Thursday, May 01, 2008

Revelations @ Group Meeting

I realized at a lunch meeting that arrival times could be determined from the beverage cans that sat adjacent to the plates holding pizza. Those of us who arrived early grabbed the much coveted Diet Coke. The on-timers chose between bottles of water and Dr. Pepper. And if you got there after the scheduled time had passed, well, sorry. You're drinking Sprite. Despite my continuing mood of annoyance and sadness, I felt rather proud every time I took a sip of Diet Coke.


"I was so nervous," K offered and rested his forehead on the back of my shoulder as I turned my head to see him standing behind me. Confused over the source of his discomfort - he's been here a month longer than I have and he should know group meetings are very tame - and the fact that he was touching me with his head, I took a step away and turned to face him.

"Really?" I asked though I could see how he was standing more casually now than when we first started the meeting. He tends to come talk to me sometimes and I tend to be befuddled by his solicitations of advice. 'Ask anyone, K,' I feel like telling him, 'because it's pretty clear I have no idea what I'm doing right now.' But I did know how to log in to the conference room computer and which buttons made the projector hum to life. I cocked my head and leaned forward at the beginning of his remarks since he was speaking too softly. So, facing him with my head cocked inquisitively, I finally decided that did explain a lot. He had been sincerely uncomfortable.

"You did beautifully," I offered, comfortable in my role as the friendly, supportive one. "It's good science and I understood what you were saying even though it's not my area of expertise. I think the poster will be well received at your meeting," I said before smiling and patting his arm.

"Thank you," he said softly, giving me a slight bow. My short time in Japan several years ago assured me I don't pull off a graceful bow, so I offered an exaggerated nod instead. It's still moderately awkward. I spared a moment's thought that I should really work on that. But I headed back to the office, my brain already busy with thoughts of histogram metrics and how I could get the data Boss wants in the paper we're revising.

"He did well," Marlie said, her voice lifting slightly when she moved through the door behind me so I wasn't sure if it was a statement or a question of K's performance.

"Of course," I replied.

"He presents often?" she asked and I started to nod absently while I glanced at email then paused to think. I turned my chair to frown at her while I tried to remember him presenting before. "He must present fairly often," I mused, still thinking. "I just can't recall many instances where I've seen him speak." I realized that I was powerfully nervous my first few times in front of the group. But Boss asks me to talk a lot - review literature, talk about results, present ideas. And once it became a typical task in my professional life, I stopped being so afraid of it.

Oh, I realized, pausing and staring into space as Marlie waited for me to elaborate. Boss doesn't push us very hard to do things we'd rather avoid. So K doesn't present and after a three year post-doc with a very friendly group, he still gets visibly nervous. That's probably not good.


"I can't attend this year's retreat," Boss mentioned before K had started to speak, "but I encourage all of you to attend."

Nope, I thought stubbornly, looking down at my plate and plucking a piece of artichoke heart off my pizza. As I savored the salty goodness, I avoided eye contact with Boss because I'm not going. Why? Don't want to. It's not that last year was torture - it's a really bright group of scientists who do interesting work. The opportunity to network and laugh and learn is a good one. But when I returned from last year's trip, I told myself that would be it. I wasn't going again. It's not like there are consequences to my avoiding the event - Boss won't even comment on it, I'm sure.

But I frowned as I sat in my office thinking about K. It's probably equally bad that I don't do things I know I should just because I feel awkward and uncomfortable and don't want to go. (Any 'helpful comments' about how I should suck it up and go will be viewed as condescending and annoying. I know I should suck it up and go. I'm not going to do that. Thanks.)


"Have you already printed the poster?" Chris asked from his seat across the table and I smiled at him midway through K's presentation. It's that very question that makes this group so lovely and why I'm so comfortable talking to them. I realized Chris had noticed something - I thought it was going to be all the text in the Introduction section, but I was wrong - but didn't want to make K feel badly if he couldn't fix it. The criticism offered is always focused and constructive. K shook his head and Chris started to note that there weren't labels on the figures and the captions were too long.

I wondered at my surge of affection for the pair of them. Chris is incredibly bright and doing very well as junior faculty. He was awarded his K99 award and noted yesterday that the $250,000 allocated for the R00 phase includes indirect costs. I was dismayed on his behalf - he had to cut $90,000 from next year's budget when they finally read the directions. And he's excellent with identifying problems in posters and presentations and offering ideas on how to fix them. But his goal is never to make someone feel badly about a mistake he can't fix. And I think that's impossibly lovely.

K nodded and said, "of course, of course!" to every comment and I paused to think that he should have brought a notebook. Excellent ideas are offered - both in fixing captions and in guessing at future applications - and I find those notes tend to be quite helpful. I hadn't brought paper or pen, I thought sadly, nibbling on a black olive, or I would have written something down for him.

"When do you leave?" Chris asked and frowned when K said he was leaving the next day. "And your poster still isn't printed? Are you going right now to get it done?"

After looking momentarily trapped, K admitted that it was printed already. I frowned in confusion and exchanged a glance with Chris before turning to join the line filing from the room. Why lie? Then I paused and wondered what makes it appealing to tell people what they want to hear. I don't think K decided it would be super-cool to say his poster hadn't been printed when it had. I think Chris asked and K gave his impression of the correct answer without thinking. But why is the instinctive response not the truth? It's not like I don't do it too, but I was suddenly disturbed by the habit.

"Do you have your grant revised?" I said yes immediately when I knew I hadn't opened a document from that folder in over a year and it's a mess of half-completed revisions and ideas for text.

"Any news on the paper?" Nope, I reply readily when it's been rejected from two journals and I've overhauled it completely. The co-authors need news of my failure and subsequent attempts - I don't (for some unknown reason) feel it important to share that fact widely.

"How's the job search coming?" Pretty well, I say. I should hear something in a couple of weeks. The truth is I'm starting to get Very, Very Worried and nearing the Panic! Panic! stage. Pseudo-academic job should be decided by mid-May (a month later than they'd thought) and I have no idea how that's going to go. Steve and I agreed to talk after the big meeting next week. So it'll be another couple of weeks before I yank a decision from his desk. I'm reminding myself that I got leads, interviewed, selected a job and moved after finding announcements at our annual meeting 3 years ago. The time from May-August was crazy and intense, but it all worked out. I'll find something. It will be OK. (See? I just lied to you too! Panic! Panic!)


Note: I've worked on this post for days now and can't get it to do anything. It's like those days where you curl and straighten and fluff at your hair before saying screw it and pulling it back. But I like some of the ideas and, apart from warning PP off of comments he might make about the retreat, I'd like to hear thoughts. I've been analyzing and rewriting one of my papers and I think it's coming along. It's out to co-authors again now and Boss and I continue to trade notes on how to improve it. There's another post brewing there about why we didn't do this months ago, but I'll leave it for another day. In the meantime, I'm cleaning and packing in preparation for conference travel.

When you hear from me next, I might very well be in Canada! Which brings me to my last revelation. The American dollar is worth less than its Canadian friend. In grad school, our exchange rate was quite lovely. That is no longer the case. I am not pleased. But the $600 that magically appeared in my checking account will act as a bright, shiny object to distract me. Because I'm apparently pretty easy.


PhysioProf said...

But I like some of the ideas and, apart from warning PP off of comments he might make about the retreat, I'd like to hear thoughts.

Boy, you sure take the fun out of everything! How about if I comment on the fact that it is totally fucking weird for someone to rest his forehead on the back of someone else's shoulder in a workplace?

post-doc said...

I just got back in from mowing and weeding and sighed heavily when I saw you in the comments. I'm too tired to get irritated right now. But you weren't condescending! Yay for you!

It was weird - I agree. I think he just likes me (not in a crush-type way, but in a 'Katie's sure nice' type of way). He'll sometimes come in my office or find me in an equipment room and talk for an hour or so while I'm trying to do work. And he always sits near me at meetings. I think we're friends and I'm the aloof one. This very rarely happens with me so I can't be sure. But it's fine - I'll just step away when he touches my shoulder with his forehead.

Citronella said...

it is totally fucking weird for someone to rest his forehead on the back of someone else's shoulder in a workplace

It's actually kind of weird outside of the workplace ‒ or maybe it's just cultural? I can't seem to remember having ever done it (or seen it done)...

About group meetings, I often think that it is the place where we all pretend to be all right, confident, making progress and having achieved things, while feeling nothing of it. It's often a kind of vicious circle (even though everybody is nice and not competitive and there shouldn't be a need for it): you hear people who seem to have accomplished great things recently. Therefore your inferiority/impostor complex kicks in, and you try to present your own work in the best possible light (rather than in the "Man, that thing suck" way in which you see it). Therefore you convince everybody but yourself, and people think you've accomplished great things, and so on... And then comes the day when every single one of them has already admitted to you privately how impressed they are by everybody else's work and that they feel so behind by comparison.

ce4460 said...

I've always thought it in appropriate to touch a co-worker in a non-professional way. In can be Interpreted so many ways, and rumor tend to fly. Ooooh. Canada.

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