and cheese, creamy potatoes and a cheesy vegetable casserole - and my parents had gone to bed while Friend and I worked in the living room. She glanced up from her laptop, perhaps sensing my panic.

“I installed a new version of [specific software with funny name] because one of my functions wasn’t in the old version I was using. Then it wouldn’t work because it was missing some library.”

“Some library?” she asked gently when I stopped to cough.

“Yes! So now SSwFN (specific software with funny name) won’t work at all! And I use it all the time! So do I need more updates? And of what? This is so not good!”

What followed was much downloading and installing and moving around of files. This was, of course, interspersed with gasps of horror and prayers that my laptop wouldn’t just up and die out of exasperation with me - preferring the sweet release of death rather than my excessive manipulations and additions to its file structures and libraries.

Friend, bless her, tried to help with command lines and suggestions though it wasn’t her problem at all.

“It doesn’t work!” I finally cried. “Nothing is working and I’m breaking it and this is so bad and I don’t even know if I can restore it to the former state of mostly functional but without this particular feature because it’s now all kinds of fucked up!” I paused, looked at her, and said, “And that command line doesn’t work.”

Friend must be accustomed to working with emotionally overwrought and mentally simple folks because she started over. “So you’re in a terminal window,” I nodded and said something about X11. “No,” she corrected gently, “a terminal window.”

“From the application called Terminal?” I asked, blinking at her.

“Yes,” she replied. “When I said Terminal, I meant use the application called Terminal.”

“Oh,” I replied, “I did not know that.” When she continued to look at me, I ducked my head and smiled sheepishly and said something about being very sick and sleep deprived.

I finally took a break, thought about something else, and came back to what I’d broken. Instead of just glancing at documentation and message boards before rushing off to try some random thing in a hasty yet intense attempt at repair, I read the whole thread. I typed a line in the Terminal window, waited while things downloaded and processed and installed, and told Friend it was fixed now.

“Yay,” I said weakly before stopping to cough.

“Sure,” she replied, wiping her nose since we are infected with the same disease. “Congratulations.”

Friday, March 21, 2008

Six? Seriously?

New Kid and Brigindo both tagged me for this six word memoir meme. As one of the more wordy people in our little community, I was flattered but immediately anxious about what I could possibly write.

My first attempt? "I can’t. Please reference my blog." Defeatist, not at all confident and pointing people to far more knowledge about me than they seek. Not bad.

Then I had, "I’m too wordy! This is hard." Critical of myself and clear about the effort required. This also sounds like me.

Friend suggested, "Too verbose for merely six words."

If it were specific to today, I'd go with something like, "Parents, party, shopping, sleepless. Very tired."

Oh, and I always forget to post the rules - might as well try that. And why not add my own responses to the instructions while I'm at it.

1. Write your own six word memoir

No. It's too difficult a task.

2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like

Like a blank space? Or a frowny face?

3. Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere

I did link to the people who tagged me. I like them both very much.

4. Tag five more blogs with links

Why? Should the failure not stop with me?

5. And don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play

You're all cordially invited to play. If you comment to inform me, I'll happily add a link for you and would love to read what you write. As for me?

I can't do it. I'm sorry.


A good southerner knows that one must begin a greeting when the distance between two opposing pedestrians is rather large.

"Good morning," I said to an older man as he walked toward me on the sidewalk. Lured by the gorgeous weather, I glanced dubiously at my new flats, was briefly distracted by the pretty buckles atop the brown leather and decided I'd see how badly it hurt to walk the mile or so to my building. The contrasts did not please me - the flowering trees were beautiful, but their taller friends remained outwardly immune to the rain and subsequent sunshine. There was not a bud to be seen on the larger trees, though the branches on the flowering varieties were bowing under the weight of their blooms.

"Good morning," he replied with a smile. "How are you?"

"I'm well, thank you," I chirped. "And how are you?"

"Fine, thank you," he offered the requisite response. "It's a pretty day."

"Lovely," I agreed. "Have a nice afternoon!"

That exchange takes far more time than a simple hello or a nod and we did have to turn our heads to finish it as we both continued to move in opposite directions. Given that I hope to move soon, I find I appreciate such moments a great deal, tucking them away to remember when I face the more distantly polite Midwesterners. I frowned when a man dressed in a shirt with a logo from a northern school didn't offer so much as a glance while I waited to cross the street. For shame, I scolded silently. While you are here, do as we do.

I continued to move toward campus, feeling suddenly and terribly old when facing the children who were apparently touring campus. Carrying around bags filled with folders and brochures, I blinked at them while they streamed across the crosswalks, mostly paired with their parents.

"You can't have finished high school," I wanted to say to the boy in front of me as we wandered in the same direction for a block. "Do you drive? Really? You just seem so young!" Instead I sighed and looked down at my dark green slacks and pale cream sweater. Slacks, for goodness sake, I groused. And though I liked the texture of the fabric, my guess was that I looked ancient. And I've only been saving for retirement for a little over a year now!

I arrived at my pretty desk and began transferring files and running Matlab code and I opened the paper I'm trying to rewrite. I'd say something about how I think I see it more clearly and have made valuable changes, but I've said that before. Given that it didn't work last time, I'll hold off on the self-congratulation for a bit, I think. The alternative strikes me as foolish.

I caught up with Marlie and Ken and though the former made me look at dead animal photos (for her project, not just to torture me), it was still lovely to see them. We're all having lunch on Monday afternoon.

"Excellent," I replied after typing it neatly into my calendar. I did not say, but thought, "That should give me delightful dialog for a blog post!"

"Stop playing with your head, please," I typed to Friend when informed me that she was picking at the scab she obtained when she hit her head while trying to put out the fire in her freezer. "I should get you one of those cones they put on animals," I threatened. "We could cut out a little hole so you could see out the front - to type and to view your bench - but it would be high enough that you couldn't itch your scab. Then I'd lock you in and keep the key."

The thought made me laugh until I started to cough (which doesn't take much today - I'm still miserable with this virus that seems to have migrated to my chest). Then she said something about me being kinky. I denied it because it was unfair - I had no nefarious purposes for the head cone! - but it also made me laugh.

I took a phone call from my parents, departing my office to stand outside in the sunshine under the guise of getting better reception. They were running far earlier than I expected since Dad started work at 1:30 this morning.

"I was going to have dinner with Friend and meet the new cat," I told them and they agreed that I should take my time. So I did, wandering across campus while lifting my face to the sun and inhaling the breeze that smells like spring - grass and soil and life. I picked up a textbook I should have bought ages ago (and the grant paid for it). Then I fetched Friend and we stopped for Greek food.

"You have like," I paused for effect as I later sprawled on Friend's couch while she curled in a chair across the room, "a zillion cats, yet here we sit, neither of us with a single feline. Come on!"

She eventually placed the newest member of her household in my lap. He's darling and very handsome with his silky coat and strong features. So I cooed and petted him as I always do with animals and was a bit taken aback by his reaction.

"OK, sweetheart," I said, "I think my arm just wants to be friends." I glanced up for Friend and looked back down at her cat as he licked the inside of my elbow and kneaded my forearm. "He's rather... affectionate," I told her as I bent my arm to stop the licking and smiled down at my new admirer.

"Yes," she offered dryly. "All the time." I nodded, feeling relieved I was not so special after all. We soon were back in the car to meet my parents in the small structure I call home. I got hugs and kisses and sorted through my new Longaberger basket filled with Easter treats. Chocolate and new, soft pajamas and good measuring cups (I didn't have any) and a few new pens and new movies to watch.

Tomorrow there's a birthday party for Little Cousin as she turns 3 (between the Nyquil and the party hats, I might burn out here soon - my life is that exciting and cool). I have much work that I'm actually eager to do and plan to enjoy entertaining my parents. Then there's Easter on Sunday - I will make dinner (which could be fabulous and could be, well, not so great. Did I ever tell you guys about the hard-as-a-rock brownies and incredibly runny frosting? Homemade doesn't trump inedible as it turns out.) and we'll go to church and it should be a peaceful day.

So this Friday was, for me, quite good.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


There is noise - the rattle in my chest as I try to breathe, an occasional sniffle and frequent sigh. I slept poorly last night but napped well today. My laptop is completely full of data and I badly want to finish something so I can back crap up and delete it.

I talked to someone from Industry Giant today. We've played phone tag for six days now and when we finally spoke, she wanted to confirm the interview date. Given that I was the one who selected it, I happily said it worked well for me. Then I waited expectantly and she eventually told me she'd pass my information on to someone who would deal with travel arrangements. It would have been difficult for me to imagine a more pointless encounter with HR.

I read reviewer comments today and got stuck on the nitpicky ones. Those that - even when fixed - make absolutely no difference at all. Which means I don't mind making the changes, but I am bothered that people are asses and feel the need to point out random garbage.

It's like a shower. There are separate streams and drops of water, but after some threshold it's just noise and spray. And rather than feeling clean and refreshed after standing in it, I feel sad. And it's because of work and prospective jobs and the thought of moving and being sick and being lonely.

It's not that the last one is new - it isn't and has been a recurring theme of what's written here. But between the anti-depressants and the thought of avoiding any entanglements before moving (Hush - that's my story. It has nothing to do with the fact that I won't actually try to meet anyone.), it doesn't seem like that big a deal. But today it does. Lately it has. It hurts so I cried - those slow tears that sort of slip down my face and make me cry for longer because I feel so ridiculously pathetic - and then I got more stuffy and started to cough, so I stopped, washed my face and sternly demanded I knock it off as I faced myself in the mirror.

Friend came out for dinner because I wanted company. Then we stopped and got orange juice and cold medicines and Kleenex. I took some Nyquil an hour ago - I should sleep soon.

So it's basically all nonsense - nothing all that worth mentioning emerging from the background.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I suppose I could have continued to revise one of my papers. Or gone back to work to finish some analyses. Written a blog post that was informative in some way. Read a good book. Cleaned. Perused job listings.

Instead, I took a bath. I don’t generally like baths and have, since moving into my house, only taken two (tonight inclusive). It seems such an inefficient way to become clean. I get bored. It confuses the dog and frightens the cat, both of them moving carefully into the master bathroom to peer at me. It’s just rather odd.

Yet I had a special bath orb left from when I bought two in December. The first one was pink and sweet, but this one was white and promised that slivers of cocoa butter waited inside. So, thinking of the writing and analysis I meant to ignore and wondering if I’d actually receive any job offers in the future, I shuffled down the hallway to examine the sphere of fizziness that has rested on the ledge of my tub for months. I shrugged and turned on the water, letting it warm before closing the drain.

I tugged a vine from the neglected plant that hangs from the bathroom ceiling. Identifying the healthy portion in the remaining light coming in through the frosted window, I tore away the dying part and pushed and wiggled the healthy portion into the soil swaying in a container over my head. I shrugged again as I stared at the plant for a moment, the feeling that my efforts were inadequate a very familiar one.

Afraid that Sprout would knock over the candle burning in the living room, I walked down the hall to fetch it, settling it on one corner of the tub so I could hear the crackle of the wooden wick. When I twisted the faucet to cease the thunder of water into the full bathtub, I replaced the sound with the fizzing of the bath orb after I untied the ribbon that held its plastic bag closed. It’s not unlike the hiss of soda over ice, I decided.

But the water, once I was submerged, felt soft and silky. And rather than the sweet, floral scent that the pink orb produced, the white sphere offered clear water and I inhaled a richness reminiscent of truly excellent ice cream. I nodded my approval and settled my shoulders deeper in the water. From that angle, I could see a framed craft project in front of me. Mom dried flowers from the garden before I started college. She arranged them carefully - two tall flowers between some flat greenery and some shorter, more fluffy-looking buds. I squinted at them in an attempt to remember the color that had long faded from their petals.

Also in my line of sight was the very end of one of the vines tumbling from overhead. I couldn’t see the leaves gone yellow from neglect. All that snuck into my vision were two leaves, bright green and still gently curled toward their centers. They seemed hopeful and tender to me, much like the flowering trees outside. With that thought, I let my eyes drift closed and listened to the water swish when I shifted positions and the clock thwick down the seconds and the candle… What is that sound that fire makes as it licks at wood? You see flickering. But you hear something else. Louder than a whisper, but I found myself blinking my eyes open to stare at the candle, unable to articulate the sounds coming from it. There was a scent too, I frowned, sniffing at the pale blue wax. I couldn’t identify it either. Not floral so much as clean, I decided even as I pouted over my inability to find the right words.

I climbed out of the tub as the dog and cat scampered away from the door to avoid the dripping water that might attack them before I reached for a towel. I tugged my pink robe from the hook and snuggled inside it, pondering how my skin felt so silky from the magical bath orb. Sitting on the edge of the tub, I watched the water drain with gurgles and slurps. When I was little, Mom would have to coax me out of the bath. I would sit by the tub then too, wrapped in a towel that covered me shoulders to toes, and wait as the water level dropped.

“OK, Katie,” Mom would say, sitting next to me. “Say bye-bye, germ bugs!” I would repeat her words and wave to the last of the water as it disappeared down the drain. Then we would go find pajamas and a book. I did the former, but substituted a laptop for the latter. I like words and the way they fit together. I rather enjoy writing meaningless blog posts, though I apologize if they’re not so fun to read. It did, however, seem a nice change from talking about how I'm looking for a job or really feel terrible with this cold or can't seem to figure out how to successfully get these papers accepted. I suppose we'll return to those topics tomorrow. In the meantime, if anyone can find a word for the sound fire makes, would you mind letting me know?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My thoughts on interviewing

“That’s over 100!” I said, surprised.

“No,” Friend corrected me more than a week ago. “Fifty-five is not more than 100. It’s less, actually.”

“I meant,” I sighed, “that with subscribers on Bloglines and the ones you say are on Google Reader, I have over 100 people looking at my feed.”

“Ah,” she nodded.

“Probably not many over 100,” I noted.

“Well,” she said, “one of those Bloglines people is me and I assume one is you.”

“Three are me,” I corrected her and watched her raise her eyebrows. I nodded in response. “Maybe four.” At her continued look of bemusement and I explained that I sometimes like to subscribe to my own feed multiple times to inflate my stats. “It makes me feel good about myself to see large numbers,” I explained happily. “What? I have so little else!” I pouted when she sighed.

So, within my rather sad, little life, I appreciate those of you who subscribe to my feed. And from my position of having tens of people who might sometimes glance at the text I produce, I will offer some tentative advice on job searching and selection. First, because it consumes a great deal of my thoughts lately and someone made me feel all important by asking for some thoughts via email this morning. Second, because I have the most peculiar cold. Last Monday, my nose ran. My left nostril was all gross and between the blowing and wiping and sneezing, I spent the day in utter misery. Then, on Tuesday, I was right as rain. I felt pretty good on my interview trip. Then, today, I took a harmless nap in my perfectly large bed with my multitude of pillows in their soft and silky cases. Upon waking, I winced at the pain in my throat. As I sat up in search of water, I realized I felt utterly awful. This cold, I think, has lurked in my system, only to strike randomly with complete misery. So I’m sick and consumed with thoughts of why my throat hurts so badly!

Given that this is my theory of disease - lurk and attack randomly while I’m resting, please feel free to take or leave some job-related advice. But let's try this anyway. Oh, and I may have said some of this before - I am a bit repetitive. And feel free to offer rebuttals in the comments.

The cool thing about meeting with prospective employers is that it allows me to be the best version of me. Which is why pushing interviews past 8 hours is hard - Best Katie reverts to Sleepy Katie or Irritated Katie pretty quickly. But I rather like myself when I’m playing Best Katie. So despite the sick nervousness and excessive stress, I enjoy parts of the experience.

Someone pays me to travel in order to talk about a job? Well, that makes me feel as special as I would if they subscribed to my blog! People take time from their days to listen to my seminar? My expressions of appreciation are sincere when I offer them upon concluding my remarks. I like the atmosphere of curiosity and critique. So while I fully admit that visits can be stressful and scary, there are benefits. Order room service - that’s always fun! Buy a new laptop bag so you can think about what good taste you have during the day! Wear pretty shoes!

The Seminar
I think a talk should make me feel smart and capable. If there's stuff I don't want to present, I should skip it. If there's a slide I absolutely hate - because it's hard to talk about or too complicated or just ugly (I had one of these in my talk for years and dreaded flipping to it in every single interview), figure out how to fix it or just delete it. Other things that bug me in my own talks - make sure slides aren't too wordy, but don't make the seminar more difficult than it needs to be. The slides are for me as much as the audience - give phrases to remember talking points that appear on the screen. Try to remember a 1-2 minute rule per slide. If I linger on one for too long, people (like me, unfortunately) start to fidget.

I’ve mentioned before that I rehearse my talks pretty extensively. I do this to combat nerves, honestly. I freak out before talks (though, honestly, I’m getting better. It’s still not fun for me, but it’s not nearly as terrifying as it once was.) and like to have words come naturally. Or, for example, when someone picks on something in my background - as just happened - and I feel dumb and unprepared for that specific problem, I can move on to the next slide and deliver the proper remarks with the right inflection even while I kick myself for not knowing the answer to the previous question. It’s also good to give the talk in front of your home group. They’ll point out errors on slides, look blatantly bored and try to prepare you for heading out into the world. Or at least they should.

I think it can be challenging to assess your audience a priori and put together something with the right balance of explanation and respect for their current knowledge. It's been my trend to say something like, "I wanted to give some insight into the formation of my hypothesis and give you some sense of why I think the work is valuable."*
* Please see comments for examples of better language. And refer to the preceding paragraph about how I would have to practice saying something that doesn't come naturally to me.

I think what offends people is when young scientists start teaching rather than giving a seminar. A member of my research cohort got up in front of upper level scientists and told them they probably didn't understand her biology so she was going to reteach it to them. That's condescending. Offering a good deal of background is, I think, good. Just talk to them like you think they're really smart. Try not to over-explain a concept - trust that they'll ask a question if they don't get what you said in a concise way. Also, using recent developments in a field is awesome - even people with a strong theoretical background are interested in how that knowledge has been refined and changed.

On Accessories
Like a pack mule, I have always carried my laptop around with me all day. I have never, ever used it in a meeting. Ever. Which makes me a rather silly pack mule. At my Chicago interview, I had a small purse that I tucked in my laptop bag. I looked at my schedule, asked the secretary to make sure my bag would arrive in the conference room for my seminar, and just carried a small purse. In it, I had a small pad of paper and pen, lip gloss, Excedrin (which I took at lunch - I really do get stress headaches), my wallet and my phone. I also had a USB drive with a copy of my talk on it. That way, I decided, if my laptop somehow didn't show up, I had a back-up plan to give my seminar in the afternoon while admins tried to find my bag. If you're going to be in a single building (not scattered over a medical campus), I'd definitely leave my bag with a secretary or in HR to arrive when you need it. So this time I carried a cute, little black purse. Then I would look down and think, "Look how pretty my bag is! With the little silver accents where the handles connect!" and it was fantastic.

Take a Break
There are some lovely people who will ask if you need something to drink or to use the restroom. In my experience, most interviewers won't. So do ask if you need something - I've gotten better about this and the results have always been good. The day is long and stressful and my energy dips after lunch. So I drink a lot of soda in the afternoon and put conscious effort into staying alert and interested. If mornings hurt you, drink coffee. If tea calms you, get some. Give yourself every single break you can to make the process easier. (I also have taken to wearing pants and sweaters to interviews rather than the suits I favored after grad school. I'm so much more comfortable and would never go back. It really does help me that I'm wearing clothes I always wear. Then when I look down, my poor brain doesn't freak out and remember that this is New and Scary!

Oh, the questions. This is actually the tough part for me. PhysioProf is right - interest in people's research and interests makes them happy. (And I know I mention him a lot lately - my mom would ask if I had a crush on him - but it's because I can't comment on his blog. It's all intense and scary and I don't like to risk offending people! He does not seem to share that problem, which kind of fascinates me even as I'm befuddled. Anyway.) So I made a conscious effort to remember to ask people to tell me a bit about what they do. Then I asked for clarification, complimented them when I thought something was cool, asked where they wanted to go in the future, etc.

I like to ask what people think would make someone effective in the role for which you're interviewing. If they say you need to be incredibly outgoing and you're shy, think about how you'd make that work. If you need to be very independent and you love working with people, ask how the support structure functions. If, delight of delights, they describe someone exactly like you, smile and note that the fit seems really good.

The dinner is the hard part for me, antisocial creature that I am. They're often looking for how well you'd fit in and if they'd like to have you around. So be yourself - in the past, I tended to try to give people what they wanted in the past, and it's exhausting. And I was already tired so it often fell flat. Just be who you are. Perhaps you know the same people? Or went to the same schools? Giving updates and telling funny stories about people is something I like to do. For example, Boss decided to do science after his first job failed. He wanted to be a pig farmer, so he bought land and pigs. Then all the pigs died. So he decided to study Physics. This is random and funny and people laugh. Then I feel all happy for being entertaining.

Basically, your companions should take the lead. (Or that's always my hope.) They'll ask questions and expect you to show some interest in them in return. If you end up discussing the weather, that's fine. I've asked questions about how they like living in the specific city you're in. I try to say positive things about most everything. The people at the airport seemed pleasant. I loved the springtime in my graduate city. I've worked with amazing people during my graduate career. Here's a specific example of this good idea I got or how someone helped me with an abstract when we were pushing a deadline. I never drink too much - I get silly when tipsy - and remember that though the interaction seems friendly, it's still part of the interview. Don't overshare. People should be charmed, not grossed out or put off by your conversational topics, yes?

And now we pick one.
Lasserday wrote a comment about finding the right job, rather than the safest one. I’m going to have to give this more thought to see if I have knowledge lurking in my brain. I have every confidence she’ll find something amazing and do beautiful work there.

As for me, the most important interviewer noted that my reference letters were among the best she’d ever seen. I was about to be demure and wave away the compliment, but I decided to take some credit instead.

“I’ve worked with really good people,” I told her. “And I could talk for hours about how brilliant and kind and creative and supportive they’ve all been. So the feeling is decidedly mutual.”

Charlie - who is also brilliant, kind, creative and supportive - has, when confronted with phone calls full of my bemoaning my failures and lack of progress, repeated that I am moving forward. The identification of my needs and goals has given me a much larger understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. I feel much more confident than I did out of grad school. This is good since I felt almost impossibly damaged upon taking this job. So I accepted the post-doc with the nicest Boss. It also offered the most money and freedom. I explored enough to reject several ideas I’d tossed around with regard to future goals and have refined my current search not just in geography but in focus.

In summary
I think being confident is good. Your CV stuck out and you got invited somewhere so people could talk to you in person. You're obviously smart and cool, so go with that. My view has been to take a realistic look at myself. I subscribe to my own blog. Multiple times. I'm quite attached to the people who read me and pounce on emails and flutter over comments. I struggle (hard and frequently) to publish my papers. I have strong emotional reactions to some professional situations. So I know there are other candidates out there who may be better suited for the job. But I still play Best Katie. I'll let you know how it works out for me in the end. And if you're joining me in the interviewing crowd, I'm wishing you all the very best - good questions and interesting conversations, pretty outfits and shoes that don't pinch, excellent meals and lovely weather.


Though I'm sure you were all worried that I overdid it with the partying - what with the Care Bears and balloons and cake - but that's not the case.

I was out the door of my parents' house within 10 minutes of waking yesterday morning. Sprout was upstairs, so Dad closed the basement door, much to the yowling dismay of the stripey cat. After throwing the rest of my stuff in a suitcase, quickly brushing my teeth and herding the dog into the car, I was on my way.

I arrived safely - and relatively early given my quick departure - and dealt with mail and unpacking. I wrote my thank you notes and dealt with some email. I poked at one of my papers and have some ideas on how I could analyze data with greater rigor. Which would be work, but I think it would be worthwhile.

I took a shower - one with excellent water pressure and my very own soap and shampoo and conditioner and face wash - and felt completely clean for the first time in a week. I had my pick of pajamas and moisturizers. It was delightful.

I slept well last night, continuing to wake and wonder where I was and how it was so blessedly quiet. I rolled out of bed, made coffee of the perfect strength and took Chienne for a walk through a windy morning. The trees are beginning to flower and grass is turning a vibrant green. It's almost impossibly lovely here.

I have just ordered pizza and await its arrival. I feel hopeful and content about life in general - I badly want the pseudo-academic job and hope I get it. I have ideas for how to improve one of the rejected papers and wonder if there will come a day when I don't care about that stuff anymore. Until then, there's snuggling in at home. At least for today.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Today we had a birthday party. There was a decorated cake, hamburgers and porkchops on the grill, chips and salads and drinks. There were many, many balloons, colored streamers and sparkly crowns. We sang Happy Birthday and told stories and laughed.

"I," Uncle said, for his hearing has always been bad, "have no idea what happened with the Chinese."

"What?" I asked, confused, until Aunt said it was a line from church.

"The pastor said a man in China had to choose between renouncing the Bible and drinking sewage. And he drank sewage."

"Oh," Uncle said, shaking his head. "Well, maybe he didn't hear the choices either. That pastor does mumble. Like somebody must have hit my frog with a car and skidded. It ended up all long and flat by the time I got it."

"Frond," Aunt corrected him, smiling and rolling her eyes. "We were invited to get fronds not frogs." I giggled, enjoying him, and sipped some more water.

The dogs - mine and Brother's - played outside and begged for scraps. I found myself completely content as I helped clean up - loading the dishwasher and letting pans soak. I played with Little People and watched dalmatians for the seventh time. I got to kiss and cuddle Smallest One and watched her chew on a paper noisemaker. I hugged Little One tight and told her I'd see her again soon - I hope that's true.

Then I got another journal rejection, which bummed me out. The frustrating thing is that the comments aren't all that bad. I mean, there are good ideas within all the crap. And if people are so blatantly misunderstanding my work, it's not well written. So I'm going to take a break - not for long, I'm sure - but I need to get some distance and try to make corrections without hating reviewers so much. For both papers that I now have back.

But! Happy, happy, happy! I've enjoyed the time with my family, despite a few snags where I was annoyed or angry or something like that. I'm hopeful about 2 job prospects, both of which would mean I'd leave independent research and publications and grant writing and all that stuff. Please, company and/or university. Let me sell out. I'll even come cheap. Well, relatively. I'm nearly packed and ready to make the drive tomorrow. And I have another birthday party - this one for Little Cousin - next weekend. All partying, all the time - that's what you get here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Reply To Sender


That was the last message I received this morning from my industry contact. In the space of 24 hours, we went from utter lack of interest to a near-immediate response to my flurry of emails to set up an interview date. I’m rather befuddled by the switch, but given that I tend to be attracted to all or nothing sorts of men, I knew to get what I needed while I had his attention. So why did I receive a smiley face and nothing else? He asked me to bring printouts of some figures rather than preparing a formal presentation. I replied that the process sounded simple and elegant. I’d bring paper copies of my CV and some figures and have packets available to the interviewers who needed them. “Delightful all around,” was my closing sentence.

I have a date in April for an interview. I have a list of 10 names and job titles of people who will have 30 minutes each to form some opinion of me. Given that I interviewed at this site before, I can vividly picture the conference room in which I’ll sit. People will come in through the door in the corner, take a chair across the table from where I’m sitting and we’ll talk until the next person knocks on the door. It’s rather like visiting a zoo exhibit, I think.

To amuse myself, I was trying to think of what I’d put on my placard. Something like, “The Katie is a quiet creature, only aggressive when threatened or severely annoyed. She eats vegetables when offered, but rarely finds them for herself, preferring instead bread products and processed foods. Having poor vision and sometimes losing track of contacts, the Katie wears glasses and can often be found staring at the laptop or reading a book. She is capable of swimming and seems fond of the water, but abhors heights and is known to tremble with fear upon facing them. Although she seems friendly, she often finds quiet, isolated corners to inhabit and sleeps far more than one would expect.”

Then, in bigger writing, I could print another that says, “Please feel free to bring the Katie a diet soda. We appreciate your cooperation.” I could even ask for a couch and loveseat to approximate my natural habitat. Though I suspect my first smiley face email would then be my last.

“Thank you for writing me on this. Many items go towards the making of a position, career, and life in general. These issues are all very important to consider, and family is an incredibly important one, including parents and nieces. Thank you for letting me know your thoughts and I am sure you will find a position that matches up with your goals and is in a location that you can call "home" - that’s a good thing, and you and your family will all benefit from this.”

I turned down the position in the state that begins with North. Though it was the right thing and I’m glad I did it, there was some pain involved with the process. This was a real, live faculty position. With teaching and research and groups of students and service responsibilities. The closest I’ve come is a faculty job without any teaching expectations, so this post seemed daunting, but wonderful. Given that I think I would have loved the people there and that they were looking for someone with my skill set, I sighed heavily upon informing the chair of the department that I needed to stay closer to home.

This goes on the list of ‘places you screwed up’ when I’m unemployed come Fall. Damn.

“Overall, I regret that substantive weaknesses prevent my accepting the paper.”

As for which of the three this paper is or what kind of journal it was or how many places I’ve submitted it already, I don’t even remember all those answers offhand. It’s yet another rejection though. Which isn’t good. And makes me look to positions where I wouldn’t be writing with sharper interest. Because - honestly - why am I so bad at this? And given that it sucks so much for me, why do I continue to try?

“But… he said no.”

The above statement was uttered by Little One with such a mixture of genuine confusion, shock and horror that I had to shake my head. She saw McDonalds, wanted McDonalds and requested McDonalds. My dad hates that particular location - something about a mixed up drive-thru order - and refused. His granddaughter - seated in the back between her baby sister and her grandmother - responded with surprise too great to even allow for a whine that is becoming characteristic of her speech.

Even as she spoke, he was turning the car into the parking lot so her confusion was justified, I suppose. She gets what she wants from her grandparents and pushes that fact to her utmost advantage. Dad did refuse to drive around, parking in front and sending me in to fetch a milkshake and fries. I watched 101 Dalmatians twice (what a fantastic movie, though a bit dark for children, I think), Cinderella 3 (I finally watched the end - I’ll admit to enjoying it. Don’t try to shame me.) and I opted out of The Fox and the Hound 2, though it’s currently playing down the hall.

Given that I’m spoiled too, I talked myself out of sleeping with a child tonight. Dad is in the toy room on the couch, Smallest One in her crib beside him. Mom will sleep in the back bedroom with Little One as movies play in the background. I will take my parents’ bed and rest comfortably. And, honestly, I find the girls lovely and wonderful, but I grow tired. So granting me the ability to sleep makes everyone happier the next day. Or at least makes me happier tomorrow.

So, how about something like - “The Katie is selfish. And where are we on that diet soda?”

Thursday, March 13, 2008


“I feel that this is a bad time to be a young scientist,” I noted to Dr. CurlyHair just after I completed my seminar. “So I understand why you’re all looking at my CV and asking why I’m interested in a staff position rather than looking for a faculty job somewhere. And I appreciate that you want someone who really wants to do this rather than a person biding time until the funding climate improves. But the fact is that I look at being a faculty member - writing grants and feeling the constant tension over funding in order to be able to do what I do - and I don’t think I want it badly enough. I don’t have that particular passion and drive. I feel too worried about building a lab and hiring students and watching it disintegrate around me because I couldn’t get a competitive renewal. I love what I do - I think it’s valuable and fascinating - but I can be passionate and effective at guiding other people.”

He nodded, looking thoughtful as he leaned back in his chair. I took another moment to admire his haircut - as elegant and chic as his name was (which is to say a considerable amount) and the diamond that twinkled at his left earlobe.

“It is difficult,” he sighed, “though as a tenured professor, my salary is paid through the university.”

“Well, that’s delightful,” I smiled at him across the table. He blinked at me for a mere moment then his face creased in a smile.

“It is delightful, actually,” he laughed. “And I enjoy teaching and think highly of our student population. Still, it is a stressful job and the uncertainty is considerable. It’s not uncommon to see very talented people leave science for something more stable lately.” He shook his head again and his earring caught the light, distracting me for a moment. It’s a bit odd to face an older man who is undeniably much more beautiful than I am. And while I wasn’t attracted to him, I was struck by his appearance as well as his personality. We talked and laughed together for several more minutes as I engaged in mild scientific flirtation.

“How long have you studied that?” I asked after he gave me a brief description of his work at my request. “It’s just that it’s cool enough that I seem to remember learning about it in a graduate course I took.” PhysoProf is right, by the way. It’s easy to charm people by asking good questions and offering sincere compliments about their work. And when everyone I met was focused on something I found impossibly cool, albeit in different ways, my interest was genuine and effortless.

“I appreciate your honesty,” Dr. WhiteHair noted in a different meeting, looking a bit taken aback by how I answered a question. “Not everyone is so forthright about their qualifications.”

“I recognize what you’re trying to accomplish here,” I told him. “And I respect that a great deal and want you to find the right person. It isn’t that I’m without an incredibly valuable skill set. I’m very good at a number of things. But that particular technique is something I’d have to learn and practice. And while it’s something I’d be interested in doing, it’s impossible to say there aren’t people who could do it better.”

“In terms of personality and certain skills,” he paused, cocking his head, “you really are the perfect candidate. You’re approachable and smart. You seem to understand people and tell the truth in a way that’s easy to accept.” He nodded for a moment before beginning to grill me again. But I enjoyed him - I disagree with some of his politics and analyses, but I rather liked that his opinions were so strong. Such people are forces to be reckoned with and tend to elicit strong feelings.

“So what do you do,” Dr. EasySmile asked as he leaned back and propped his ankle on his knee when I faced him for yet another meeting in yet another different room, “when faced with intense personalities? When a scientist is screaming at a clinician and they both have good and bad points?”

“Honestly?” I asked and he grinned at me. I found him tremendously likable. He knew my work and that of Advisor. He was also well acquainted with Boss and knew I’d worked with people who were incredibly smart, yet dignified and kind. I’d confided that I didn’t like a particular faculty member in my past - found him to be intimidating and aggressive to the point where I’d rather avoid him. When EasySmile nodded, I mimicked the gesture.

“OK,” I said, “I’d separate them. I think that people calm down if you give them a chance to be heard. And I’m happy to listen to someone’s ideas and problems and complaints. There are, as you noted, often valuable pieces of information within such a tirade. But when one is interrupted and his ideas devalued, there is a tendency to get irrational and angry. I tend to be understanding and patient in those situations - I like people to feel comfortable and happy around me - and so playing mediator is an easy role. Not everyone will be happy all the time. But I find that if I can understand and articulate that comprehension of their displeasure, people find a way to cope.”

He regarded me in silence for a moment, and I gave a mental shrug. That’s my strategy - if it wasn’t what he wanted, it was still how I’d handle the situation. Honesty, if nothing else, means I don’t have to wonder if I gave the right answer. As long as it was true, I was content with a response.

“You’re wise for one so young,” he finally said. “I hope you retain that - the patience and knowledge of people and that belief in their underlying goodness. It should be fun to see if you do or if you finally say ‘fuck it’ and leave them all to rot.” Then he grinned at me again and I smiled back readily. I enjoyed that meeting most of all.

One Co-Captain was quiet and sincere. I have some documentation that he wants to use as a guide. I briefly considered withholding it unless they offered me the job, but I find I’m unable to justify that action - I'll send it when I return to my office. The other co-captain was cultured and outgoing. Somehow the mix of technical expertise embodied in a man from China and artistic flair from a man undeniably French seemed to work for the culture of the institution. The former’s office was stark, the sunshine streaming in large windows and reflecting off of white surfaces. The latter worked across campus with his group. His offices on the fourth floor flowed from one room to the next, shadows cast from the indirect light coming through leaded glass windows framed with rich wood. His group was friendly and uniformly beautiful. We walked through open doors the connected the various rooms until we reached his private space. He was effusive and warm, wanting to be sure I understood the position and that my impressive publication record would suffer as I focused on the research of others.

I found I was most comfortable with the high-level administrator. She was professional and warm, joining me for coffee in the morning and lunch in the afternoon. We talked and shared philosophies on the business of science. She confided that she was worried about finding the right person for this job - to fit in and guide and grow the quirky and brilliant group of men who worked here. I soothed her, saying it was a wonderful opportunity and I thought she’d find the right person from the three top candidates she told me they’d selected. I was, as I suspected, the first of the three to interview. So they won’t make a decision until mid- to late April.

“I’ve really enjoyed meeting you,” I told her as we shook hands toward the end of my visit.

“I absolutely feel the same way,” she told me. “And you’re definitely my favorite so far.”

“The benefits of going first, I suppose,” I said with a smile. “At least I get my moment in the sun.”

I had a different - more literal - moment in the sun this morning. After many, many emails and a couple of unreturned phone calls, Industry Contact told me to expect his call at 9:30. I replied that I’d be driving home from Chicago, but would look forward to speaking to him.

“Why?” I groused at 9:45. “Why do you lie? Why do you continue to blow me off, dammit? I’m going to call you - I have your number. At 10:00, I’m going to call and try to be pleasant when I ask why we keep hitting a wall! If you’re not interested, be honest about it. If you’re so incredibly busy that it takes me 4 months to get a phone call set up, I don’t know that I can work for you! But I will continue to try,” I vowed, frowning darkly, “if for no other reason than to prove that sometimes you do have to deal with people in some sort of fair manner.”

“Industry Contact! Hello!” I said in an entirely different tone when my phone rang. We exchanged pleasantries and started to discuss what I’d been up to since I interviewed for the same job out of grad school. I was mid-explanation when I lost signal, hanging up on my hard-to-pin-down person.

“Lovely,” I congratulated myself, speeding ahead down the back roads until I found a little spot where I could pull into a corn field. There, staring at the patterns of dead plant matter and rich soil in the bright sun, I returned his call.

“I’m sorry,” I said when he answered with a “Hello, Katie.” “My parents live in the middle of nowhere and apparently the mobile signal isn’t great. But I am now parked in a field and will give you my undivided attention.” He laughed and continued to ask general questions that I answered easily. The good thing, I suppose, about bugging someone about a job for so long is that I’ve had plenty of time to consider my interest and qualifications.

“Well, good,” he concluded. “There’s actually a new post that might be more suited for you so we need to get you up here to interview. Can you send me the number the website assigned? And an updated CV? Sometimes the HR department is slow.”

“Really.” I said mildly, but agreed to his requests. The hell of it is that I am quite interested in the job. So I’ll jump through his hoops and wait for as long as necessary and see what happens.
And from the time I drafted this in the early afternoon to when I’m posting it after dinner with my family, I received an email with a list of potential interview dates. So. Here we go again. Honestly? I'm tired. I also fielded a call from LightBlue this morning and need to touch base with him tomorrow re: a faculty position. I don't want to move that far away so I need to be honest about that even though it may make me an idiot for passing up such a wonderful opportunity. But I feel overwhelmed with uncertainty and options and frantic questions of what I'm going to do if none of my three options pan out. So I'm mildly freaking out while in desperate need of some uninterrupted sleep. But I suppose it's going as well as can be expected.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dearest Readers,

Dearest Readers,

My interview is over. It went fine. I think. There were good moments and a couple of awkward, "crap, I don't know what to say!" moments. But overall, I'm glad I came, would likely take the job if offered, and enjoyed the day (as much as such a thing is possible when interviewing).

I called Elle afterward and made my way toward the section of town in which she works. When I took the wrong exit, I decided that since I was heading toward the tallest freaking building, I could likely play it by ear. (Yes, I got lost. When you're among them, all the buildings seem tall!) After parking my car, I called my friend from the street.

"I'm confused and afraid," I told her. "Can you come find me when you're done with work?" She readily agreed and I sat, drinking my second mocha of the day (third cup of coffee overall) as I watched the mass of humanity move to and fro in the street. She came to fetch me, directed me toward her cozy apartment that feels surprisingly familiar, given that I've only visited once before. We had a wonderful dinner on her block - appetizer, ravioli and dessert - and returned to talk and laugh and watch television.

I'm growing too sleepy to write, so further details will have to wait. But there were enough quirky conversations and odd moments to create a worthwhile post later. But, for now, I'm full and happy and growing delightfully sleepy. And I wanted you to know I was thinking of you, and look forward to reading your updates when I get home tomorrow. In the meantime, I will sleep and perhaps visit the fish and otters and penguins that live downtown.

Until tomorrow, I remain yours, truly.