Tuesday, February 28, 2012


They hang like albino bats --
a tight white cluster on the clothes rack--
the morning after I realize I need to do whites.
I imagine sometimes,
during this sexless solitary period,
if I let them be at night
instead of returning them, folded, to their drawer
they will fly off
to seek adventures with sonar
that I cannot have.

Monday, February 27, 2012


I realized that the vast majority of posts over the last few weeks have been about 2-body problems, either mine or others. Dwelling on my family's separation was not good for my psyche. So I'm going to try doing other things in this space for a while. Let me know if you like anything new I try, or would like to see anything in particular.

Mervyn Peake, and his Gormenghast trilogy, has achieved a change in my reading habits I did not think possible. Let me start by saying that he is an absolute master of language. He approaches the reader's mind as an easel, his prose is his brush.
A bird swept down across the water, brushing it with her breast feathers and leaving a trail as of glow-worms across the still lake. A spilth of water fell from the bird as it climbed through the hot air to clear the lakeside trees, and a drop of lake water clung for a moment to the leaf of an ilex. As as it clung its body was titanic. It burgeoned the vast summer. Leaves, lake and sky reflected. The hanger was stretched across it and the heat swayed in the pendant. Each bough, each leaf - and as the blue quills ran, the motion of minutiae shivered, hanging. Plumply it slid and gathered, and as it lengthened, the distorted reflection of high crumbling acres of masonry beyond them, pocked with nameless windows, and of the ivy that lay across the fact of that southern wing like a black hand, trembled in the long pearl as it began to lose its grip on the edge of the ilex leaf.

Yet, even as it fell the leaves of the far ivy lay fluttering in the belly of the tear, and, microscopic, from a thorn-prick window a face gazed out into the summer.
Unlike the scenery, he paints his characters in absolutely grotesque detail, as I fear any one of us would appear if every speck of dirt under our fingernails were brought into focus.

The chef of Gormenghast, balancing his body with difficulty upon a cask of wine, was addressing a group of apprentices in their striped and sodden jackets and small white caps. ... The long beams of sunlight, which were reflected from the moist walls in a shimmering haze, and pranked the chef's body with blotches of ghost-light. The effect from below was that of a dappled volume of warm vague whiteness and of a grey that dissolved into swamps of midnight - of a volume that towered and dissolved among the rafters.  ... One of the blotches of reflected sunlight swayed to and fro across the paunch. This particular pool of light moving in a mesmeric manner backwards and forwards picked out from time to time a long red island of spilt wine. It seemed to leap forwards from the mottled cloth when the light fastened upon it in startling contrast to the chiaroscuro and to defy the laws of tone.
The only really likeable character in this story is the prose. I picked up and put down this series three times before, unable to get past the character introductions in the first fifty pages. As a character driven reader, how on earth could I read a novel, let alone three, about such a hideous cast. It was only after hearing a BBC rendition of the series, where the plot came into focus at the cost of the descriptions, did I realize that their stories are worth following.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the second in the series. Peake almost writes like the "classics" I sat through in high school English, where the authors were paid by the word and published in serials. However, unlike Melville's word count enhancing treatise on whale oil, the poetry in Peake's descriptions are powerful, gripping, and possibly truly timeless.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Having taken a several month break from applying to jobs, I'm going back to the application process. Between that and the emotional and physical toll of single parenting, I'm finding it hard to come up with meaningful content on a daily basis.

I promise to be irregular. I also promise to try to increase the quality of my posts in exchange for quantity.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Follow up

I wrote a while ago about a friend having several flyouts to schools for interviews. I heard recently that she got offers from two of the three schools she had interviews at!

She has chosen not to defer her position for a year while her husband finishes up his postdoc and tries to get a job nearby. Unlike our situation, she would have a hard time continuing to work if she were not at her new academic home. I think the exact words used were "it would drive her insane."

Fair enough. I then almost asked "who gets custody?*" but I thought better of it.

*Dark, bitter, inappropriate humour, not intended to offend people in/who grew up in messy divorces.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eggmus: Stories

There is a railroad crossing on my partner's current route home from work. This means that every once in a while, Epsilon gets a story from him about what happened at the crossing.

Yesterday's story involved broken crossing gates, waiting cars deciding whether or not to turn their engine's off, trains going too slowly and similar mayhem. The retelling of this riveting tale involved bringing out toy cars and trains and a comb for the gate. Then telling the story with Epsilon dozens of times, and watching him retell the story incorporating other instances from his memory that involved broken down or stuck cars. Finally, the retelling involved taking out the video camera so that my partner could see the effect that his walk home has had.

Sometimes, things just work.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pep Talk

A friend of mine from before Epsilon's birth is visiting the department. It was nice to get a chance to catch up with him. Last I saw him, he was finishing up his post doc. He and his wife were moving back to their native country with their then 5 year old.

His wife now has tenure (HUZZAH!!), his kid is well adjusted in his new school, and he is happily in a tenure track position. He gave me a pep talk about our 2-body problem (as does anyone who hasn't seen me in a while). Apparently he didn't believe that his family would be able to settle back in their native country as they have done. In fact, he was betting against it. He now owes his wife a "vacation"/year abroad during their next sabbatical in a country where she has lots of academic connections, and he has none. I'm insanely happy for them, and very jealous, but surprisingly, I also feel for him.

When he came to this country for a post doc, his wife spent a year living with her parents, working at her university, raising their kid. They applied to every possible fellowship they could think of so that she could come to this country on a work visa and continue her research. They didn't get any before he had to come abroad, so they spent a year apart. The second year, they decided that they would take out loans to put their kid into a preschool if need be, but the family would be together, and she would have the time during the day to do her research. Fortunately, she was awarded a fellowship that made life a lot easier.

I didn't know the details of their 2-body problem before Epsilon was born. I don't know that I would have appreciated the nuances of it then. But his message to me now was clear: In this field, unless one is clearly in the top few percentile, a major part of success is tenacity. That goes for a 2-body problem as well. An inability to consider the possibility that someone will give up their career, a lot of patience and courage, and some ability to think outside the box for short term solutions will go a long way towards resolving the problem.

This is viewing the situation through uncharacteristically rose tinted glasses for me, but it was a good pep-talk.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Shoulda seen it coming

There's a particular type of conversation with a type of person who likes to play devil's advocate no matter what the consequences on the emotions of the fellow conversant. Sometimes, I see them coming. Sometimes I set myself up for them.

I mentioned to someone that I was going to try to ease myself off of caffeine as soon as I was childless again. Simultaneously I hear "What does having a child have to do with it?" and "Wait, why are you going to be childless?"

For reasons I cannot fathom, in a room full of men, I choose to answer the second question. 

"Oh! I have to show you this! I found an amazing recipe for toddler fricassee. I was thinking of trying it out for dinner tonight."

There is a shocked uncomfortable silence as several professors who I will never have to ask to write me a letter stare at me. I sip my tea.

Alas, I explain that Epsilon will be with his father come September.

"Because his father is a better parent than I am." Nervous laughter.
"Don't you want to keep him with you?"
"I don't want to face Regional Difficulty X."
"But don't you want him to have Cultural Experience Y?"
"I would love for him to have Cultural Experience Y, but Difficulty X is just too great."
"Oh Difficulty X isn't so bad. Just do Z, and then Epsilon'll have Cultural Experience Y."
"Can you imagine then, what I would do in situation W?"
"Oh but immigrant group A has been dealing with situation W for decades. Racist anecdote about immigrant group A dealing with situation W."

Fortunately someone changes the subject soon thereafter. I know this conversation made at least one graduate student in the room uncomfortable. I am really sorry about my role in that. Maybe I'm growing bitter, maybe I'm tired, maybe I've lost my sense of humour. But I should have seen this one coming as soon as I made the comment about the caffeine.* I think I'm going to develop a policy of not discussing my family at work at all for the rest of my time here.

*There's a fine line between blaming the victim and protecting oneself. I'm trying to stay on the latter side of that line.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

We have a return date!

My partner just bought plane tickets home. The return date is still more than 5 weeks out. (He's cutting his time there slightly short). But it means that we are over halfway through this period.

(Does a family reunification dance.)

Anyone know where I can get a cheap advent calendar to start counting the days in a bit?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Post Valentine's Day tear jerkers

I didn't manage to hear this until after I'd posted yesterday, so this goes up today.

The Story Corps project is an attempt to record the stories of the lives of everyday Americans. When I lived in New York, I thought about going to the booth in Grand Central several times, but never made it over. Now, with great editors, and animators, the Story Corps project has put together a collection of love stories. I was misting up through some of them. By the time the last story came on, I had to stop working and find a tissue. Its a good listen if you have 30 minutes to curl up with a loved one.

Update: Video from Democracy Now.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ritual blessing

To -----,
Make your own luck,
From ----

What more can an uncle say to an infant?
What more can he do
for a foreign ritual,
but press a flower
into the pages of a book
affectionately called "The Bible"?

May your personality flower,
Evolve and expand,
Inflate or bounce.
May your inherited temper cool
to 2.7 Kelvin.

Make your own luck,
Unruled by the conditions set for you at birth.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Looking at matters from the other side of the fence

A friend of mine was telling me how he felt bad because he thought he'd disappointed his thesis advisor by not staying in academia. I think he means more than just a passing professional disappointment.

My partner has just been assigned several masters students is working with them to come with problems. I'm finding myself reminding him that the traits that he wanted in an advisor are not necessarily the traits that work well when advising the generic student, and that a masters student's goals are different than a PhD candidate's.

As a grad student, certainly in the early stages, I thought of my advisor as something akin to an academic deity of the ancient Greek variety. He had his unique temperament, but was great and powerful. By the end of my experience, he'd humanized quite a bit in my eyes, though I still have a great deal of respect for him. I understand my friend's urge to want to please his advisor. His advisor is his mentor and his guide, and a genuinely nice person. Of course he wants to make this person happy.

But (correct me if I'm wrong, wise readers) a good (ideal) advisor approaches his students with a certain detachment. After all, this is a professional relationship. The emotional attachment to the student's work should go about as far as one's emotional attachment to the research in general. If they choose to become friends with a student, that's beyond the scope of the professional relationship.

On the other hand, watching my partner navigate the path to advising students successfully, I'm realizing how much the shortcomings of advisers are due to the fact that, in spite their academic prowess, they are human beings. The quirks that make up one's life and research through landing that first TT position do not disappear with the appearance of a student. In fact, they probably get further ingrained the older one gets. Everything in the previous paragraph is like solving freshman physics problems assuming a spherical cow.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Wait, what's an issue again?

I've been trying all morning to compose a post about this new Catholic Contraception controversy. I'm tired (mostly for other reasons) and angry*, and failing to come up with something witty. So I'll just put up some links.

NPR had a nice piece on the history and legal issues surrounding women's right to the pill.

Rachel Maddow is, as usual, brilliant. Amish bus driver?

Obama's going to be announcing a change in his proposal in less than an hour. I don't understand the details of the change fully, but it'll be interesting.

*I'd taken it for granted that access to good contraception was a right won for me by my foremothers. I never thought this would actually be an issue again in my day, in the privileged parts of the country I live in.

Me: We have a lot of work to do.
Epsilon: No. Someone else work.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


When my mother was visiting, she borrowed my computer to finish up a review for an article. We talked about the article some, and about the review processes in her field versus mine. She mentioned that when she says that she will review an article, the journal usually gives her a deadline for when she has to finish the job. This particular journal gave her 3 weeks.


I submitted an article 3 weeks ago and have yet to get an acknowledgement of receipt!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Prop 8 overturned: 24 hours later

Yesterday when Prop 8 was overturned, I was doing a little jig in my head.

"Cheers! Cheers! Cheers! Cheers!
May this ruling live 800 years!"*

By now that I've had a night to think about it, and there are broader implications that I have mixed emotions about.
  • Same sex marriages will not resume immediately. There is a stay until the time limit for the opposing side to appeal has passed. Presumably, if the do appeal, the stay is extended. I think I'm okay with this in principle, though I might feel differently if I were directly affected by the stay.
  • The ruling is very narrowly defined, so that it only applies to the state of California. This one I'm really torn about. It would be soooo nice if this were taken to the Supreme Court and the repercussions were far reaching enough to overturn DOMA. But I don't trust the activist judges sitting in our current supreme court to decide that way. Maybe I'm still bitter about the Citizen's United decision, where the Supreme Court asked the parties to argue the case on different grounds than those they initially chose to argue. From the Wikipedia article on the topic:
    On June 29, 2009, the Supreme Court issued an order directing the parties to reargue the case on September 9 after briefing whether it might be necessary to overrule Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and/or McConnell v. Federal Election Commission to decide the case.[15] Justice Stevens noted in his dissent that in its prior motion for summary judgment Citizens United had abandoned its facial challenge to Section 203, with the parties agreeing to the dismissal of the claim. Stevens argued that the Court chose to hear argument on issues the parties had agreed were not to be presented to the Court and that it reached a decision on constitutionality when it could have found for the plaintiffs on narrower grounds.[16]
    Fact of the matter is, I don't trust this court as far as I can spit, and there's a part of me that is pessimistically happy that this decision for equality in marriage is put off a few years until a better court can see the issue. Does that put me firmly into the older, more conservative and fearful generation of activists? Aside from the fact that I haven't been actively on the front lines of this issue in a decade now, it probably does. But I no longer dream, as I used to, that marriage equality will come at such a time that I'll be able to marry my partner at the same time as my children will be able to marry. I know that it will come long before that. That fact, and the winning of this battle along the way brings me great joy.

*Apologies to Maurice Sendak for abusing his lines.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Turning a corner

I think Epsilon has finally turned a corner in how he's dealing with his father's absence. For the first 3.5 weeks, he didn't quite know what to make of the fact that his father was now living in the computer screen. When my partner would play fun games with him via his camera software and skype, Epsilon would sometimes engage, but more often than not, he didn't want his father on the computer. He'd completely ignore him, sometimes even power the computer down. Epsilon even told me that skyping with his father made him sad.

We did our best to work with him, and my partner eventually said that he didn't want to force a skype session on Epsilon, because he want him to develop bad associations with our "family" time. I spoke with a friend of mine, O., who frequently travels for long periods away from his wife and kids. He was sympathetic to my partner's situation, and told me to hang in there. His oldest child went through similar behaviour at Epsilon's age, but eventually got over it. Pessimist that I am, I didn't believe him, but soldiered on.

Last weekend, something clicked in Epsilon's little brain. He started foregoing bed time stories with pictures for stories about his father. And he actually wanted to spend time on skype with him. He now sits in my lap and looks at the computer when the adults are talking, and will even wave his hands in the direction of the computer in an attempt to pat his father's face. This is a definite phase shift. I hope it is permanent. It makes my days so much less sad.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mechanical skills

Grad School Friend brings over the fire truck with the broken pump. Armed with a screwdriver and my smaller fingers, we manipulate the plastic clasps and dismantle the toy piece by piece. A neighbor walks by, sees Epsilon asleep in his car seat and two adults intensely staring at a pile of plastic bits. I wave. He grins back knowingly. I am so glad that all my neighbors have young kids.

Having taken apart the pump, and finished blowing air into each others' faces, we have no idea what is wrong with the pump.We snap everything back together, and pray.  The pump works! Apparently, Grad School Friend had the same result when he took apart his dashboard to fix his power windows.

Friday, February 3, 2012

What's keeping you?

I was having a bad day yesterday. Then this happened.

Several of us were shooting the breeze before an in house seminar got started, and my views on my impending emigration came up. Because of aforementioned bad day, I did not speak kindly of my future home, blaming it for the separation that my little family faces now, and will continue to face. "Right now, I hate anything that is keeping my little family apart."

"What's keeping you from being with your family?" I cannot for the life of me tell you who the inquirer was. There's a one in three chance that he actually didn't know my familial situation. Selfishly, I chose not to expose my already raw feelings to an honest discussion of the delicacies and complications involved.

I could have said "My failure to be enough of a superstar to walk into any city and demand that a university in that city give me a job."

Or, if I was feeling more double X empowered, I might have said "My partner's failure to give up his academic dreams to find a job near me."

Instead, I blamed "My inability to leave academia to follow my partner around."

It always makes me nervous to talk about the possibility of leaving academia to solve a 2 body problem, though the possibility does hang miasmically in my peripheral vision. Eventually we all agreed that it wasn't so much my inability to leave academia as it was my probably subsequent inability to reenter it if I chose that route.

Oh wit of the stairs. Why do you haunt me? I practise my one-liners dutifully in the shower. Why fail me now?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Hardships: financial and otherwise

PUI prof had an interesting post in The Two Body Problem about her financial bummers a few days ago. She writes
But I have to admit that I'm having this thought: "We are two Ph.D's with secure jobs. We shouldn't be having these difficulties. Professors are supposed to be- not wealthy- but comfortable."
 before admiting that this is a bit of an entitled thought process.

I have to admit that my thoughts have followed a similar entitled strain recently. If I'd been an MD like my parents wanted, or if I'd gone into industry or finance like so many of my fellow undergrad study budies and graduate school cohort, I could be earning at least as much as I do now, with more stability, a nice apartment in a large city in the US, and living with my partner for the forseeable future. I wouldn't be worried about whether we have enough money in USD to last us until we move in the summer, or if my partner needs to send "remittances to his wife and kid back home." We're not actually poor by any stretch of the imagination. It's only striking when we compare it to where we could be if both my partner and I had chosen different career paths.

I've never felt that a post-docs or graduate student's salary was insufficient in the context of who it supposedly pays for. If one is a young single person with no family obligations, it is possible to live comfortably, though probably not the way you did at your parent's house, on a STEM grad student or post-doc salary at an R1 University in the US. (Note the number of caveats. I am not making generalizations to all grad students. I know some fields and places pay peanuts.) Especially given the knowledge that the income will double going from grad school to post doc, and jump again for a TT position.

We are not poor. But given the emotional, and physical costs of having two academics in one family, we do not have the finances to buy a comfortable life. This is a different problem than the one PUI prof addresses, but somehow, somewhere the expectation of being able to live a comfortable middle class life with all my education rears its head. Though actually, what I want is an comfortable middle class life with all my education and my carreer choice, which is a different matter altogether.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Ah to be young and single again....

I was talking to my partner the other day about his frustrations at University E. Many of them were of an academic nature, involving cultural difficulties adjusting to a higher education system that does things differently than the US. These are the most numerous, and the most minor. His biggest problem, of course, was missing the rest of his family.

His second biggest? Too much beer. Ah to be young and single again.... A group from his department goes out to a bar several nights a week after work. My partner has been going with them. And he's been consuming enough alcohol that he's feeling slightly sick by the weekend and leaves him craving non-fried food.

Somehow, I do not find myself full of sympathy for his plight.