Monday, December 31, 2012


A few friends went to visit the Museum of Mathematics in New York City right before Christmas. It is a new museum, and it makes me want to move back to NYC in a few years so Epsilon can enjoy it fully in his late elementary school years.

My friends took their nephew with them, who got to play on a bike with square wheels (pictured on the website), a fractal wall that projects a fractal image of you that you can move around and play with, and a giant room of spacial logic puzzles. What a brilliant idea!

Their only complaint was that, as the museum has just opened, not all the exhibits are up and functional now, so maybe give it a few weeks to work the kinks out of its system. Oh how I long to be in NYC again. If you live near by and happen to visit, do leave me a comment about how you liked it.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lessons from the Arctic

I've just returned to the warm from a week of vacation above the Arctic Circle. I've learned a few things.

1) A clear winter's solstice sky during day (= twilight) is much more spectacular than the possibility of a northern lights after sunset.* 7 hours of twilight is nothing to scoff at.

2) Snowshoes aren't magic devices that let you walk on the surface of a snowdrift like the recent birthday boy's ability to walk on water. Neither being related to a deity, nor being good at snow shoeing, I sink in snowdrifts.

3) The only clear shadows above the arctic at this time of year are cast by the moon. Reflected by the snow, the forests look very alien. To bad I couldn't get the following out of my head.

*Perhaps this is because we only say a weak northern lights show.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Something about the season

Something about this time of year makes me intensely grateful for the circumstances that I live in. A time and place where, when three years ago, it was time to give birth, I had a sterile hospital room, and not a cowshed.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Online Forms .... RAGE!!!

I've spent a good chunk of the last 2 weeks applying to jobs and writing letters of rec for my students applying to grad school. I HATE online forms.

Let me start with the positive:

There is one system (ApplyYourself?... I can't remember) that makes life very easy for the letter writer. One username. One password. They send you the link, you see ALL of the students you need to write letters for in this system on one screen. Click on student. Fill out school specific questions. Upload. Submit. Click on next student. Continue until done. LOVE!!!!!!

I am applying to several posts at University A. I have a login for their jobs page. It brings up all the positions at this university I have EVER applied for. It gives me an option to copy all the personal and rec details from a different application if I choose. I change the relevant information. Upload the appropriate documents. Done. LOVE!!!!!

There is another system for uploading letter that sends me a username with a jumble of letters, and a password that is my last name. I click on the link. IT ASKS ME TO CHANGE MY PASSWORD! Why, I ask you. All the security is in my username. I'll never be able to log in again without my link. I'll only use this username for ONE student. Once I'm done, you can trash the login. I've had three different logins in this system this year. A-NOY-ing!

University B's graduate admissions fails to recognize the domain of my previous academic e-mail. REALLY?! This took my poor student a week to figure out. That's okay, I have a different academic e-mail. I do get the link sent to this address, BUT.... I can't upload the letter. Each time I try, my connection times out. Ah, but they have an option to cut and paste the letter into a box. I try this. The connection times out when I try to submit. I really hope they are checking the general contact inbox for the admissions department for letters. If this is a new system, I really hope they fire the group that developed it. RAGE!!!

I am applying to several posts at University C. Their jobs website is down for servicing for one of the job deadlines. I get permission to submit when the page comes back up, but since the deadline has passed, the job is no longer available in the on-line system. I get the appropriate forms from a poor administrator dealing with many requests like this. They require that I download and fill out an application form. The application form is a .doc file with fields. Some of the fields show up as read only when I open it in Open Office on my Ubuntu machine. Trying to save the file crashes OO. But exporting to pdf works. When my partner downloads the form to OO on his windows machine, he can't see the check boxes. I can't set up an account with my current e-mail address. Luckily, I've already set up an account from my previous academic address. When I upload the documents, I can't click on them to check if they look okay. Something about a header information problem with the webpage. OMG I HATE THIS!!!!!!

I really hope to be done with all this nonsense by Saturday.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Waiting for Tuesday

The term is winding down. Work is not. That's the funny thing about not having any teaching. My work schedule seems to have nothing to do with the student schedule. This will take some getting used to.

I have 70 more comments to go on an R&R (many many thanks to the thorough reviewer), a few more letters of recommendation to write, and talk to prepare for tomorrow. All the rest can wait. Tuesday evening is the start of my vacation. Events this year have conspired to keep me from sending work related e-mails to colleagues on the 24th and 25th of December. Instead, I hope to be spending much of those days skating under a near full moon a sky full of stars.

I can't wait. There's too much to do, and not enough time and too many days until my flight takes off.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Silly me

It's time to give out teaching assignments for the term.

Female grad student (FGS) sits down with her advisor (A) to talk about what she felt comfortable TAing. FGS tells A that she has no problem teaching any of the subjects he has proposed, but could he please make sure she is not assigned to work with Post Doc (PD). When A inquires further about her request, FGS explains that she feels uncomfortable around PD because of his attempts to hit on her and his misconception that her face hovers somewhere in the region of her breasts. A decides to grant her the request, but tells her to be careful in the future not to create a situation like this with any other of her colleagues.

Somehow I still manage to be shocked by things like this. Naively, I believe that stories like this can only happen if one of the actors are 20 or more years older than me. Silly me.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The hard choices

It's snowing outside.

I should wear my princess boots. They'll keep me warm.

These are like Cinderella's boots!

But I'm Rapunzel. Rapunzel goes barefoot. I can't wear these boots!

But I'm a princess. So I should wear princess boots.

It's cold outside. If I don't wear boots, I'll be cold.

But Rapunzel doesn't wear shoes!

Sometimes, I feel sorry for Epsilon.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Building community

When I first started my blog, I told a few friends, and no family members. My anonymity was not so much to protect myself from other people finding out my opinions, but more to protect my family from exposure to opinions that we are on a don't ask don't tell position about. Since then, I've found that there is safety in a pseudonym is convenient in protecting the identity of people I want to write about. 

Over the last year an a half, I've found that I've made anonymous friends on this blog. Since the initial point of this blog was to help me survive a hard 2 body problem, this is a very good thing. The downside of having more people I know reading this blog, of course, is that there are sometimes posts that I cannot write. That's a price I'm willing to pay.

In fact, I am willing to pay more of that price. Specifically, I'm noticing that many of the people I used to love to read and hear from on my blog roll have disappeared. This is not surprising: I read a lot of small blogs, which tend to have short lifespans. Unlike RL friends, a blog dying usually means I fall out of touch with the writer. So, my question is: Those of you who have run teeny tiny blogs like mine for years, how have you managed to maintain a community?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

First snow

Today has been a hard day for stupid reasons. Lots of emotional ups. Lots of emotional downs, mostly conspiring to keep me from getting much work done.

At some point, I looked out the office window to see the ground covered in a thin layer of white. Closer to the window, the white is speckled with dots of green, blades of grass that have yet to realize that their time is up for now.

Across the street a large white paper star hangs in a darkened window, lit from the inside by Christmas lights. Their neighbor's house is well lit; a chandelier shows me their library. It looks cozy. My office is warm. I am lucky to live in such an age, to be born in such a class, that the threat of exposure is as far removed from me as the thought of snow was to my grandparents.

I face a quiet street. Even now, as people head home, I only see a few headlights slowly maneuver the slick roads. Not many tracks on the sidewalk, either.

Epsilon had his first snowball fight today. He saw the snow falling and declared that Santa would come. I missed the snowball fight. Maybe I'll surprise a stranger on my way home in his honor.

Patting myself on the back

Last year at this point, I was flipping out. I was counting down to my partner leaving the family for 3 months. I was in the middle of job applications. I was convinced I would never get a job. I was worried about my academic progress.

This year feels so different. I think I started it thinking that I would only apply to TT jobs that are near His Town. Now that I've started seriously looking at jobs, that restraint, of course, has flown out the window.

I am applying from jobs (4 deadlines left this week). But unlike last time, I am actually being able to work on the applications and do other work at the same time. The panic has subsided, in part due to the fact that I have a job to come back to next year, and partly due to the fact that I am in a place 4 days a week where I can work on my schedule, rather on my child's.

For various reasons, I wish that the job market was in a few months. I have several things coming up that will make my cv look more impressive in a few months, but that is the way of things.

I'm trying to be aggressive about asking for advice on how to make my profile more attractive (other than the useless advice of "publish.") I appreciate the feedback that I get, even if it often comes with hard pills to swallow. So far, I think I am doing a good job of not reading statements like "Congratulations on X, it will help your profile" for what it is, rather than code for "You have a weak profile."

This too will pass.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thoughts on Christmas

This time of year usually finds me hunkering down in an underground cellar somewhere, trying to avoid contact with radio, TV or shop windows. When I do have to go to the grocery store or drug store,  I try to make it as minimal a trip as possible, skipping the usual wander down aisles not related to my grocery list to see if there is anything we need that I forgot to write down. If it can wait until next weeks' trip, it does.

Not that I have anything against Christmas. It is a perfectly legitimate religious holiday for cultural Christians. However, as neither I, nor my partner, consider ourselves cultural Christians, we don't wish it thrust upon our household.

I do have an awful lot against Christmas muzak, blinking strings of light in bright colors and the red and white fluff that seems to take over every storefront in sight starting the day after Halloween. In short, the I spend November and December in the US hiding from the in-your-face commercial loudness of Christmas in the US.

If, in your exuberance over the upcoming holiday, you wish me a Merry Christmas when passing me on the street, I will wish you the same. If your store asks you to wish everyone at the checkout counter "Happy Holidays," I have an issue to take up with your manager.

November and December in the US are filled, for me, of feeling outcast and marginalized a country that is so fundamentally based on religious freedom.


I cannot tell you the relief I feel this year at not experiencing this anger and sadness this year. Maybe it is because My City's and His Town's celebrations are not as garish and loud as in places I've lived in the US. Most of the lights I've seen around have been the simple strings of white light, which can be quite pretty.

Maybe it's because muzak is less of a thing in the places I find myself now a days. I spend a lot of time every week in airports and train stations, waiting, and window shopping. My main disappointment this Christmas shopping season has been that the earrings that I really liked but didn't buy before Thanksgiving at Claire's are no longer there, the display having been replaced by seasonal earrings featuring glitter and red bows. If I walk into one shop to hear Christmas muzak, I wander out and into the next one, which isn't playing it. No one, not one, clerk has yet to wish me Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays.

I should point out that both His Town and My City are in countries that have a much closer constitutional relationship with Christian Churches than the US.

Neither University E, nor University F, have put lights up on campus. I am not aware of a "Holiday Shrub" hanging out in the student center or main quad anywhere. Though His Town did put up lights a few weeks ago, with a big todo involving Batman, Santa and fireworks. There is also a large tree in one of the main squares (in the center of a shopping district) in town. My city has Christmas markets up, including little kids rides.

Maybe it is that I am not keyed into the things that these cultures do for Chirstmas, so I am not noticing them as they happen. Maybe in a few years, local Christmas practices will grate on me as much as the ones in the States did. Maybe the European caricature of the US is correct: all the religious fanatics from this continent fled to North America, which explains much of its current state.

Whatever the reason, I am grateful to feel included as a resident of my two cities, not by any active act, but by just being left in peace.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Post Thanksgiving eggmus

I thought I had a lot of posts to write after thanksgiving, but either they turned out to be too personal, or I turned out to be too sick/jetlagged/swamped.

But there's nothing like coming back online with stories about Epsilon.

Jetlag is lousy. Jetlagged kids in your bed are worse. 
1:30 am 
Epsilon: Daddy, I can't sleep.
Partner: I know. Keep trying.
E: (Kissing head) I love you. (Rolls over to try to sleep.)
1:34 am
E: (Kissing head) I love you. (Tries to find a comfortable position.)
1:37 am
E: (Kissing head) I love you. (Rolls over.)
1:39 am
E: (Kissing head) I love you Daddy. (Rolls over again.)
1:42 am
E: (Kissing head) Daddy, I love you. (Tosses and turns a bit.)
(Repeat at approximately 3 minute intervals)
3:00 am
E: (Snoring)

Can't quite get upset at him for that one.


Epsilon's always liked bright colorful socks. Recently, he's become a huge fan of pink. The definition of pretty is now "has pink in it somewhere".

Partner: See that big girl with the pretty shoes?
Epsilon: (Pulling off his galoshes) I know. I have pretty socks!
Big Girl (aged about 5): Are you a girl or a boy?
E: I'm a big boy. .... I'm a big girl.
BG: (Confused) Are you a girl or a boy?
E: I'm a big boy. .... I'm a big girl.
BG: (Frustrated) Are you a girl or a boy?
E: I'm a big boy. .... I'm a big girl.
BG: (To Partner) Is it a girl or a boy?
P: Does it matter?
E: I'm a big boy. .... I'm a big girl.

Sometimes I worry about him holding his head up high in this world of gender roles. Sometimes, I don't.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


My partner and I flew in last night to his home town for Thanksgiving. We spent a chunk of the morning going to his favorite cheese store, bakery, and grocery store for our contributions for Thanksgiving dinner. I found myself longing to live again in a place with good food, where I can walk down the street and not be the only non-white face in sight for blocks. I found myself thinking about the job application due at the end of the month that would, if successful, land me in Large City, and give him a doable commute to His Town.

"I wonder why I didn't just take a job in the private sector years ago. I could live where I want," he says on the walk home.

"It's not too late," I reply, surprising myself. I confess to thinking similar thoughts and doubts about our 2-body problem during our shopping trip. "I think being back here has made me homesick. The US, in all its diversity, is my country, my politics, my issues. Its what I know."

We talk about places we've lived and loved, and where we'd like to get back to. As I'm starting to feel the futility and exhaustion of it all, he becomes more positive. "I think it's just that I really hate His Town. Its good for having a small kid, but eventually we will out grow it."

"Maybe I'll get a job in Large City."

"I could see us loving Large City." We talk about what we want to give our son, if we lived in a perfect world, fantasize about having jobs in the same University, where our commutes could become time we spent together as a couple, worry about having jobs we hate.

In the past, when I've thought about leaving academia have been periods when I've been frustrated with my job, or felt stuck or isolated academically, or been exhausted from single parenting. I've been so very happy with my new academic home. I've been busy with new projects. I've been telling everyone that only thing I hate about my new situation is the commute. Where did this sudden surge of misery come from?

Monday, November 19, 2012

No Responsibility

A stream of comments from a recent post has had spillover into Real Life. Whatever. Fallout like that happens. However, this made me think about the offending language in that post. Here's the scandal: One commenter said that a male colleague of her's, who she presumed not to be a parent, to have no responsibilities. This offended a male reader who vehemently believes that single male scientists work very hard.

I'm going to specifically ignore the gender aspect of this controversy. I want to address the parent dimension of this. I want to do this, because 5 years ago, before I had a child, I believed that I worked REALLY hard, and that I had no time for extra responsibility. If someone implied that I had it easy while in grad school, I would have been somewhere on the spectrum between confused and pissed, depending on how bad a day I was already having. So I sympathize, to a point.

There are a few experiences in my life that I had to have to understand. No amount of reading about, listening to testimonials, or watching movies could have (or did) prepare me for the shock of the event. These are, in chronological order, living for a few years on a food stamp budget, being the victim of a violent attack, becoming a parent. None of these three are comparable to each other, all of them have been life changing. Each of them have offered me a glimpse, or more, into the lives of a large swath of humanity I did not have any chance of understanding before the critical event.

I hang out a lot on blogs on academic lifestyle blogs. Many of the people I read are parents. The majority are female. There is tension in this tiny community surrounding the issue of having children, and how it fits into academic life. Saying that a non-parent has no responsibility is deep in the land of hyperbole. Saying that becoming a parent is a choice we undertook that we should accept responsibility for and stop whining about is deep in the land of oversimplification.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bathroom humor

Kurt in the car
Gottlob at the zoo
Bertie at the pig-sty
Cantor on the loo
They are all doing maths
Mathsy mathsy poo.

Brought to you by a women's bathroom stall near me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An analogy

Walk with me, if you will, to an alternate reality.

You are still an undergraduate. You've decided that you want to go to graduate school. But there's a problem. In this world, none of your professors or academic advisers want to talk to you about graduate school, even though many (not all) of them have attended graduate school. They are happy to talk to you about jobs in industry, however. It is really hard to get advice about how to apply, or find out what it's like. And what information is out there either says that it the best thing ever, that anyone serious about their subject who doesn't go to grad school is somehow incomplete as a person, or tells you that it is hard, gruelling, bone crushing work that will eat your soul, your social life and your sanity. You suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but very few people will talk to you without resorting to these hyperbole.

Its rare for people, in any field, to go straight through. Most people wait a while. They go into industry first, make a few bucks, then decided to go into graduate school for a midlife promotion, or because they want to enter academia. For various reasons, you don't want to wait. Or at least, you want to think about the possibility of not waiting. Your peers all want to go into industry first. Some of them may see graduate school in their future, but certainly not now, and probably not to go into academia.

At the same time, outside of academia, graduate school is seen as a plus. Your family wants you to go to graduate school. Your family is encouraging you in this direction. Many of your family members (and those of your peers) have gone to grad school. Those that haven't seem to regret it. But none of them are academics, which is really what you want to do. They have advice about applying to and surviving graduate school. But they have no idea of how to go to graduate school and become a professor. The process of postdocs, tenure track and tenure is completely foreign to them.

Come to think of it, none of your female relatives survived graduate school. In fact, very few of your female professors went to grad school either. As you start looking into it, it seems that many women who go to graduate school drop out of their field entirely. If you are female, this is disheartening, especially since you love your field. Although, this may explain why, if you are female, people seemed to grow uncomfortable talking to you about graduate school.

You can get some advice on the internet, but who knows who these psuedo anonymous people who write academic blogs are? The other place you find any help is the National Honors Society conference. It has a panel on career prospects after college which spends some time on some issues surrounding graduate school, even on going on to become a professor. It's not the most useful panel at the conference. Much of the discussion is in vague generalities and the same useless advice you've heard before, but there are some thought provoking comments. You leave with a few friends to grab lunch. There is general displeasure with how the panel was conducted, but not for the reasons you think.

"I hate these discussions about going on to academia. There's so much more to one's career than that!"
"I liked the discussion about dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. Though I wish they'd done more than tell us what legal rights we have"
"Seriously. That's an issue that effects so many women, why don't people talk about that more, instead of discussing grad school?! I mean, is the issue of grad school just so big that it eclipses the other ones we could be having?


To all those who complain about the women in science events that focus on babies, I posit that for some, the search for trying to find a context in which one can talk about children and career is much like the scenario described above. Few role models, and the women with children don't want to talk about it because they want to be perceived as scientists, not mothers. Men of a certain generation have kids, but also have wives who have borne 51-100% of the cost of having them. I am not saying that it isn't important to talk about the other things that face women (sexist comments, sexual harassment, letters of rec that describe women's personality before their academic achievements  glass ceilings, two body problems without children, to name a few). I'm saying that, in my experience, it has been much easier to talk about many of these problems (sexual harassment being the obvious exception) with other colleagues than to talk about pregnancy or having kids, or pathways to stay in academia after having kids. If someone has a different experience, do share. I am generalizing from a sample of one.

Forums for women need to have a space for discussing children, even if it is not applicable to everyone, because it is a discussion that is nearly impossible to have outside of these forums.

Monday, November 12, 2012

US Foreign policy in a nutshell

This occurred at the airport while coming home last week. I arrived to the airport early, so I treated myself to a cup of ice cream. Walking by a fast food counter with no counters, I hear:

Vendor: [Foreign words] helado [Foreign words]?
Me: I'm sorry, I don't speak the language.
Vendors colleague: Is the icecream good?
Me: Yes it is. Thanks.
Vendor (translated by his colleague): Where are you from?
Me: Originally? The US.
Vendor: US! OBAMA! (big smile as he pats his heart.)
Me: Yes, Obama.
Vendor (Realizing a possible faux pas): Is Obama good?
Me: Yes, I am very relieved.
Vendor's colleague: Iran just took down one of your planes.
Me: Oh?!
Vendor's colleague: It was on the TV five minutes ago. It wasn't manned. It was a ....
Me: A drone?

Well, that just about sums up the highs and lows of US foreign policy, doesn't it?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Be the change you want

This has nothing to do with the US election.

Last year, when on the job market, and looking up random people's websites at schools interesting looking department, I noticed that when a department had lots of pictures of young fathers with pictures of their children on their website, it made me feel like that might be a department I would be comfortable in, were I to work there. Then I noticed that there were no women, in any departments who had pictures of their children on their front page, and I wondered whether I should put up a picture of myself with Epsilon on my webpage.

I'm still on the job market. I'm at a new place, so my webpage needed to be brought over. I've decided to come out as a parent.

Yes, I know, in some ways, this is a stupid move. But moving here has made me mad. These last few months, I find myself living in possibly the most sexists environment that I have encountered in the developed world*. For the first time in my career, I feel like I have no role models near me, and I hear much more about the paucity of role models from the grad students down the hall than I ever did in the US. So, yeah. I'm mad. And anger leads me to do stupid things. Maybe this will effect me poorly. Maybe it won't. I'll probably never know. But I feel like someone has to step up to the plate.

*Visits to my family, who, as all diaspora do, still think they are living in the old county of 45 years ago, is not being counted for this analysis. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Women's dinner

"So what did that have to do with discrimination against women?" someone asked after half the table excused themselves from dinner to get work done. The remaining women looked at each other awkwardly, until someone said "Not much."

I hemmed and hawed my reasons for not bringing up any of the issues I so easily talk about in private. But the truth is, if the permanent faculty member at the dinner wasn't introducing the fact that this was a dinner for women in the department, and a safe forum to discuss any issues one may have, I didn't feel comfortable doing it at all. This is a startling and disturbing realization.

Once we realized that there were, in fact, several women at the dinner who wanted to talk to other women about sexism they face in life and work, the conversation quickly turned to swapping stories, and giving advice.

"How you deal with non-academic discrimination, such as the neighbor who says that women's brains are scientifically proven to be less capable of mathematical thinking?"

"How do you tell your adviser that you are pregnant?" Unfortunately, I could not remember this series of three posts off  the top of my head.

"I've decided to publicly start warning women against men I've had bad experiences with." I venture.
"We should make lists like this public," someone says. After a while, someone else points out that it is very hard to talk about this. "I don't want to spread rumors, and it is hard to tell if it is just me, or if the person really is a problem." If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that last sentiment.

"How do you get out from under the influence of a scientist who is biased against you?"

"How do you deal with the nepotism of academia?" Move to a country that is less nepotistic, unfortunately. 

Walking home, I ask "why women in Europe seem to leave the workforce more than their American counterparts?" Someone asks "If having children is so hard, why did you do it?" Damned if I could tell you now.

This is why we have women's only events. Once a safe space is established, there is too often so much to say. Can I name a few men who would contribute to and benefit from these dinners as much as the women? Sure. Do I want to be a gate keeper? No. Do I want to ruin the feeling of a safe space by having to pause and explain to someone who hasn't faced a certain behavior, why that behavior is harmful? No.

For now, I've made piece with this exclusionary policy. Yes, we are diminished when we exclude half of humanity from any event. But we are not excluding them from the discussion. We talk to them every single day. If they are not as keenly aware of how few female colleagues they have, then that is not my problem. This dinner was a chance to put my guard down. It is sad that in the 21rst century, I still need such a place.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

You know you live in a surveillance society when...

Epsilon started sing the other day

The cameras on the bus go
Camera, camera, camera (with flashing hands)
Camera, camera, camera
Camera, camera, camera .....

Big brother? Of course he's watching. Why wouldn't he be? 
What a different world.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Say it like a man

A little over a month ago, I sat down to dinner the night before a conference at the other end of the table  from a colleague. I have a lot of respect for this man as a scientist, he's done a lot for my personal career. I don't think I'd ever suggest to a female student of mine that she work with him, at least not unforewarned.

Colleague: Hey Barefoot, how are you liking University F?
Me: Um, I just got there, but its been good so far.
C: Have you checked out [foreign word] yet?
Me: What's that?
C: Its an interesting place.
At this point, since the conversation is being shouted across the table, everyone else who doesn't live in My City is curious what is being talked about.
Me: Could you tell me more?
C: It's like Disney Land.
Different colleague: You mean it has rides?
C: Well, yes, for adults. To me. You wouldn't like it.
The danger wave function that is present in so many non-scientific conversations with C collapses, and  I think "How do you know I wouldn't like it?" But any (more) discussion of sex and sexuality was not appropriate.
Me: Is this the red light district?
The woman across the table from me,  also from University F, nods, embarrassed.
Me: Why couldn't you just say that?

Weeks pass. It is late at night, and my computer is doubling as a radio. I follow a series of links to a show about prostitution. All of a sudden, I realize what I should have ended that conversation with.

Me: So C, you can't say "red light district" like a man? You call it Disney Land like a pubescent boy?

Friday, November 2, 2012

News of deaths come in groups

How do I grieve for you
When I knew you just as Uncle,
and not by your given name.
When the sum total of our interactions
amount to small talk,
often with Daniel,
on days I came to visit other members of your family,
conversations in your perfect English
between two men left out
of the women's talk,
and an awkward kiss, long forgiven,
the day your brother came out of surgery.
There is not enough fabric there
to stitch a mourner's shroud.

Your family has given me so much
love and nourishment.
Your part in that must be acknowledged.
You, the strong, quiet, sometimes overbearing patriarch,
who knew to keep his distance
from the firy naive feminist
with strange beliefs and weird customs
transplanted from a curious land.
In that space, and I imagine wisdom,
something improbable grew.
Now its roots are struggling
to find something to cling to.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Grad school application advice

I got the following question in an email from an undergrad who is interested in research problems similar to what I am interested in.
if you had to be a graduate student in the US again where would you most want to go?
Part of her question is asking where the best research on my particular small set of research interest happen is going on. However, given that very few people in my field write a thesis on what they they say they want to write a thesis on in their application, there are other considerations to take into account. Here's some advice I wish I'd been give about selecting grad schools that my undergrad adviser neglected to mention.

If you have a topic in mind, then that's wonderful. However, be willing to be flexible. Imagine this scenario: You are admitted to a graduate school with a professor/lab you want to work with/in. This professor works alone, he/she is not part of a larger group at the university. There are other people who do similar things, but not what you have your heart set on, or even, there are people who don't do very similar things at all. In September, you go to your new school, and find that for various reasons you can't work with this person: there are lots of people applying to work with this person but he/she has a limited ability to take people on or  you find out reasons that this person is not an ideal adviser. Know this risk ahead of time. You probably didn't just apply to one graduate program. Once in the door, don't just plan to work with one adviser. You can always change research areas after grad school if you hate what you are doing. With this in mind, apply to schools where there are groups of people working in your topic of interest, if at all possible.

Then there are non-academic considerations to take into account. If you are female, how important is it to you to be in a department with lots of women grad students? Post docs? Faculty? For me, I didn't apply to schools with 0 female faculty. Nor did I apply to schools with bad reputations about how they treat women. I had done my undergrad at a school where I saw 2 females stand up in front of a lecture or lead a lab, one of them a post doc. Women were under represented in classes and lab, with all the problematic gendered interactions that ensue in that situation. There was no way I was going to put myself through that again. What surprised me in grad school, however, that it wasn't the female faculty who were my best support. It was one of the male faculty members who fought to make sure they were hired.

There are other locational considerations. Your social life in grad school is not handed to you in the same way that it is in college. You have a lab, or a cohort, but that probably is much smaller than the group of people in your college dorm or the number people in your major with whom you did labs, or met with for study groups. Few universities have clubs for extra curricular activities for grad students, even in those that do, it is often slim pickings. If you want to have a life outside your lab, (and you do, no matter what you say on you application) you should keep in mind what types of things you want to be able to do. Don't ignore these factors. Gradschool is a long time, 4-7 or more years, depending on your field. It is worth not applying to the university with the best professor in your field, if you know that university would make you miserable, especially if there are top professors in places that would make you happier.

Do you have any advice on choosing grad schools that you wish you were told?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Women's spaces

People occasionally write about whether or not women in STEM groups/meetings should include men.
Another hope of mine, perhaps an even less realistic one, is that it wouldn't always be women talking about careers-and-babies, but that more men would be involved in these discussions. It is still common for FSPs who are invited speakers at other institutions to be asked to have a "pizza lunch" or whatever with female students and postdocs, typically to talk about work-life issues.* Are any of you in departments that routinely invite men to do the same?
Up until I entered grad school (and therefore really faced discrimination on an impersonal systematic level, as opposed to the personal cultural discrimination that goes on inside most homes) I did not understand the need, in this day and age, for women's only spaces. After all, conventional wisdom is that for any "minority" to gain access to its rights, the issue of their rights has to stop being a niche issue, and has to start being a mainstream issue.

Furthermore, a lot of the things we discuss in "women in my field" meetings are really general interest issues. We talk about networking, research opportunities, job applications, grants and lots of other things that all academics care about. I find myself wondering whether or not men get similar career counselling. I am very grateful that I get this opportunity to talk frankly with people other than my supervisor about these general issues. I know a lot of men who would be too.

But then invitations like this pop up in my inbox:
Dear all,
Time for a new meeting of the [our groups] women has come! 
Which is about getting together, having a nice supper, teaming up, group-therapying about any sexist situation you may have suffered, brain-storming for avoiding them in the future, having many laughs and all in all have a nice evening together :)

"Group therapy." "Sexist situation." This is really why we have these meetings. We just don't necessarily say it so directly.

Okay fine, so we need a safe place to talk and discuss issues that detrimentally effect us in ways it doesn't effect men, but wouldn't it be useful for us invite men as well, especially the ones that are known to be safe to talk to? Yes, ideally. But how does one do that without acting like a teenager?

"Professor X, you are invited because this gaggle of girls have decided you are cool. Postdoc Y, you are not cool enough to be invited."

If one invites men to these meetings, how does one mediate against sexism at the meetings? Should one ask people not to come back? Wouldn't that be more exclusionary? How would one make sure that the standards are applied in a non-discriminatory fashion? 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Different norms

Travelling to different countries means, among other things, adjusting to tiny little regional quirks.

Do you pass on the right or the left?

Do you serve food with your right or left hand?

Which hand holds the fork?

Which hand gives the cash?

When do you say the equivalent of thank you, and when do you say the equivalent of cheers?

How much do you tip a waitress? A cab driver?

Most of these customs I can easily adjust to by being very aware of my actions for a few days, after which I fall into a habit that I then carry back home with me, at which point everyone looks at me funny. Well, not the fork. It took me some time to learn to train my left hand to cut and while my right speared.

There's one I'm having trouble with. In college, a black man told me that when he went shopping, the cashier more often than not put change on the counter for him to pick up. Most of his white colleagues always got cash handed to them. I checked with my friends. My white friends had it handed to them more often than I did. My black friends had it put on the counter more often than I did. Anecdata, I know, but it disturbed me. Since then, I have always made a point of handing cash to everyone. If the bills go on the counter while I am counting change, the coins get put in the hand. If for some reason this is not possible, it is always accompanied with an apology.


In a large chunk of Europe, money exchanging hands directly is just not done. A colleague explained to me that this felt to close to begging somehow. Okay, fine. Different country, different norm. But I can't do it. At international train stations and airports, there's an awkward beat while I hold out the money and the cashier figures out that he/she should take it from my hand and not the counter. At grocery stores and on buses, there's the urgent glances at the coin dish or the embarrassed pushing of change back at me across the counter as I recall that I screwed it up, yet again.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday's Females

Graduate students, I am more and more convinced, are the heart of any department. Maybe I'll feel differently after I'm faculty, but the department's I've felt most welcome in so far, it's been because of the efforts of the graduate students, whether it's been the solid mentoring and life advice I've received as an undergrad from the "Women in my field" brown bag lunches, meant for grad students, but welcoming to an undergrad who makes apricot turnovers, or the hugs an tissues I've received from fellow students when I find out that a friend my age has just been diagnosed with, or passed from cancer.

The last time this happened* my friend was half a world away. She had two kids she'd left motherless. When she passed, she was 2 years older than I am now. On a visit, her 10 year old son brought me a branch of dates he'd just picked, not realizing that accepting his gift meant a 30 minutes walk dragging a date branch to the main road, and stuffing it on a bus for an hour long ride. She took the branch and picked the dates off it, and gave me a more reasonable package of dates to take home, somewhat to his disappointment. He'll be graduating from college now. I've lost touch with the family now that she's not there anymore. But her smile. It still haunts me. As does the question: could I have done more for her? 

When she died, so far away, I was a first year graduate student. It was my new office mates who got me a glass of water and tissues as I sat sobbing at my desk. One even gave me a hug, followed by "I don't do hugs."

Last week, I got an e-mail from another friend, this time only an ocean away, also with two kids, also my age, telling me of her cancer diagnosis. Her situation is different, I know. She has health care, and lives in a large city in the US. She'll be taken care of. Needing frequent doctor's visits won't mean a half hour walk to get to a road that large vehicles can travel on. The company insurance workers won't sneer at her husband for wanting treatment, because of his economic class. She has the same theoretical survival odds as the other woman. But she has the treatment to make that a reality. What a difference a country makes. I think it is clear to me, after writing this, who I am actually grieving for. 

Still, after I got the news, it was a grad student in my brand new academic home who gave me a cup of tea and a frisbee to throw around her office until I could focus on work again. Grad students. I don't know what I'd do without 'em.

*You'd think I lace my friends' dinners with radioactive cesium.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wishful thinking

Associate != Assistant.

It doesn't matter that they start with the same 3 letters, and have a similar arrangements of letters that poke up.

It doesn't matter that the group with the job poster offered you a position for a post doc last year, after you had accepted your current position, so you had to turn them down.

It doesn't matter that you've already e-mailed all your letter writers excitedly telling them why you think you stand a chance at the position.

Associate != Assistant.

Fortunately, it seems none of my letter writers took my mistake poorly. It is good to have friendly letter writers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Be careful, you'll get a reputation

As women, we hear variants of this line all the time. It's usually used to warn us about how we dress, or about how aggressive we are, how much make-up we choose to wear, or not to wear. It starts shockingly young, middle school really, just about when we hit puberty, and follows us all our lives.

This is not to say that men aren't reminded about their reputations as well. They hear it about getting a reputation for being a bully, or for being a cheater, or not being dependable. They hear it regarding qualities that all people want to be careful with their reputations about. Please correct me if I'm wrong, men. Are there gendered reputation characteristics you get warned about?

As academics, we have reputations to worry about. Are we good advisors? Are our papers clearly written? Do we manage our labs well? Are we as dull as dishwater in front of undergrads? Do we get along with our colleagues and pull our weight in the faculty? Women, it seems from anecdotal evidence, worry more about appearing bitchy. I've known very few men whose reputation for being a chauvinist has preceded them.

Maybe this is because I've been unlucky. Maybe this is because given the gender balances in my field, I get most of my information from other men, since that's generally who is around. Maybe because chauvinist is not a name to attach to someone in polite company, just like it is really hard to call someone a bigot. Maybe it's because women (many minorities do this too), when they experience a negative interaction, tend to think it was a personal, one time thing. We don't tend to wonder if there is something systematic, and even if we do, we stay quiet. If we tell the wrong person, we'll just get a reputation for being over sensitive.

Fuck that. I'm keeping a list. My reputation can go to hell.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fridays Females

"Is this area J?"

"Huh? Yes."
I turn to see
a small woman - made up far to well to be in line at the airport
at 5:30 am.
She smells of cigarette smoke and fragrance.
Hoop earrings highlight her jaw line.
She could be one of my undergrads.

We make it through security-
 45 minutes until our flight.
"Do you want some coffee? My treat.
 I just need to find a cash point."

She's definitely too happy to be at an airport at 6 in the morning.

We settle down for toast or porridge,
cappuchino or tea,
and confess our lives to each other,
newly bonded as we were,
sleep deprived and punchy-
complete strangers and travelling companions.

She's visiting her new boyfriend.
He's stationed abroad for a year,
she's doing all the travelling now.
She hopes to bring her son over next month,
she doesn't know if his school will let him have the time away.
Maybe for Christmas.

"How old is you son?"

"He's five."
He's very good at abstract thinking-
tested borderline autistic.
She got pregnant in college.
Kept performing.
Finished her degree.
Graduated with honorable mention in music.
She pouted when her professor wouldn't let her sing at the last performance.
she went home
and into labor.

Happy graduation, Mom!

Her marriage didn't last,
but they still get together for lunch.
Her son sees them as good friends.
He has the kid during this visit.
No angst.
He's seeing someone.
As is she.

Her new boyfriend?
He's so GOOD to her son.
Her son loves him back.

She needs to figure out what to bring back her son. I give her suggestions of things that have been big hits with Epsilon, and we march off to our plane.

I can't get her out of my head. What would I have done with the cards dealt to her? Would I be the chipper young woman eager to fly to see her new lover, would I still be the older, weary one, trying to make it through the predawn commute so she can put in a reasonable day at work? Or third.... well, lets not talk about third ... 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Things that make me happy: Science for pre-schoolers

One of my neighbors from First Postdoc City, who I've been trying to keep in touch with, started talking to me about her difficulties answering her daughter's sciency "why" questions. I felt like door
opened in our relationship. Epsilon loves this 4 year old, he still talks about her. But living on different continents, it is hard to keep a strong connection with adults. It is manyfold harder with

Along with the explanations to the family's questions, I've sent links to sciency projects that might be interesting to young children, like Radio Lab (which has its own problems if you are a scientist, but does a decent job of popularizing it), and NASA's photo of the day arxiv (Thanks Alyssa). Dear readers, do you have favorite popular science sites that you love, and would like to share?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Where have all the women gone?

Two weeks ago, I asked this question about women in academia in the part of the world where my partner and I currently work when I wrote about the observation that there seemed to be fewer women in both my and my partner's departments than there we'd experienced in the States. Furthermore, I observed that no one in our respective departments seemed to think the current numbers odd. To be fair, since that post, I attended a large department gathering, the first after the semester had started, and realized that counting the new graduate students, the numbers are not as bad as I had previously assumed, but they are still pretty bad.

IBAM commented that perhaps the cultural norm was for women to work part time after having kids. Anecdotal evidence of our friends and neighbors seem to support this, and it is possible that if the perception is that a mother should work part time after children, then women who want kids are more likely to choose fields where that is possible (i.e. NOT academia).

This got me thinking. Not being a cultural anthropologist with a focus on gender issues, I turned to The Googlz. Wanna see a scary movie?

Oh my, are the girls sexay. (Yes, girls. They all look like jail bait to me.) This was the ad put out by the European Commission's initial attempt this June to promote female participation in science. It's been widely mocked and since retracted, but the front page for the "It's a girl thing" campaign is still a bit frivolous and pink for my liking. Meh. Maybe it's just a matter of taste. Show me some data, you say.

This scary graph keeps popping up wherever I look.

For a better view, check out page 73 of this PDF.[1] The shades of violet are female percentage of women in 2002 and 2006. The shades of salmon are the same stats for men. The points on the x-axis correspond to advanced stages of an academic career, starting with a graduate student (or equivalent), ending with tenured faculty (or equivalent). But it gets better. Page 74 of the same report has the following graph, looking only at the numbers in the sciences and engineering departments [1]

Okay, so what about the US? The NSF collects fairly good data about this on a regular basis. From their 2011 report, I was able to dig up the following graphs.[2]

These are the percentages for female full time, full professors in the sciences and engineering (essentially Grade A from the EC data):

The NSF has data about PostDoc (Grade C in the EC Data) held at US institutions by gender and citizenship status.[3] There is much more flux of scholars coming to the US from outside of it that to the EU from outside of it. I feel like I should recognize that the data for non US residents is different than the data for US residents, though I don't know what the implications of the distinction are.

The NSF also has data about PhD's granted in Science and Engineering from 2001 to 2010, (the fourth dot in the EC data.)

So what have I learned? My perception that there are fewer women in my field in the EU than in the States at all advanced degree levels matches the data about the presence of women in Science and Engineering fields in the US versus the EU. There are several ways to break this down further. There are, of course regional and field variations that I have not delved into yet. There is the question of how much the lack of female presence has to do with current hiring policy than with previous hiring policy. I still haven't come close to addressing whether or not more women work part time in the EU, and how this interacts with the number of women seen in academia. I leave this for future investigations.

I hope this turns into a regular blog series, though the posts will be spaced some distance apart due to time constraints. If you have any comments or thoughts or questions you would like to see answered, I welcome them. I especially welcome comments from European readers, since the main point of this project is to understand gender and academia in Europe.

[1] She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science, European Commission Report, EUR 23856 EN
[2] Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, Digest, 2011 (
[3] Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, Data Tables, 2011 (

Monday, October 15, 2012

Diva Moment

I think we've all seen this in our colleagues. The initial request. The realization that the request is not fullfillable. The unreasonable stance demanding that the initial request be fullfilled, climaxing to a demand that the world rotate around the needs of one particular scientist (or three year old). We've all seen colleagues do this. We may have seen our children do this. It makes the lives of administrators and parents miserable.

Having said that, I am going through my own diva moment. At the time of writing this post, I've been at University F for about 6 weeks, and I'm still not set up. Which is impressive since I don't belong to a lab. Wireless in my office is poor, and the VPN server won't install on my laptop. I still can't get Skype to interface properly with my desktop. This makes it very hard to meet virtually with colleagues.

I still have at least one government form to track down. Instructions on how to do so are unclear. I have colleagues telling me that I can do so easily on line. I have HR telling me that I need to go to a government office 30 mins away and take a number. Yes, there is a form that I may be able to e-mail in somewhere. No, she will not translate it for me, since the government office knows what to do better than she does. Legally, she needs to withhold half my gross pay until I procure this piece of paper. Oh, and by they way could I go to another office to prove that I haven't committed any crimes in this country before they hired me (ignore the fact that I haven't lived here before they hired me).

Part of the reason I'm not set up is that I've been traveling a lot (and will continue to through November). But the point of transplanting me from my original country to a university much closer to where my potential collaborators are is for me to visit them and try to pollinate some papers. Part of the reason I'm not set up is that my department's IT support is dwindling to 0. Part of the reason I'm not set up is that this country is trying to streamline it's paperwork, but the project is delayed, so instead of automatically issuing paperwork like they used to and will do again, people now have to run to 3 different offices.

I am currently refusing to let paperwork eat more than one day a week of my work time here. This slows down my progress in the pile of administration I need to go through. On the other hand, I think the frustration of standing in lines, and filling out forms in a foreign language is worth more than the interest I will loose on the extra money being withheld. So I'll get to it when I can. If this bothers her, I'll be the diva and she can make life easy for me. If it doesn't, then we are both happier for it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday's Females

I was listening to This American Life this week. The first part of it involves comedian Tig Notaro's talking about her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Cancer's not funny, but in the hands of a skilled and introspective orator, it is an amazing and powerful story. She was scheduled to perform a few days after she was diagnosed, and, unsurprisingly, she didn't feel up to giving her prepared show. Instead, she gives an impromptu 30 minute performance, talking about her cancer. The full show is available at Louis CK's website for $5. About half of this performance is available for free on TAL's show. It's worth $5 for the extra 17 minutes of material.

Mathbabe linked to Effing Dykes recently. In particular, she linked to this post about women's bodies. If you don't know the original Whitman poem "I sing the body electric," spend some time with that poem. It is a beautiful declaration of love for the human form, done in, what now seems to be, a non titillating way, but was nonetheless  scandalous in the 1900's. When I first read it in college, it was amazing to me that somewhere, in the English language, there was a written document appreciating the human form without sexuallizing it, told, lovingly, from the point of view of a queer man. Effing Dykes does the same in her  post "The Body Electric," with a focus on women's bodies. I think it may be the most powerful statement I have read about bodies for a very long time.

To round out my Friday Fantasia on the female form, take a look at Jo(e)'s post. She has a series of naked photos of friends and colleagues, usually taken at conferences, though this is not. I love Jo(e)'s blog, and I love her (and her friends') frankness with their bodies.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What to do with that wrapper

To continue my meditation on strengths of the US, the following scene happens regularly at Chez Barefoot.

Partner walks into the kitchen with various plastic containers from dinner.
Me: Here, let me toss those.
Partner: Shouldn't we recycle them?
Me: In [this country]*? No.
Partner spends a minute trying to find the little triangle with the number in it, fails, sighs, hands me the plastic. 
There's a piece of paper on our refrigerator with the recycling schedule on it. It also says that His Town aims to get to hit a goal of 43% recycling by April 2013. I am stunned. The town will charge me about $170 to safely dispose of my old laptop. It will also charge me the same amount of money to dispose safely of my used batteries. Our old electronics are traveling back to the states with us for our next visit.

My department doesn't recycle paper. My apartment complex in My City doesn't have a dumpster for recycling. I wish I could say this means that I've done the extra research necessary to find out where the central recycling station is in My City and taken my burrito wrappers and glass bottles there, but I am not that dedicated.

As my partner pointed out to me, the US is both the birthplace of the modern environmental movement and the Tea Party. It is home to both Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky. To not give the country credit for both is to do it injustice.

*To be fair, some of this has surprised colleagues raised in neighboring countries, where the stigma for not recycling is stronger than in the US.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


A colleague (male) is fumbling around under the table trying to plug in his laptop.

"Having trouble getting it into the right hole?" someone asks.

When we all ignore him, he helpfully adds that if he were at a bar, he would have said more.

Desperate, I point out that what he said was explicit enough. I don't have the courage to meet the other female scientist in the eye.

Just to cheer me up, my partner sends me this.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Jobs and genders

I complain a lot about the US. I do so lovingly, though it may not
seem that way. The US is my country, and if I have any patriotism in
me, it is in the firm belief that I need to do everything I can to
make my country better than it is (in the direction I believe is
better of course... opinions may differ about whether my better vector
actually is). Now that I've moved away, I have a clearer perspective on
the strengths an weaknesses of my country. Nothing I didn't know in
principal before, but some things have come into sharper focus over
these last few months.

I spend most of my time living in what some 'Mer'cans would call
"Socialist States." In some ways its great. I don't need to own a car;
there's decent public transportation. I don't have to worry about
healthcare. My partner's doctor apologized for how expensive it was to
fill a perscription ($13). He almost laughed out loud. Our
universities deal with our pensions. There are humane maternity
benefits and childcare becomes affordable after the age of 3. I feel
like I've walked into a dream.

"It's so nice having another girl around" says the female grad student
from the office next door.

"We're not the only woman in this department?" I ask. I swear I've
talked to other female grad students, and I know there is a female
professor, but I'm still a bit disoriented, waking up from my dream.

"There's A and B, and of course Professor C, but you are the only
woman in this building."

Shit. I've talked to _all_ of the women in my subdepartment, and it is about the size of my previous department. In the States, I'm used to 25% gradstudents
being female, and 2 in 10 professors being female. The postdocs slices
of departments I've seen are small enough that I don't want to draw
generalizations. Here, the numbers a are less than 1 in 10 female grad
students, and 1 in female professor in 15.

In the states, my partner sees a minority of female faculty in his
field, but it hovers between 35-45% female in high ranked
departments. His field is much more self conscious about this gender
disparity than mine is. His current department is closer to 1 in 5
female faculty, heavily concentrated in a non-mathematical
subfield. He's asked around, and it seems that this gender
distribution is normal, not an outlier.

Where have all the women gone?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Euro Crisis Fall Out

The academic job situation in southern Europe isn't good. ... The academic job situation anywhere isn't good. I hear stories of yearly contracts not being renewed, or not being renewed until they have either almost expired, or a few weeks after they've expired. I hear about faculty staying on for months without pay or with reduced pay. 

I just heard a story about a woman who commutes a long distance to teach classes at a satellite campus. Her baby is due at the end of November. The university doesn't have a plan yet to cover her classes. I blurted out something about a belief I had about Europe having great healthcare/maternity protections. The others at the table tell me that not giving her a break may not be legal, but now isn't the time to push on these issues. I don't know what to say. If there are faculty working for no pay, how does a pregnant woman demand that someone cover the last few weeks of term?

This isn't the biggest issue in the European economic crisis. But insofar as this blog chronicles the instances of sexism I see in my field, this situation is worth noting.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Things that make me happy: Dual language books

The last time I lived in a city where the public library system had books in my minority language was in college. After visiting my grandparents in their country my freshman year, it dawned on me that I
really did want a deeper connection with the language and culture there. I knew the local alphabet, but to say that I was literate was a stretch. On a lark, I investigated the collection of the main library,
and the branch library near me, and found books at many reading levels for me to stumble through. This was the first big city I'd lived in. I didn't know how luck I was. I've conducted similar searches in branch and main libraries near me in places I've lived since, and never found a collection of books or movies in my parent's first language.

Until now. His Town is small enough that there aren't branch libraries, just the main one. But the foreign language section of the children's room is phenomenal. Some of the dual language books we have already, which pleases Epsilon to no end. Apparently it is cool to own a book that can be found at the library. Other dual language books we own, the library has in a different language, which is also
fascinating to Epsilon. And sometimes, I find things like a mono-language version of Cinderella, in my minority language.

I was worried that moving to His Town, we would have to be self conscious about finding books with multi-colored characters. So far this hasn't been an issue since Epsilon has really only been interested in the section of the non-fiction shelf that focuses on vehicles. We go to the library, bring home a DVD of Thomas the Tank Engine, some books in the minority language, and one on helicopters. I'm good with this.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

More than a coffee problem

Would you buy coffee from a woman swimming in chocolate? I take that question back. Today's post is not about judging your, dear reader's, sense of hygiene. Most health regulatory agencies make it a moot point.

Personally, I really wouldn't want to buy coffee from a woman swimming in chocolate, especially if she looked like she was experiencing a highly sensual, and possibly private experience. The fact that she is wearing a really cool hat made of spoons and fun espresso cup earrings wouldn't change my mind.

I'm not really thrilled about buying coffee from a machine with her picture on it at work either.
I feel like I'm experiencing a small act of violence every time I go to the department lounge to get coffee. If I weren't only visiting for a few days, I'd make other arrangements for my caffeine.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Useful trick for writing research statements

I spent Friday writing to a few letter writers about my current projects and directions I plan on going/ projects currently on the hopper. I'd meant for it to be a short e-mail detailing why I thought I was particularly good for a particular position that I'm currently excited about. 

I come up three hours later with what looks an awful lot like a draft of a research statement. But since this was a letter written to people I am very comfortable with, the e-mail flowed like a casual correspondence. This needs to be tightened up, and I need to cut and paste bits from old research plans I've written, but on the whole I think it is a good draft. 

I don't know if I'll be able to trick myself into writing like this for future job/grant applications. Maybe I can pretend to be writing a friend instead of composing a document for a scary process. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Jobs and odds and ends

Its job hunting season again. Which means a certain amount of paralysis on my part. In previous years,  I've done a lot of other very productive things in an attempt to avoid working on job packets. I look at the open emacs buffer where my research statement should be, or the e-mail address of people I am supposed to network with, and .... keep staring. Yesterday we found a solution. I grab my partner's computer and play angry birds while dictating e-mails to contacts and outlines of research statements. My partner looks at the computer screen. Tell me I'm not the only one with this type of strategy?


I got an e-mail from my current position informing me that I have 10 days of vacation in 2012. Um.... Right. I recognize that for legal reasons employers need to tell employees these things. But what does this mean if the job is such that taking those 10 days of vacation is not actually plausible? As academics we struggle with vacation time. Whether it is as a grad student or post doc working with a PI who directly blocks vacation time, or indirectly makes it hard for one to take time off, or it is due to workloads we face due to our own ambitions, teaching loads, or external circumstances, or anywhere in between.


On of the jobs I'm applying for asks for a supporting statement covering my activities during the last 10 years of my life! A biography?! I blog. I clearly like writing/talking about myself, so this could be a fun way to take a reader through my academic journey. But really? 10 years? If I had taken a more traditional path through grad school, or done so in certain European countries, this could leave me talking about late high school. The other thing that struck me about the description of supporting documents is that it specifically stated that I should include information like time taken off to care for/raise a family. I think this would be illegal in the US. I understand the need for women to explain gaps in their resumes due to time spent taking care of the very young, the very old or the very sick. But there is so much discrimination, conscious and unconscious that women and minorities face. I question whether, on the whole, talking about such gendered jobs explicitly helps a woman more by showing that the time off was "legitimate" or hurts her more by reminding the potential employer of her gender.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

One Billion Rising

I just heard about One Billion Rising, a new project by Eve Ensler, mother of the Vagina Monologues, and V-Day, if you don't know her by name. The first thing I thought was "Wow! Dance, Dance, Revolution! Literally!"

The second thing I thought was, I have to get the word out about this. The premise is that 1 in 3 women in the world being raped or sexually assaulted during their life time should be nothing short of a global atrocity. It is a call for a strike day on February 14, 2013, via dance. Find a friend, find a public place, leave work, and tell them why. Go dancing.

You'll probably hear more about this from me in the upcoming months. Spread the word.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Grad school moments

I'm trying to remember the last time I felt this good. Perhaps it was when I wrote this post.The fact that it may be this long between periods of feeling satisfied with life and work is scary.

Maybe it is because I had a good week at last week's conference. There was a good exchange of ideas with people working on similar problems from a very different point of view. I managed to work out a result in my spare time that bodes well for a prospective project. I found out that someone has just done much of the hard work for me for a project that's currently lying dormant. Most imporantly, I slept. I went a whole week without having to wake up before 4 am to get to Univerity F, or get back to His Town after midnight, to be woken by Epsilon at 6:30.

Maybe it is because time with Epsilon this weekend was filled with the magical time with kids that parents tell non-parents about (fun time at a park, a good family dinner, reading stories out loud in the living room), and had very little of the time that parents don't tell non-parents about (the late evening tantrums because he's refused to nap, wakeup at 5:30 am because he's overflowed his diaper, but can't get back to sleep after).

Maybe it is because I've spent much of the day working in a coffee shop watching the rain outside, with a warm pot of tea next to me. Maybe it is because I'm taking a break from my commute this week, so my partner and I somehow found the time to talk about life and friends and things last night, instead of dealing with the necessities of getting the house ready for another week of single parenting.

Whatever the reason, it is on some level disturbing to me that I associate this peace of mind and calm with my grad school days. That is a period that few people look back fondly on (I think?). I think it is a definite sign of a need for a drastic reform in my life.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Social interactions with colleagues

I'm still trying to decide which interaction is more awkward:

A group swimming trip among colleagues: The act of stepping out of one's clothes to reveal a swimming suit to people who may be writing me letter in a year or less is always fraught for me. Its not that I am uncomfortable with my body. I have happily gone swimming in the buff with a female colleague I felt comfortable with. It is not a male female thing. I have gone as a support person with male colleagues to the university pool when he has wanted to learn to swim. It's a power thing. Something deep in my second X chromosome cringes at the act of undressing, or exposing myself in any way, to someone who has some control over my future.

Gossip about an ex-mentor's interactions with important people in my field who I may or may not still be on good terms with.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

When your talk time is cut in half

Several fellow speakers found out a couple weeks before the conference that our time had been shortened from 1 hour to 30 minutes. Some have been able to adjust admirably. Some, not so well. Here are a few lessons learned from both groups. First, what not to do:
  • Fail to rewrite your talk and decide to speak twice as twice as fast. 
  • Skip over examples and definitions to save time.
  • When asked a question, say "No, that's not what I'm saying!" while pointing your forefinger at the questioner.
  • Ignore the moderator when he/she tells your that your time is up, so you can get to the interesting results
  • Stop abruptly at the end of a slide because the moderator tells you your time is up.
  • Get frazzled by the lack of time, and fail attribute results properly (either to yourself or to other parts of the literature).
  • Answer a question during your talk as "That's not pertinent to the main subject of my talk." If you are short on time, non-pertinent details should not appear.
Talks I've heard go successfully in this timing change share some of the following characteristics:
  • Overview talks that don't focus on the details of a project, but give a general overview of a research program, along with key results.
  • Lots of pictures/graphs of key information.
  • Presentations stopped at the end of an interesting result, even if there were more results originally planned in the talk.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What I hate about conferences

I hate being a woman at a conference.

I hate being a woman at a conference who is outspoken about the problems women face in my field.

I hate being a woman at a conference who other women seek out for advice, or a shoulder to vent at.

I hate being a woman at a conference who feels obligated to follow another woman, who I've only met twice before, to her room, after she leaves near tears from breakfast in the hotel lobby because a male colleague has been riding her ass academically for the last two days about her scientific techniques.

I hate being asked "what would you do if you had to choose between your family or your job?" I have no FUCKING CLUE. The question SCARES ME SHITLESS. I hate not being able to say that publicly, quite in those terms.

I hate watching aforementioned male colleague be polite to all the people more senior to him, and rude to female post docs and graduate students of both genders. I hate choosing my seat at meals so that this colleague cannot sit next to or across from me. I hate having aforementioned female colleague follow me into the ladies room so she can avoid sitting next to him as well.

I hate using sarcasm, always with a smile on my face, never in anger, to shock someone into stopping inappropriate behavior, even for a few minutes. I hate that because I was composed enough to smile through breakfast,  while someone else was not, she is now perceived as being short tempered, while the male colleague is merely has a hot headed-type. I, on the other hand, am not threatening ... still.

I hate feeling like a hunted deer whenever someone comments that I am an aggressive woman, whether or not they mean it in jest, whether or not they mean it as a bad thing.

I hate the being on the winning side of a stylistic argument with aforementioned male colleague, but not feeling up to the task of discussing it with him again, after making this discovery, perhaps even offering some friendly advice, because I don't have the energy to handle the strong possibility that the discussion may turn ugly. I hate realizing that we are actually working in closely related fields, and that a collaboration may be good for both of us, if only I could stomach talking to him.

But enough of that. What I love about conferences, what I live for in conferences, are the conversations between colleagues working on the same problem from different approaches, realizing that the approaches are not only not incompatible, but that there is a lot of overlap, perhaps even room for collaboration. I love pitching a talk at a few people in the room, and having them walk away excited about the research, and eager to work with me. This is why I'm in this field. The rest of the day can go to hell.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Eggmus: Culinary edition

Weekends at His Town usually involve a cooking marathon, as we try to cook all the meals for the week that I will be away. Due to timings of various things last weekend, much of the cooking happened when Epsilon was still awake.

That was fine. He pulled out all the pots and pans onto the floor around him and started "cooking" as well. A while later, I see him next to the other cupboard, drinking out of a coffee mug.

"What are you drinking?"



He bends down, reopens the bottle of balsamic vinegar and pours himself another glass.

Mediterranean meeting

We look like students
who can't decide
if it is more important to study for exams
or enjoy the last caresses of summer.

Someone rolls out a chess board.
A third person comments on the game.
A few laptops lay scattered across the picnic tables,
their owners squinting at the screen.
The rest stare at pieces of paper--
when not distracted by pigeons
fighting in the tree. 
A group wanders down a dirt road to try to find the ocean.

There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


"Danish nursery offers parents time for making babies"

I've heard this headline several times today, and now I've read it, but I still can't believe it. Apparently its a publicity event to highlight the problem of an aging population in Denmark.

Denmark is generally considered to have pretty good childcare (in terms of availability and price) within Europe, which is already phenomenal, compared to the situation in the US. But I still have to ask: Will these same nurseries be providing night nurses for free once a week to let the parents sleep while their new infant does not?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A nice conversation

I was waiting in line with my fellow passengers at dawn, waiting for the plane to arrive. Mother of Teenagers, Traveling Businessman (male) and I, all being regular commuters on this route, were discussing different ways of getting to My City from His Town, and our favorite parts of each place, etc.

TB: Do you work in My City?
Me: Yes.
MoT: And your husband?
Me: He's a professor at University E. I'm a professor at University F, and get to fly back and forth each week.
MoT: That's a bit sexist!
TB: It is.
Me: Well, no. We've been living in this type of situation for a while, and we've tried a lot of combinations. We've found that he does better with single parenting, and I do better with traveling back and forth.
TB: Wow. What do teach?
Me: X
TB: I do safety and risk management. I don't need much X there.
MoT: My daughter studies X at University E.

The conversation went on. The fact that there are people out there in the world who will tell a woman when they think she is putting herself into a disadvantaged (if socially accepted) position in her family makes my week. The fact that a male was involved in pointing this out makes my month.

Blackberries for Epsilon

A while ago, I'd sent Blueberries for Sal for a friend's daughter, A. My friend, B., whose English isn't up to reading that book easily, looked at it, tried to read it a couple times, and then forgot about it. Epsilon was also too young to be interested in books with that many words per picture at the time, so I didn't get a copy for us, and soon, I forgot about the book as well.

When we went to visit B. last summer, my partner started reading through all the English language books we'd sent over the years to A. Blueberries for Sal was a hit with both A. and Epsilon. They'd run around the house saying "kerplink, kerplink" (the sound of blueberries in a tin pail). A. had never seen a blueberry before, but still loved the idea of going to a hill to pick fruit with her mother.

Now that Epsilon is living in the land of blackberry bushes, we have developed a ritual of picking blackberries on the way to anywhere. Sometimes it is the only way we can get him to keep walking instead of wanting to be carried. On Monday, coming back from day care, we brought a "bucket" a large tupperware, and picked blackberries to our heart's content. Epsilon ate as many as he wanted (I didn't believe that there was an upper limit on that, but there is) which still left plenty left over for canning. Unfortunately, the jam making had to happen after Epsilon had gone to bed.

My plan for this weekend involves going to the blackberry bushes with the really sweet berries that is way out of the way of our regular routine (at least for a 3 year old). I've found his halloween bucket from last year. It's not tin, but I can say "kerplink" just as easily.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Things that make me sad

I know several professional women or female Phd candidates who keep making decisions to put their career behind that of their husband's, behind the perceived needs of the family. I don't think I can name a single case (in my small and biased sample) where the woman isn't convinced, or has eventually convinced herself that she is happy with her decision.

I can't sit easy with their comfort, because more women make the choice to prioritise their own career behind their partners and families than men do. Furthermore, fewer women make these choices in this country, where the last few decades has seen a lot of discussion about the importance of women not only in the workplace, but in highly demanding fields, than they did 50 years ago before this public discussion, or in other parts of the world where this discussion has yet to happen or take effect. I doubt there is anything fundamental about the womanness of my foremothers, nor of the womanness of my cohort abroad causing this difference.

It makes me think of the times when friends or family have been singled out by the police, or gotten rude service from a take out counter that is normally very good. It raises the question of whether the other person was having a bad day, or did they see something in the skin color? It is impossible to tell whether each interaction is a draw from the bad day distribution, or from the racist distribution. The only things that people who study these these things have been able to measure is that certain people get bad draws more often, and those people tend to belong to various minorities.

The public discussion about women's roles in the workplace has changed the underlying population distribution to less women being willing to sacrifice their careers for the needs of the family and to more men being willing to do the same. But the choice profiles for the two genders aren't even close. Each woman I know who leaves her professional job, or chooses not to finish her PhD, or makes decisions (with her family) that she should bear more of the burden for the family, is a draw from a distribution that isn't where I think it should be. I have no idea whether I can be truly happy for my friends' decisions, even if they seem happy with them, because I don't know where they stand in the distribution. This makes me sad.