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.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Little things: Techincal difficulties

I was having a conversation about my brother earlier this week. My commute schedule, where I'm in My City from Tuesday to Friday, and in His Town Saturday-Monday came up.

"Oh, a four day week. Nice."

Well not really, I almost said. But my brother is in a lab science, so it is really hard for him to take work with him while travelling regularly. Then I almost said, actually, it's been more like a 1 day week: Monday. The paperwork involved to get things set up here has been overwhelming, as it is whenever changing countries. It was late Thursday morning when I finally got my computer set up enough, and all the governmental/HR bureaucratic duties out of the way enough to sit down to work. Except....

I find out Thursday afternoon about more paperwork I need to wait in line for an hour to fill out, and that I probably want to change my bank account. I still can't get my laptop to interface with the campus network properly, which isn't necessary for work, just useful. Then I find out this afternoon that for some reason, my webcam won't work on the office computer - which runs the same build of Ubuntu that my laptop does, where it works. I try fiddling around, crash Ubuntu (talented, aren't I?), restart the computer, and now it won't let me log in.

Yes, I retreat to my apartment where I have working internet and a working webcam so I can skype with Epsilon tonight (and write this post), and add a long list of things that need to happen next week, which is going to be a short week in My City due to conference schedules. GRAH!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

This is what America looks like

I've been listening to selected speeches from the DNC off of Politico's website all day. It struck me that there seem to be an overwhelming number of women and minorities speaking. So I decided to count.

I took my list of speakers from here. Not counting the Presentation of Colors, Pledge of Allegiance, or the videos, and counting the Hispanic Caucus and the Women of the House of Representatives as one speaker each, I counted 54 separate speakers. Of which, 20 were female, 11 were African American, 13 were Asian, Hispanic or other, and 17 were white male.

So, actually, there were 37% female speakers (as opposed to 51% in the population), 20% African American (as opposed to 13 % nation wide), 24% Hispanic/Asian/Other (as opposed to 24.4% nationwide) and 31% white non-hispanic male (as opposed to 31.9% nation wide.) I'm not doing a count of gay speakers because that takes more effort than simple google searches of the names.

Wow. Okay, so women are a bit under represented and African Americans a bit over represented. But in general, this is what America looks like. A whole lot of women and minorities. Not so many white dudes. If every TV show and movie and book I read had a cast of characters that looked like this, I wouldn't feel like I somehow didn't belong in America. My darkness doesn't stand out in the crowd of speakers up there. Neither do my breasts.

This is not the Vagina Monologues. This is America. A representative sample. This is how (threateningly? joyously?) diverse we look like if we all stand up and get counted visibly. I feel like for the first time in my life I am actually seeing it in front of me. It makes me so happy, and almost proud.

I was going to write about the genderness of some of the speaches, and complain about why female speakers feel like they must identify with their roles as mothers/grandmothers/care-takers. On the flip side, I was going to laud Polis for opening with his role as a father. But you know... this realization has taken the wind out of whatever complaints I may have. I am going to bed a happy woman today.

I feel like such a cad

I was getting on a bus at a decent sized bus depot yesterday in My City. I think I must have been the last person in line. As I'm boarding, a blind man bumps into me.

"Qerdf  spet linwer elst?" he asks. I don't speak the local language, so that's about what it sounds like to me.

I struggle to figure out how much I owe the driver for my ticket, and the gentleman keeps repeating the question to my back. After the third repetition, I gather that he is asking me what bus this is, but I don't know enough numbers to tell him.

I slink off to find a seat, and the bus driver gives him the information he wants. I am so ashamed of myself.

Conference City 2, where we were a few months ago, speaks the same language, and I had a similar experience. Epsilon wanted his own seat on the subway, so he was sitting next to me. An older woman came by and said

"Wer inetr skdong alking lsets. Gtin  klnigs eknoge."

By the time she'd repeated herself 2-3 times, I figured out that she was asking if she could sit in one of our spots, but the woman and daughter sitting across from me got up to let her sit. We rode on, facing each other in awkward silence, until she had the grace to try to talk to Epsilon. At this point it becomes clear that we share limited words in each other's languages and a few smiles break out. I wish her good day at my stop and head back to my hotel, wanting to hide from my shame under the piles of pillows they provide.

I clearly need a better solution to my linguistic difficulties. I'm taking suggestions.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The little things : different levels of trust

There are several little things that my partner and I have noticed over the last few weeks that my partner is expressing as different levels of trust in different countries*. For instance, in his town, near University E, to get a shopping cart, one inserts a coin to unlock a shopping cart. The coin is returned when the cart is returned and locked. This gets rid of the need for the poor souls that roam the parking lots of grocery stores in the US, collecting shopping carts left by people bringing things to their cars. But it demands that the shopper have the correct coin in his/her wallet. I don't know if this practice means that people walk off with fewer shopping carts.

No one wants to take our US credit cards in either his town or my city, because US credit cards don't have a built in security chip. Every ATM we visit has a screen reminding the user to shield our pin from possibly prying eyes when we type it in. Getting a rail card bus pass, or entering Epsilon into daycare requires a series of passport photos. For the first time, I need to pass a background check to hold a university job (not that they can get their hands on any US criminal record I may have.)

While the left talks about surveillance state in the US, everywhere I go in his town, I see signs telling me that I am being videoed.

None of these are big things, and I will probably forget that they are different in a few months, but this level of extra scrutiny does strike my American eyes as odd.

*Perhaps some would call what I am perceiving a heightened sense of security. I am writing this post with the premise that unless there is a clear threat, the flip side of imposing extra security is an implicit lack of trust in the average person.

The little things: gastronomic edition

"It's often the little things that make all the difference in whether or not one is happy when moving to a new country." I explain to a grad student after she tells me that, yes, one can get good American style coffee around University F. The more I think about that statement, the more it rings true to me. Especially in the area of food.

Moving from college to the country of my parents origin, I rejoiced in the freshness of the produce available. I didn't understand why anyone would ever want a fridge instead of going to the market every day. I'd never SEEN eggplant so firm and tasty! On the other hand I missed bread with a good crust, and don't even get me started on what passes for cheese over there. Every June found me dreaming of strawberries, and July was spent obsessing over taste of peach juice and the fuzzy texture of peach skin.

When I left to get a degree in economics, I entered a country with a rich cheese history, and I was in heaven. I remember getting to the train station on my way to my new college town, and immediately buying a cheese sandwich from one of nothing special shops at the food court. I think it involved Brie. I still remember the ecstasy. But the people in this country didn't know how to spice their food. I was (still am) convinced that even the black pepper in the condiment packets were less spicy than those sold in the states.

Coming to grad school city, back in the States, I missed the variety of cheeses available in the grocery deli, but thrilled in the fresh peaches available at the farmer's market. This was also where I discovered the wonderful world of heirloom tomatoes and the breadth of mushroom varieties. I even found a woman who grew and sold every dried herb you could think of, and then some. Herbal remedies be damned, I entered a world of taste experimentation. My partner's extensive caffeinated tea selection and my herbal tea collection occupied an entire shelf of the pantry.

The farmer's market in postdoc city (the first move listed so far that does not involve changing countries) is the only place I've ever seen that puts the marketing experience in my parent's country to shame. The heirloom tomatoes were a disappointment, but the corn and lettuce... I did not find a replacement for my herb seller, but we had a wonderful coffee shop in our neighborhood that introduced us to the wonders of different beans from different parts of the world.

So now that it is hard to get a farmer's market near University E, or American style coffee at a coffee shop, I've decided to cut fruit out of my diet in grief and be grumpy about the coffee for part of my week. This weekend, I found a man who sells seedling of every herb you've ever heard of, and then some. He must have had at least a dozen types of thyme for sale. It'll be more work and less variety than opening up and smelling jars of multi colored leaves in Jenn's stall, but pulling flowers and leaves from my garden for me tea will definitely be more fun. Now I just need to find more planters!