Monday, September 23, 2013

Leaving My City

One of these days,
I will learn that everything ends.
I will learn it before I begin,
tentative and shy,
hesitant and unsure of my place and role
in this new endeavor,
my next grand adventure.

I will learn my lesson before I begin
and save myself trepidation and heart ache
because I will know that this too will end.

Every life that is born,
every flower that that blooms,
every summer that blossoms and burgeons
green and lush around me,
every friendship I form,
every city that spreads herself out before me,
calling me to explore her details,
beckoning me to call her home,
will fade and fall from my grasp.
I cannot be constant.

My job will change,
as certainly as the seasons will.
I will take every tantalizing secret
I have teased out of my new home away with me,
only to forget her,
never to revisit,
never to know when she has changed her ways.

No matter the promises I make
or what I say,
no matter how much I declare and demand that this time,
this one time,
this will be a working relationship only,
I will love her.

Then, with the certainty of the oceans
that the tide will recede,
the day will come,
when I walk away,
when I do not turn back for one last glance,
but linger, lovingly in her alleys,
–even in the by ways that once caused me pain–
one last languid look of a lovers eyes
pass over the paving stones
and plaster facades
that took me so long to appreciate.

I step off the platform.
I wait for the train to depart.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Administrative myths

Being an academic is strange. It is hard to explain to in-laws that we do have work to do over the summer. It is hard to explain to parents that being a post-doc is not the same as being a student. I will not have to live in a dorm. It is hard to explain to friends that I do not have a boss. It is hard to answer the question "When do you have to get that paper/experiment/data analysis done by?" because the answer is always "last month."

I have no boss. This is wonderful. I have no deadlines. This too is wonderful. I have an administrator who want me to declare which 20 days of vacation I took last year. This is confusing. I have a contract that says that I am being hired to work 39.5 hours a week. That is laughable.

I dream of that job. I dream of being able to work 40 hours a week and take 4 weeks off, and still be competitive enough to give my child a school that he can go to for years and years and years without having to move, to give myself a neighborhood I live in for years and years and years so that my partner and I have friends.

I know it is a fiction. I know that I can count the number of academics I know who can do what they want to do in a 40 hour week  on one hand. I know that this year, like last year, I will make up dates of my vacation to make HR happy.

There should be something illegal about this. At least my department chair at a previous university had the spine to admit it. He told me that he knows that I am a postdoc at University A, and that post docs here do not tend to take as many vacation days as all that, but that this is something passed down from the University's legal office. It is a safeguard against people being denied their vacation rights. He said the last in a way that implied that it might be the department administrators and security staff being denied their rights, rather than post docs working for demanding heads of labs. Whatever, at least there was a breath of honesty in his admission.

I was talking to a friend of mine who claimed that in his pre-academic industry life, he regularly worked 60-70 hour week as a banker. It was a high pressure, highly paid job. I wonder what his contract looked like. Did it have a list of hours that he is supposed to work listed on it? Did it have vacation days that he had to take, or lie about taking?

I am not complaining about the hours I work. I do so mostly because I love my work. I am complaining about the contract I sign, about the myth of a normal life I am supposedly allowed to have. I have strong opinions about not giving labor away for free to "THE MAN," and I voice it strongly to friends who agree to work overtime without extra pay for nice bosses or managers at the local bookstore, or coffee shop.

In my case, it is the university who is turning a  profit from my teaching and research. I would be much happier with a contract that states that my university cannot bar me from taking X days of vacation if I so chose.

Except, I know that it is not the answer. In my current emotionally exhausted state of mind, I am tempted to let this rant morph into one about taking steroids in sports. People argue that we should let professional athletes take steroids. I argue that if it were legal, then those that did not want to would feel pressured to, in order to compete. In the end, it would be a de facto requirement, even if one's contract read that it was not.

My contract states a 40 hour week with 20 vacation days. Competitive academics don't work those hours. If I want my next post doc, or my first TT position, or tenure, or a nice grant, or the named chair, or the pay raise, or the extra funding for graduate students, or, or, or... I will not work according to my contract either.

This is not just a problem with me. It is the same dilemma my banker friend faced, I am sure. It is the same problem my friends working extra hours for nice bosses at the local book store face. If they are nice to their boss, even though it goes against contract, they are more likely to be promoted.

Life goes on. I need to find 20 days.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Written after Epsilon visited at University F

You came into my life
a brief whirlwind at waist level,
stained my small sterile solitude with your palms,
echoed laughter and cries of jousting in the stairwell
won the hearts of my colleagues and comrades,
– fellow satelites, orbiting our families and communities,
waiting to settle–
and left.

I come home to a room, scattered with
train tacks,
pine cones,
pieces of asphalt picked up from the play ground,
dried flowers,
cheese rinds,
bread crumbs,
-bundled and thrown under the bed we shared-,
a single sparkled sock.

The vestiges of your visit
call to me from the floor.
You destroyed my world
by breathing life into it.
I cannot go back.
Nor can I step forward to find you again.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Broken feedback loop

I was talking to a friend a while ago about how life in academia leads one to think that one is constantly below average. It doesn't matter what post docs one gets, or how many publications, or how one's talks are received at conferences. Too many successful academics, like competitive runners, get where they are by keeping an eye on the person just ahead.

Except, in a race, it is always clear who the people in front of you, and behind you, are. It is not always so clear who the person in front of me academically is.  I (and many people I know) solve this problem by keeping my eye on the people who are some distance ahead of me, who are clearly better than I am. I call them my competition, and keep going. By definition, since I do not look at the rest of the population (and because I do not like thinking of people as being worse than me) I see myself at the bottom of the pool, and live my life resigned to a state of mediocrity or less.

In graduate school and during my post doc years, I made certain that I had a life beyond my work so I could be reminded that I was not struggling at the bottom of the pack in spite my years of specialized training. It is not so much that I need an ego boost from my neighbors who lead more normal lives, but that I need a counterweight to the machinery of my self image and drive.

Since leaving the US, I have not had the luxury of having that counterweight in my life. it is starting to take a toll. I received a very nice e-mail yesterday from an ex-student of mine who thanked me for the influence I had in her academic life. I wish I could say it turned a bad day into pleasant day. Or even that it turned a bad day into a tolerable day, or that it brought a smile on my face. I am extremely embarrassed to admit that the first thought through my head was something along the lines of "why do people like this not reflect themselves in my teaching reviews?" This is not to say that my teaching reviews are bad. Generally speaking, I have been an above average teacher in all the institutes I have been at that have kept records. But I have never been recognized by my department for good teaching (unless you count the undergraduate teaching chair who wanted me to teach an extra course though my teaching had been bought out because, as he claimed, he was tight on bodies to put in front of the classroom, and did not want to loose a good teacher.)

My second thought was to write my student a thank you note.

I turn into a very twisted person without something else to balance my life. I need to do something about this.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Do you know that general feeling of tension and malaise you get when you are in the middle of a job hunt? The reluctance to check your e-mail because there may not be any news of the job hunt, or worse, that there is a letter. The pit in the bottom of your stomach when an e-mails pops into your mailbox with a job title in the subject line. The unease with which you open it, bracing yourself for rejection. After all, you applied to dozens of positions, and realistically only expect to get a few offers. The inevitable feeling of worthlessness that washes over you, however briefly, when you see yet another rejection. The process of trying to talk yourself out of the conviction that the rejection is a judgement of you as a person, even though rationally you know it is nothing of the sort.

Yeah, that feeling. The one that comes from repeated rejection.

I've been looking for housing in Small City. I have been sending out dozens of e-mails to ads for rooms. Since I am still spending most of my time in His Town, I do not contact at housing agent in Small City. I am mostly working off with people who have listed places independently. And I get .... nothing. Or at least very little.

Most people do not respond to my e-mails at all. Those that do, respond with a polite but curt statement of non-interest. I have almost always gotten housing from newspaper ads (before Craig's List), word or mouth or Craig's List in my many houses in my undergrad, grad and post doc years. I have never been in a situation where my e-mails have gone almost completely unanswered. I have always managed to find several people interested in showing me their properties.

Perhaps I am transplanting my American reliance on Craig's List for all my housing and second hand needs into a culture that is not used to working outside housing agents. Perhaps I am giving off some sort of odd but subtle negative signal in the way I am approaching prospective landlords. Perhaps my situation is a bit out of the ordinary, and that makes people hesitant to answer. Whatever the reason, I start feeling the way about housing that I feel about rejection letters for jobs. I start wondering if there is something wrong with my mail server.

Then my partner points out my name. I have visions of potential housemates not wishing to live with a fresh off the boat academic from a third world country who speaks English with a heavy accent and has who knows what strange habits. They are not very nice visions. They focus an ugly side of my countrymen that a part of me likes to believe does not exist. They remind me of how poorly some of my fellow fresh off the boat graduate students were treated in my country. They remind me of how rudely a black friend of mine was treated at a diner I normally loved, the time I sent her in to pick up the order while I sat in the car.

We dipped into the bags for hot salty fries on the drive home, talking about how the worst part about experiences like these are the seeds of doubt they plant in one's head. Was the waitress just having a bad day? And the cook? On the same day? It could happen. It is not impossible.

Am I just doing something subtly culturally wrong? I am a gregarious American living in a staid European society. It is not impossible to believe.

The problem with cases of discrimination like this is that it is impossible to tell. But the seeds have been planted. The damage has been done.

Monday, September 9, 2013


We went to Large City last weekend. It was nice. It reminded me of other large cities I've lived in in the US. We dreamed of having brunch at the out door cafes, and ordering food in from a myriad of restaurants with decent takeaway on most blocks. We walked down streets where a quarter of the people looked like me, and less than half the people looked like my partner. I did not hear as many different languages as I did in New York City, but not every place can be NYC. All the same, it made me homesick in a pleasant way.

Everyone tells me that it is too expensive to live in Large City. People have many suggestions for nice neighborhoods that are further out, where I could afford a house with a lawn. I have a hard time believing the economical hardship argument, given the traditional economic class of the neighborhood that I have my heart set on, but I find myself unable to respond truthfully. Instead, I offer excuses about not wanting to add time to either of our 90 minute commutes, or being willing to pay a premium for putting Epsilon in a neighborhood where our minority language is spoken. I do anything to avoid stating that I want to live someplace in the world where people look like me, and speak my language. I am ashamed of appearing to want to ghettoize myself in front of my friends. I have spent too much effort in my life trying to appear white. And I am ashamed of my shame.

Two days later, I visit University G. The Georgian architecture, and old Gothic arches call to me. As I leave for home, I stop by a lettings office to see price ranges of houses in Small City, near the university. I can get more house for my money there. And the location is nicer. Small City has its own set of undeniable charms. Not commuting 90 minutes into work several days a week has its own advantages. Small City is dominated by the university. There are churches, and cafes and book groups and everything I could want if I wanted to pretend I was back in the states, living in a college dominated city, with people whose lives looked enough like mine, that society says I belong there. I could fall in love with the trappings of that city. I could spend days exploring its tourist attractions, and drink the cultural offerings it lays before my feet. I could lose myself in the aura, the myth of the place, wandering the halls of the original ivory tower, entranced by the glitter in a way I have not been since I first came to college.

And I would learn nothing of life. Then I would uproot my family after my position ended.

At the end of the day, to continue the parallel between cities and lovers, I must admit that I have a crush on both Large City and Small City. One is good for me, but a harder relationship to stomach. She offers me a chance at building the life I have always dreamed of, even if it is not the life that some peers or my parents would want me to have. She offers me a chance of making friendships that will not be torn apart next time I change jobs. The other is full glamour. Delicious, enticing, scintillating, but temporary. She would make a good mistress. In my younger days, she would make for a delightful affair. I have a family and a child. At some point, I must admit that my time for flings is over.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Friday's Females: Fiction (part 2)

This is the second half of a short story I posted two weeks ago. As I said then, there is more factual basis to this story that I am comfortable with, but the details of the story are mostly fictional.
The boy who tended the herd failed to show up today for unknown reasons of his own. Therefore, it fell to her to bring the goats in from the rain. The stench of their shed was overpowering today. She would have to tell someone soon.
Her rendezvous with the teacher had lasted a little over two months. They had met in the city only that once. In part, this had been a relief for her. She did not have enough cash saved from her sewing days to pay for an indefinite number of hotel rooms. She had insisted on paying her part, she did not want to be beholden to his man afterwards. For the rest, she had been terrified. He seemed to have an endless network of college friends who would turn a blind eye, or colleagues away on vacation whose houses he could use. She did not like it; it was too public. She did not like trailing her desperation around for his circle of associates to see. In the end, after assurances of discretion, she relented. It was true-- she was desperate.  She had wondered, sometimes, in the quiet hours of the night what she was doing. Did his inexhaustible network mean that he had done this before? What had she tangled herself into? If he had done this before, he had kept his other women quiet as well. She had not been able to uncover any stories about his bad habits in the questioning she had done before embarking on this endeavour.
She ended their meetings a week ago, as soon as she was certain she had what she had come for. It was risky, she knew. She may lose her prize, at which point she would have to go through a similar ordeal again. She had contemplated staying in her current situation until her position was more certain, but the humiliation of it all was more than she wished to bear. Rightly or wrongly, she chose the riskier path that offered immediate solace. He had accepted her breaking off of their relationship easily. She gave the excuse of no longer being able to withstand the increasing questions of her family, that she was not a brave woman. It was not entirely false. Her sudden and sometimes frequent absences had not gone unnoticed by her mother-in-law, but the woman shied from trouble by nature. As long as she completed her chores, the old woman would not complain to her father-in-law. He had laughed at her when she expressed her regrets and derided her when she claimed cowardice, but he had let her go. It had stung, but it did not matter. If he disliked her, perhaps he would not see fit to pursue her afterwards. Perhaps he would allow her to make a clean break of this shameful period in her life, to go back to the quiet of her family. Perhaps she could preserve some dignity.
The rain had prevented her from going to the store today. Her husband came home muddy and soaked, in spite of his umbrella. His father and brother would be along shortly. They were visiting one of their neighbors. Their boy wanted a position at the shop. She drew and heated water for all three men to wash with as they came home. Dinner would be ready soon. He probably should not turn on the TV, the rain kept the solar panels from charging much today. He could tell her about the takings at the store instead.
She had been hopeful when she first came to her husband's home seven years ago. Unlike her sisters, she did not want to live far from the land. She had grown up on farm, and that was where she was comfortable. Her husband's house was remote enough that her siblings were not likely to visit her often. She resigned herself to doing all the traveling that her family would permit and let the matter stand. Her father-in-law had a successful local business selling dried goods and homeopathic medicines. The family had a modest amount of land. She could help them prosper. Her father-in-law had been the first to see the advantages of her work ethic. Her sister-in-law, the elder brother's wife, was better educated than she, having graduated from a well known boarding school, showed no interest in the business side of the family's affairs, choosing to stay by her mother-in-law's side. She had no such compunction. Her father-in-law took her under his wing, and she spent two evenings a week at the store. She quickly became his favorite. This caused some tensions with the other women in the household of course, but her mother had advised her on how to win them over. She redoubled her efforts around the house, which eventually earned her mother-in-law's acceptance. Her sister-in-law quieted a when she gave birth to a boy. The six year old, and his three year old brother sat in the center of their grandfather's vision, the pride and joy of the household.
The boys had not diminished her role in the family. She could never accuse the two charming bundles of trouble of that. Even if they had, she would have  gladly moved over to let them bask in their grandfather's love. But they had not. One could say that their births had indicated a shift from her playing a central role in the household to a more central role at the business. It was not where she had foreseen her life going when she had married, but one cannot argue with what is written in one's fate. There was not much she could complain about, her husband was happy with her new position in the household. There was even talk, a few years ago, when his father's health had given them all a scare, that the land would be given to the elder brother, and the business to the younger. Her husband had pointed out to her that this was, at least in part, due to her active presence in the shop.
The elder of her two brothers, a clerk for a lawyer, told her she should be proud that her father-in-law held her in such esteem. But she was not her brother. Her ambitions had never been to own a successful business. She was simply grateful that it had not come to that. Her father-in-law's heart recovered, her family returned to the happy comfort of before the illness. Her father-in-law had to be careful of his diet and activity in the future, but he had shown no further signs of illness.
She quizzed her niece and nephew on their school work and mended the boy's school uniform while their mother put the youngest to sleep. She would soon not be able to help her niece any more. She usually liked working with the children, but then, she'd found that she enjoyed her morning's tutoring the village kids in her ancestral home a pleasure beyond the money it earned the family. Some said she had a gift for reaching them in a way they understood. Today, however, her heart was not in their studies. She was tired; her mind on the conversation she would have to have with her husband. When her sister-in-law returned, she excused herself and went to bed. There was still mending and accounting to be done. She would tend to them in the morning.
She had not thought it worth bringing up until nearly two years ago. Attempt after attempt had failed. Then she started hearing the unavoidable whispers during the holidays. Her neighbors thought that it was her fault. The thought had crossed her mind as well. When her sister-in-law advised her on how to best capture it within her body, she went to her husband. She wanted to be tested. She remembered the horror on his face clearly, the way he had fumbled and searched for words, the stuttered protests, the unfinished sentences. She had thought then that he had reacted so strongly against the prospect of making her inadequacy so public. She had actually tried to console and reassure him. In the end, he said that he would discuss the matter with his father.
He kept his word, though the men took their time deliberating. Her father-in-law handed down the verdict a month later that no woman of his house would be examined by city doctors. They should simply try harder. If it was not to be, the shame should remain within the house.
She could not accept that. She had to know. She had heard that doctors could do things for people like her, that if she were lucky, with a little help, they  could make it as if nothing had ever been wrong. When she saw her sister during the Christian holidays, she asked her to make an appointment for her. Her sister knew how to find good doctors, she trusted her to make the arrangement. Of course she wanted an explanation. She contemplated lying, at least saying that she was acting with her father-in-laws blessings. But they did not lie to each other. She told her of the whispers and her husband's shame, she bound her to keep the matter quiet, even, no, especially from the rest of the family. Her sister understood. She was glad she had someone to confide in.
It was raining hard when her husband woke her by joining her in bed. Was everyone else asleep?
Yes, his father and brother had just turned in. Why had she gone to bed so early? His mother was worried about her.
She had something to tell him. She wanted him to know before the rest of the family found out.
He stared at her, as she had stared at him over a year ago. But at that point, she had no inkling of what was coming. Now, he knew, or should have known this day would come. He had forced her to bring it about. He spat a word at her. It was the same word she had once told him she did not wish to become. She let it soak into the bed sheet between them. That word could destroy her, it was best not to touch it now. Her husband left for the roof. It was raining, she called after him. He was well aware of that fact.
He had kept her from storming out of this room a year ago, a few minutes after he found her trying to leave the house. She had made arrangement to visit her sister again for a few days, coinciding with the doctor's appointment she had arranged. Her husband found her as she was putting her clothes in her bag. She had no idea how he found out. Perhaps the doctor had called the house. The doctor had been suspicious of an appointment made under such strange circumstances; a woman wanting to be checked, claiming to be married, but coming in alone to an appointment made by her sister. The entire matter smelled to him of something immoral, or at least illegal, nothing he would want his practise associated with. The implications had made her skin crawl. She left him with her husband's number, and their address. What else could she do?
However her husband had learned of the plans, he reminded her that his father had wished her not to see a doctor.
She begged and pleaded with him. She told him how this did not need to be shameful anymore, that there was a good chance a good doctor could fix the problem without anyone finding out. She asked him to come with her. She begged him to let her go and ask his father to forgive her disobedience. She pleaded with him, reminding him her desire for a child, begging that he allow his wife to fulfill this one natural dream.
That was when he told her. It was not her fault. It was he who was deficient.
She stared at him, her jaw dragging on the floor. He had known. The entire family had known. How long had he known and stayed silent, letting her think it was her fault. How long had the entire family conspired against her? She did not ask the questions, though her father had yelled them into the phone later that day when she called him, in tears, telling him what she had learned. He had married her to a family of toilet cleaners, he yelled. They had tricked him. They must have known before the wedding. Why else had the dowry been so affordable? This was grounds for divorce. He was going to call her brother and have him look into legal proceedings. She calmed him down and asked to speak to her mother. She did not want a divorce. She was twenty-six. She would never marry again. She wanted a family.
She would never have a child married to this man. She stopped staring at her husband and wiped the tears that had sprung to her eyes.
That was not true, he told her. There was another way.
She did not believe her husband's suggestion. His mouth spoke, but it spouted nonsense. He proposed the impossible.
He did not  understand why she had to take that attitude. Children were born under those circumstances every day. He would accept the child as his own. What was her problem? It was a simple solution.
Her problem? Her problem was that she was not a whore. She was his wife. She would not be pimped around the neighborhood by him.
He slapped her. The shock of the act hurt as much as the blow itself. Her cheek bled where she bit it in surprise. She reached for her half packed bag and headed for the door. He stopped her there, hands clasped, pleading forgiveness.
She would go to her sister's, as planned. She would not go to the doctor. She would return in a few days. She stepped past her husband to receive her father-in-law's blessings for her journey.
Her husband returned, soaked, but with a cooler head. She rose to give him a towel to dry off and a change of dry clothes. He suggested that she go to her sister's for a few days.
No. She could not step out of her house under the circumstances. Who knew what would happen if she allowed him to push her out of her home. She reminded him that she had done this for him. She reminded him of his professed desire for children.
He had changed his mind, he claimed. He climbed under the mosquito net and turned his back on her.
She did not blow out the kerosene lamp. This was not the end of the discussion. Was this what the months of cajoling and pressure had been for? So he could change his mind?
He had made a mistake. He did not want this as much as he thought he had. Mistakes happen. It was not too late to change his mind.
Never. She had not put herself through that torment on his whim. This was her child. She had earned it.
Her husband did not respond. The conversation was over. She blew out the flame, listened to the downpour and wondered how this had gone so poorly.
When she returned from her sister's that time a year ago, he raised the proposal again. She refused. She was not that type of woman.
He spent the next week telling her how much he wanted children as well. He told her that she could rescue him from his shame. She could make up for his lack. Only she could make their family whole. She refused. They could live quite comfortably on what they had. She would put more time in at the store. His father's health would not last forever.
Eventually he stopped pleading, but he did not drop the subject. He asked her to sit with him when he watched TV, pointing out how women attracted men in the films. One could learn a lot from watching movies. It was indecent and prurient, humiliating to hear him speak to her like that with the rest of the family around. She stopped watching TV in the evenings, finding reasons to stay in the kitchen late into the evening.
Then came a period of undone chores. The clothes that he usually washed, he left for her. The garden they tended together, was hers to see to alone. When their chickens fell ill, it was not due to his negligence in supplying them with feed, but her laziness and lack of resourcefulness. He made her unwelcome at the store, laughing with the customers about the difficulty in training women to keep a store orderly, teasing her lack of education, accusing her of misplacing objects she had not touched, that she was certain he had hidden. Every week he reminded her that their family would be happier if there were children running around. He would feel certain about his future.
Eventually, her brother-in-law accused her of theft. He did not want to go to their father, his health would not take this betrayal. But if she did not return the money to the store, he would have little choice.
She went to her husband. If she did as he asked, would he clear her name?
He did not know what she was talking about.
The money. Would he return the money.
Oh, that? Of course. He was not a thief.
Neither was she. Would he tell his brother that.
Yes, yes, of course. She had nothing to worry about. She must understand. The family needed children. It was wrong of her to prevent them from having them.
Would he promise again that he would accept the child, and take her back.
Yes, of course. Her questions were growing tiresome.
She did not tell the rest of the family for months after she told her husband, though she told her sister-- everything. Her sister told her that she was welcome to stay with her for as long as she wanted, whenever she wanted. She was grateful, but she could not leave her home, not if there was any possibility that she would not be allowed back.
In all honesty, she did not tell the rest of her family at all. Her mother-in-law questioned her about it four months later. She was starting to show. She made the announcement in front of everyone, in front of her husband, that she was carrying his child. She did not know how he would react. They had not talked about it during these past few months. It was not that he neglected her completely, he simply neglected this part of her. Not once had he asked about her health. She had no idea how he would react to this announcement.
He remained impassive. The other two men clamoured for a paternity test. Impossible they said. She was untrustworthy, her brother-in-law claimed, hinting at the alleged theft. They piled insults on her father's head, threatened to keep her closer to the house, promised to not let her work at the store.
When she thought she had born as much as she could, her husband quietly claimed paternity. The four pairs of eyes that looked from her to her husband had all held less scorn for a passing beggar.
Watch her tightly, her brother-in-law said as he left the room. His wife followed, with a look that would have seared a rice paddy.
Her mother-in-law would see to his medication, her father-in-law announced. He moved his feet from her, when she bent to touch them before departing. His mother-in-law did not say a word.
Her husband met her much later that night, tired and tense. It would be better if she spent the rest of her pregnancy with her sister.
Was he asking her to leave her house?
No. He would take her and the child back as soon as her health permitted. There was no question of that.
She could have the child in the hospital in town as easily as she could in the city.
Why was she so deliberately stubborn? It would be easier for him to smooth matters at home without her being a constant reminder of the possibility of dishonor. He would take her back. He gave his word. Was that not good enough?
She did not trust him. She knew the value of his word. But there was wisdom in his request. She called her sister.
A week later, she stepped off a train in the city. Her husband came with her to see her safely to her sister's house. He would promise to take her back in front of her brother-in-law today.
He was a good man, her husband. She wanted to trust him. In a different world, she would be so happy. She had everything; a comfortable home, a good family, land and a store she enjoyed working in, she even had a child growing inside her. She had everything. Her current situation terrified her.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


A flock of starlings play over the highway
Congealing, thinning, torquing
A study of viscosity in a moving fluid.
A trail of birds bleeds black across the sky,
Pulled by the currents of their whimsies.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I blinked

And a week went by. I am not sure how it happened, but it did. This week will be better.

It was not that last week was a bad week necessarily. Last Sunday, I had contemplated writing a post about how this is my favourite time of year. The overflow parking lot for a local hotel faces the train tracks. The space between the parking lot and the rail fence is filled with blackberry bushes. I discovered that blackberries growing on bushes in soil that is covered with dead pine needles tend to have a piney flavor. Very complex, very sweet, but not my favourite. We found another bush, just a few yards away with intense tart berries. I have no idea to what soil characteristic I owe the delight of eating those berries. A couple gallons of berries, a dozen jars of jam, and two arms full of thorns and splinters I am still picking out a week later, and one interesting (and fortunately short lived) rash later, I am finally, temporarily, sated on blackberries. We will probably go back next month.

We are finally going to be home for the holidays. It has been three years since I have actually managed to be with friends and family during the holidays that matter. This year, tickets are bought, jars of jam have been made, presents are still being purchased, Epsilon is primed, things are looking good.

I think I have been invited for an interview for a job I applied for. After some confusion about whether or not I was still eligible for the post given travel schedules, and other aggravating factors, it turns out that, no, I just need to wait for the secretaries to officially give me dates and times for the interview. It is at moments like these that I long for the stronger religious protections of the US, where an employer would have to think twice before saying that I am ineligible for a position because I am traveling for religious holidays. The US does not guarantee protection, but the law provides enough support for minority religions that the school would think twice. It was not a problem in my case, everything has worked out as well as can be expected. I am not complaining. But this brings to mind a conversation I had with a playground acquaintance a few years ago who grew up near His Town. My partner had just accepted his current job, and I stood in the playground with our acquaintance  discussing the move. I expressed my disquiet regarding moving to a country without an equivalent of a first amendment. He claimed that the government in this country was reasonable, and that law abiding citizens would not have anything to fear. So many historical counter-examples sprang to mind, along with aphorisms about benevolent dictatorships. I decided to be polite, and not being able to come up with a concrete, real, "this effects normal every-day people today" example, I held my tongue. I wonder if I have just found my counter-example.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday's Females: Fiction (part 1)

So I had hinted that there might be pieces of fiction appearing on this blog. This, I wish were more fictional than it is. If I had known, 12 years ago, that falling in love with those sublime almond shaped eyes would lead me to watch passively while horrible things happened to my friends, I may have just left well enough alone. But I did not. So now, I find myself fictionalizing their lives, not because it will do anything for them, but in the hopes that it leaves me less alone in my helplessness.

This is a long post, it is the first part of a short story. Part 2 will come next Friday.


She had everything; a comfortable home, a good family, land and a store she enjoyed working in, she even had a child growing inside her. She had everything. Her current situation terrified her.

They had planned to meet at a hotel near the train station, the type that rents rooms by the hour. She told her family that she was visiting her sister in the city. They were close, she visited her frequently. She had stayed with them a month last autumn during the dengue fever outbreak, first nursing her brother in law, then her niece, then finally her brother, who preferred his sisters' care to the company of the single men he shared rooms with. Her infant nephew had strong fatelines. He stayed within the mosquito net, and never fell ill. Several years earlier, when her niece was six months old, her father-in-law gave her permission to fly across the country to baby sit. Her sister was attending her first conference since becoming a mother. She had not set up a child care regime yet. Her father-in-law thought it would be good practice, back when there had been any hope of having children. It had been her first flight. She had worried how she would breathe, since the air was so much thinner at high altitudes. It surprised her to learn that the cabins were pressurized. So she spent a wonderful week with her niece in the hot lowlands at the feet of the coastal mountains, returning home more worldly, more in love with her niece, and more eager to return to her household chores and her position in the family business.

She stepped off the train and ducked into the station bathroom. In the sodden privacy of the stall, she carefully removed the coral, the conch and the iron from her wrists. She was doing this for her family, she reminded her trembling hands as they wrapped the bracelets in her handkerchief and laid them in the bottom of her bag. She took out a piece of tissue and rubbed at the vermilion in the part of her hair. It was almost impossible to remove all the traces of red from the hairline like this. She did the best she could and re-parted her hair to hide the rest, emerging from the bathroom an almost single woman.

He met her at the station, under the large clock by the ticket counter. They smiled, greeted each other warmly, if a bit awkwardly, and walked to the hotel together. He was a pleasant looking man, short, but from a family of tall men, not too dark, with a thick head of hair. He came from a good family, well respected in his village. His brother owned a business in the town she caught the train into the city from. He had recently started supplying her father-in-law's business. That was how they had met, at the family store. It would have been better if he had been completely unknown to her family, but between her responsibilities at the house and those at the shop, it was impossible for her to get time away. Only in the movies, and perhaps in the city, could one have an affair with a complete stranger. It was not as if she could ask her city dwelling sister to arrange someone for her. The man by her side was a school teacher living and teaching in a village about half an hour's rickshaw ride from the far side of the train tracks. Gossip would find it difficult to travel the near two hours between their houses, changing modes of transportation four times to wag its tongue, but it might be happy to sit at a tea stall near the station mingle. Still, this was the best she could probably do.

He was a good man, for one who was willing to have a relationship with a married woman. A couple months ago, she had convinced her husband to meet him and his brother, the sugar supplier, for a movie in town. The movie had been syrupy sweet, about lovers meeting across class and caste lines, eloping, then resolving their decisions with their families. Afterwards, they sat over tea and sweets, Her husband and his brother talking about their common business interests, leaving her free to investigate this man beside her.

They had both enjoyed the movie.

She did not watch movies in town very frequently, perhaps a few times a year. She enjoyed them in the evening on the TV at home.

He frequented this theater approximately monthly, perhaps a little more.

She used to sew during her time in front of the TV. She had a small tailoring business. She'd given it up years ago, her brother-in-law did not like the noise of the machine over the TV.

His sister also had a small blouse tailoring business. He hoped that his sister would be able to make the investment their father had made in her training pay in her husband's home.

She had given hers up after marriage, when the pressures from the chores at home and the family business left her with little time for private responsibilities.

He understood completely, and admitted that his sister may have to do the same. He spent this early mornings tutoring children from the village, his mornings and afternoons at the schools and his evenings were spent between tasks for his family and helping his brother establish his business. It meant that he had to travel to the city frequently on Saturdays.

She used to tutor children too, when she lived with her mother. Her students were much younger than his. She had never graduated high school. Did he have any family in the city?

No. Did she?

Yes, now. She had grown up in a distant village, but now two of her siblings had established themselves there. No, no one was left with her parents, her siblings had all scattered to different parts of the state. They were a close family though. They still managed to get together several times a year, on one excuse or another.

He came from a small family. It was just the three siblings. His father had grown up elsewhere, moved here after college, when he had gone into business with a friend. Isn't it a pity how the traditional large families have declined over the generations?

Her husband told her the time. If they did not leave now, they would miss the last bus. She bade the company goodnight. It had been a pleasure meeting both men.

Her husband was always polite and pleasant company, with the exception of a few months nearly a year ago, but that was her doing more than his. He was the same tonight. They discussed their business plans made that night, the foreman's mother's health, and their nephew's schooling, before falling into a comfortable silence well before the bus reached their stop. She was glad the man she had just met that night was so close to his family. They seemed to share a taste in movies, and shared some common experiences. He did not look down upon her for her education, in fact he had been very polite, even warm all night. The conversation had been very pleasant. She had married on less.

That he did not have much family in the area offered her some safety. They both had reasons to travel to the city regularly, that would give her some privacy. He would suit her purposes, she decided by the time she had walked the mile home to find her father-in-law waiting up for them by the television. She gave him his nightly medications and helped him with his mosquito net before retiring. All that needed to be done now was to ascertain that she could suit some purpose for this stranger. She lay awake for several hours after her husband had fallen asleep contemplating whether or not she should take steps to obtain that information.

It had been surprisingly easy, she recalled, contemplating in the dingy hotel lobby. She was not a frequenter of hotels, usually staying with friends and family on the few occasions she had to travel. There had been the hotel of her sister's conference, of course, where she babysat, as well as the pilgrimage she had gone on with her mother-in-law, and the trip with her sister and husband to the oceanfront during the holidays a few years ago. Even with this limited experience, she could tell this hotel was dingy. The floor looked like it was perhaps swept daily and mopped with far less frequency, she could see betel juice stains in the corners of the room, and a list of beers, cigarettes and other necessities available for purchase from reception. A cockroach scuttled into a crack underneath the stairs.

Her afternoon's companion was making the arrangements. The hardest part of gauging his interest was figuring out what to say. She considered what women in similar situations said in stories and movies, sifting through the lines for things she could say without destroying her dignity. When she had the scene planned out in her head, she arranged to accompany her husband or brother-in-law into town. That part was easy. It was harder to guess when the supplier's brother would also be there. It took about a month before they coincided. She had started to despair that she would have to start the process over. Eventually they did meet. She saw him sitting at the tea stall across from the rickshaw stand, talking to one of his ex-students. She took a moment to wish him good evening, and found herself fumbling with her words. She had no practice with this. She had not even thought to like anyone before she married. She had been too busy with her parents' farm to bother. Up until recently, she had been too occupied with her family's household and business to need anything else. Was going to lure him to her with her inexperience? If only it was not so crucial that she succeed.

The teacher bought her a cup of tea over her objections. She sat and talked with them while her brother-in-law haggled over glass bottles. The ex-student told her about the beautiful set of atlases his teacher had in his classroom. It was those atlases that had encouraged him to study geography in college. He now worked with a surveying company, traveling all over the state. It was a good job, he was grateful for the inspiration.

She listened politely. She should not be away from her brother-in-law for long, not if she wanted to return again. She finished her drink, and bid her company good evening. She had not had a chance to talk to the teacher as she wished.

He smiled at her. It had been nice to run into her again. He could usually found in town on Wednesdays and Fridays. Should he help her find her brother-in-law?

No, she could manage. She knew which shops he had to visit. She found her brother-in-law with a large crate of bottles, relieved him of the package, and headed for the vegetable stalls, he for the pharmacist.

They reunited for the journey home. Where had she slipped off early in the evening?

She had run into an old client of hers. They had fallen to gossiping. It was an easy lie, her brother-in-law had never been interested in her sewing business.

It had been difficult to convince her father-in-law to let her visit town every ten days. They only needed to go in every two weeks. Why this sudden desire for the urban? She approached her husband with the matter. He did not question her or remark on the oddness of the request. He simply promised to lobby her cause to his father. For the next two months, he took her to town every ten days. It took that long until she worked up the courage to mention to the teacher that she would be visiting the city in a week. He was a keen man, and took the opportunity to suggest meeting at the station for some privacy. His keenness made her uncomfortable.

His eagerness elevated her heart rate now as he indicated that he had the key. She followed him up the stairs. What was she doing with a man so eager to join with a married woman? He was an inspirational teacher who cared for his family, but what security did that grant her? She wished there was another way. She discretely removed the pin at her shoulder securing her sari, and stepped nervously over the threshold.

She was on a train for her sister's house an hour and a half later. They had arranged to meet again before she returned home, this time at a town halfway between the city and the town they got off at. It would mean he would accompany her on the way home. That would have to be endured, she was telling him that she wanted him. Under different circumstances, it would not have been so bad. He was a pleasant man, someone whose company she would ordinarily welcome, excepting the obvious character flaw. She would have to think of a way to end this once she had what she wanted. The earlier she thought that through, the better.

Her niece was delighted to see her. She missed being at school, and told her all about the teachers. She showed off her English and brought out all her school books. When her brother awoke, they brought in the laundry while the boy toddled beside them on the roof and took turns watching him and helping her sister with dinner. Her sister complained about politics at work and gossiped about the neighbors. She listened. For her own part, she talked about her father-in-law's health and a recent argument she had with her sister-in-law, about their neighbor's cow being ill and the prospering fish stock in their pond. She did not tell her about the afternoon's events. Her sister knew her situation, of course. At least, she knew what had instigated this drastic course of action, but she could not bring herself to update her.

Her brother-in-law came home. He asked after her family's health, and talked about recent developments at work. He had been passed up for that promotion, but was thinking of enrolling in night school.

He sat with his daughter's school work, while she and her sister caught up on the doings of the rest of the family. Their remaining sister was applying for the position at the prestigious mission school just outside the city. Her academic career was phenomenal, she was clearly the most successful of all the siblings.

Still, a position at such a good school would make it difficult for her parents to find a good match for her.

Her sister chided her small mindedness.

It was not small minded. She was concerned, that was all.

Her sister reminded her that she was capable of finding a husband for herself.

She wished her the best. It would be good to have her closer to the city, instead of living in the north of the state.

Their youngest brother was with their parents for the college break. He had called two days ago. He found it easier to study for his exams in the quiet of his parents' house.

She was glad that he was taking his exams seriously again. He had not always been to dedicated to his studies.

She fed her niece in front of the television while her sister put the boy to bed. Then she put the girl to sleep and neatened the apartment, giving her sister some time with her husband. Eventually, she joined the adults for dinner.

This was such a comfortable routine. She had been welcome in her sister's household for as long as her sister had a household to call her own. Her brother-in-law was all that one could hope for, he never made any of her siblings feel like they were anywhere other than their own home. She knew where books and clothes and keys lived in this house, what her niece's school bus schedule was, how much of a tab the family had run up at the local grocers. There had been differences over the years, of course, that was true of all families. But the siblings had always been close, she had always been very fond of this sister. They had grown up a large family in a small house. It was impossible not to share everything. A year ago, she could not have imagined ever keeping a secret from this family. Yet, as she mopped the floor where they had eaten, she could not find the courage to say the words. He sister returned from doing dishes, her brother-in-law had hung the mosquito nets. It was time to go to bed.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

In which I need to get a grip

A couple weeks ago, Mathbabe posted some thoughts on survivorship bias that got me thinking about the anecdata in my life.

In case you do not want to look up the Wikipedia article, survivorship bias is a bias introduced into data when a studied population is compared to historical averages, ignoring the fact that the studied population has certain non-average characteristics that cause it to be observed/ in the sample.

It is a sort of selection bias introduced by assuming that the portion of the sample that does not complete the study is randomly distributed, when that is not the case.

I'm not going anywhere with this. I just need to air my thoughts.

  1. I know two African Americans in my field. Someone who knows my circle of colleagues should feel free to correct me. I went to graduate school with one of these scientists. Through a series of confounding and rather stupid events, I had a conversation with him about "growing up black in the US." It turned out that he did not consider himself black, but mixed race. Given the "one drop" policy that is still an unspoken truth in much of the US, I asked him what the difference was. His answer: he did not grow up immersed in black culture. I forget the details, but it involved a small college town, and hanging out with other children of academics. I am not arguing anyone's right to identify racially however he/she chooses. I am simply struck, that of all the African Americans either my partner or I know, the only one who identifies as mixed race is a successful academic.
  2. At one of the women in my field meetings I went to several years back, I found myself sitting next to a post-doc, very insistent on the fact that there was not difference in the treatment of women and men in her field. She was often the only female in her sub-field at conferences, but that was because her field was new, and women had not yet flocked to it. Considering the field as a whole, she thought that women just needed to learn to deal with the crap a bit more. Once we did that, we were just judged on our publication record. Naive as I was at the time, I tried to argue with her on just the arguments that she presented: that she claimed that men needed to be good scientists to succeed, while women needed to be good scientists and pachiderms to succeed. Ignoring all else, wasn't the extra pachidermal requirement itself a sign of inequality? I should have kept my mouth shut. I only succeeded in spoiling my lunch. I do not know if I offered any solace to any of the other attenders. I certainly did nothing to convince my intended audience. It still rankles me on bad days.
  3. For the second time in my career, I recently attended a two part conference where I was the most senior woman for the first part. Moments like this disgust me. This conference also had the added feature that there were no female speakers in either part. That is a first for me. I am immensely grateful to the older gentleman who also pointed out the lack of female speakers. I am saddened by the number of women a pointed out the gender distribution to who did not seem to notice or mind. (To be fair, it is not as if the men I pointed the gender distribution out to really seemed to care either.) I envy the women who can go through something like this and not notice. Life must be easier for them somehow, I imagine. If you do not feel the insults that are thrust at you, consciously or not, you cannot be hurt by them.
  4. Various people close to me are in very shitty situations right now. Compared to them, I live a pampered life. Class differences in my friend set should not surprise me, but it disturbs me greatly when the situation is put before me quite so clearly. They do not have PhDs, they do not have dual income households. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of financial or emotional survival for them. They live in situations that, I am fairly certain, given my emotional and physical shortcomings would leave me crippled or dead. But they survive. Given all the advantages I have in life, I wonder what exactly it is I am doing, pretending that I can speak for women. The circles I surround myself with on a day to day basis are those of such a tiny elite.
For those of you who know my moods: yes, I just submitted a job application.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Eggmus: A world I would love to live in

Epsilon hates french toast. He hates it with the full force of his fickle three year old psyche. Unfortunately, that is what I made for breakfast Saturday morning. 

An hour of dithering and tantrums chase me from the dining room, leaving my partner at the mercy of the ritual meal time maelstorms. No longer outnumbered by adults, Epsilon turns on his father. "You are a bad Daddy."

"I am." My partner replies calmly.

"Other children at nursery have good Daddies."

"How are they good daddies?" This could be interesting.

"They stay at home and the mommies drop the children off to school." All parents learn lessions in not laughing at their children in the face of their ridiculous statements. My partner paid more attention than I did on the day they went over this detail in parent training school. He remains silent long enough for Epsilon to continue "The daddies clean the house. That is why our house is always dirty."

I would love to be a fly on a wall in the inside of my child's brain. I am not. A part of me would love to live in a world where men stayed at home to take care of the family's needs, and were reprimanded for being bad (dare I say, upity) for entering the work force. 

My partner points out that there is a reason that Epsilon's model of the universe looks like a woman's fantasy of reversed inequality. In Epsilon's world, when we are both in town, I work from my partner's office, so we both take him into nursery. If we are both in town, and only one of us takes him into nursery, it means the other person is working from home. This usually implies that some portion of the work breaks are spent cleaning the house. He observes that he comes home to a cleaner house on days that one of his parents stays at home. He observes that most of his friends parents live together most of the time. He observes that usually only the mothers drop his friends off at school. Our smart little modeler and scientist puts together the data at hand and forms a picture of the world.

I do live in a feminist fantasy. Thank you, Epsilon, for pointing this out.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday's Female: Courage

"Are you sure you want to finish that bottle of red? You know what they say."

She finished pouring. She had gone out for dinner then drinks with seven other colleagues. Six of them were male. "What? That I will be gang raped?"

The liquor that had urged her colleague to make vague innuendos over her glass now stuttered to find a response to this less vague accusation.  "No! Of course not. I would never mean that." The flush on his face seemed not only to be from the alcohol.

"What do they say?"

"In the part of the world I come from, they say that any woman in a group who finishes a bottle of red will be the next to become pregnant."

"I see." That was a perfectly logical and apt subject to bring up at a social dinner at a conference. "Then tell me, why have you only ever let your wife finish one bottle of red wine?"


I do not know the woman in question. I know the man well. He works down the hall from my partner. His (only) son is in the same room at the university nursery as Epsilon. The above conversation is embellished by me from my partner's recollection of a night of tapas and wine where the group of eight had consumed a horrifying number of bottles of alcohol.

My respect for the unknown woman's quick wittedness is immense. In the time that has passed since I heard this story, my respect for my partner's colleague has plummeted. My opinion of him poisoned, I now see cracks in his persona that may be indications of deeper sexism. We keep our conversations about the kids.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


A city under perpetual construction
that I once related to, erroneously, I am sure,
through my family's memory of partition,
during a rainy summer
forty-nine weeks ago.

I sit with the smokers outside the station,
a black chiffon skirt flutters in the breeze.
I can see the TV tower - shining in the sun-
that stood across the plaza from our hotel.
I know it still. He does not.

Spanish music blares from the cafe--
we shared an intimate early tapas dinner in Alexanderplatz.
I was so proud of him that night.

Tri-colored flags ripple in the wind,
the feathers of my earrings dance in my shadow.
They will not go far, they whisper.

This year has passed with me in stasis,
while he has grown and stretched and carried on.

It is time for me to catch my train.
We are no closer to reunification.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Early in the morning, a male in my bed announced that I was sexypoo. I did not kick him out. I asked him if he meant if nicely, which he did, so I gave him a hug.

Then he called me a sexy peebin. He had not meant that kindly, so we talked about it.

Sex, for Epsilon, right now, is a game played by people with armpit hair. It is a game people can play nicely, or it is a game people can play meanly. When it is played meanly, it is a REALLY bad thing. (Yes, I will get in serious trouble next time he sees one of his friends' mothers who shaves in a sleeveless shirt.) But Epsilon understands playing games nicely and meanly much better than he can understand rape or sexualizing women's bodies or sexual abuse in relationships. He understands armpit hair better than he understands puberty, and it is less vague than "big people" (he's big, why can't he play sex?)

Explaining sex is easy. Explaining sexy is hard. It is different from other bad words he picks up. Four letter words are scattered about our house with undone dishes and unpicked up toys. Fuck and shit are words that you say when you are really unhappy about something, never say them to a person, only to a situation, and not outside the house, as that will upset people-- a long set of rules, but clear. 

Stupid is not a word one says under any circumstance, even about oneself. Rascal is not nice, but a word we don't make a big deal about. After all, Puff the Magic Dragon is a rascal. One only uses that word nicely, not meanly.

We watched Peter Pan a while ago. His daycare had a pirates and mermaids themed week, the movie seemed appropriate. Ujan has started calling people savages as a result. Peter Pan said it all the time, it must be a good word. We had a long sad conversation about once upon a time people in the country we live in called people who look like us savages, and the depravation of liberties that entailed, and the people who died trying to fight that. So far, there has been a 48 hour reprieve in the use of the word in the household. It will come back. We will have another conversation, but he is starting to understand.

Sexy? What do I do with that word? It is not a bad word in its own right. It is even possible that when one of this classmates picked up the origial phrase "you're a sexy girlfriend" somewhere, the child heard it in a non-offensive context. The child probably repeated it, was told that it is not a nice thing to say, misunderstood the adults admonition, and brought it to daycare as a singsung tease. "You're a sexy girlfriend. You're a sexy peebin. You're a sexy dirty sock."

Like a bout of flu, or orange paint in his hair, Epsilon infected my house with it in all innocence. I never thought I would ever allow anyone to call me sexy, but motherhood has changed a lot of things I thought were immutable axioms in my life. Sexy is not the same as sex, even though it sounds like they should be related. How does one explain desire to someone who still thinks it is funny to fondle my breasts? Sexy is not the same thing as pretty, unless one is trying to give a zeroth level approximation of the word to a preschooler. I viscerally recoil from the idea of him calling one of his female class mates sexy, in order to tell them that they are pretty, while I do not have the same reaction at the thought of him saying that to a male. HE is not objectifying the girl, any more than he is racially motivated when he describes a new playmate at school as black, before he manages to mention that the playmate is male, and weeks before he can tell me his name. At the age of three, he is still truly describing the world as he sees it, in the order of what is apparent to him.

Still, sex and race are suh topics of power and abuse in this world, navigating this ground, teaching him to use the word sexy, fills me with unease.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Forget, for the moment, the myths from the exoticised primitive cultures of the new world and the far east or fantasies regarding our collective pagan past before Christianity civilized us all, where wise men refuse to give names because the word holds power. Forget, even, for the moment, the more hierarchical real societies of today, with complex rules for private and public places, faces, means of address, several layers of formality and verb conjugation for the simple, crucial, proper noun avoiding second person singular. Start, for the moment, in the western, modern, white society that most of my readers either hail from or have lived in for part of their training.

Consider the questions-- No humor me while I consider them. When do I use a first name? When do I use a last, or give it up for the one belonging to the man I am not married to? When do I attach a title; Ms? a Dr.? When I am so desperate for approval that I hide behind a title permitted by education or birth? When I am so tired of arguing that I add a few letters to my signature, a nip here, and extension there, to bully my way to the small daily item I need. Implicitly I say, I am more important than you. You cannot argue the point, my name says so. If you do not give this to me, either my well respected colleagues and connections, or my important family may make life a tiny bit uncomfortable for you. 

It is difficult to enjoy Qorn Yorkshire pudding in Grey College's dining room with the Earl looking down on me pityingly for not being rich, white or male.
I am fortunate enough to live in a time and place where I can, with relatively little cost to me and mine, reap the benefits of my family's name and financial status, then shun my community and their values to strike out on my own in my great American quest for individualism. But simply because I live far away from my parents' community  does not mean that I do not reap the benefits and pay the costs their name, and that of my ancestors.

"I think your sister-in-law will have a girl," says the biologist.

"Why do you think that?" asks his lover, the expectant uncle.

"Just from the way it sits," the biologist replies.

"You believe that crap?" I ask my brother.

"Of course I do." He is joking. "Anyway, it will be nice to see a female K--, other than your mother of course."

A response struggles and rises from my larynx to my uvula, where it sprints out my mouth to correct my brother. "His mother is not a K--." After all she is not, for the purposes of observing how the K-- genome will exhibit itself in the absence of a Y chromosome. That is all the biologist was asking. It is a simple question, completely natural, only mildly offensive, and one we all ask when we want to see what a newborn looks like. 

When  the words erupt, I feel ashamed. His mother is a K--. She adopted that name nearly four decades ago, and though her boys' genetics are not credited to the family bearing her maiden name, it is impossible to deny the role she played in carving her children's personalities and success out the marble the K-- name provided her.

Not THE fig tree, but close.
She put down her name and picked up a new one. She is an accomplished, organized, stayed woman. In the chaos and ebullience of my youth, I simply dropped my name on the floor. I hardly noticed. A woman who was not my mother picked it up, dusted it off, and handed it back to me. I had graduated college. Not knowing what to do with myself, I found myself in a foreign city trying to find myself, or understand my parents, or just screw my head on tightly after twenty two years of privilege and no responsibilities beyond my own education. She put my name on the kitchen table, the centerpiece of a room that opened onto a courtyard housing a fig tree, and let me look at it in context. She taught me how to hold it on my tongue, to savor the round deep guttural sound of the second syllable, instead of ignoring it, like a middle child, between the emphatic first and the soft spoken third. This happened in the briefest of moments, during a laughter softened barb aimed at my mistrained tongue unable to dance to the rhythms of the language spoken in the city I was trying to love. I had come to that city to find my identity. I left two years later, knowing my name.

I had given up on the word by then, as one gives up on a childhood friend, as familiar and comfortable as they skin one is born in, who somehow, imperceptibly through the years, did not grow up to be the person one had originally envisioned. If one is from the right family, one graduates high school, goes to college, and gives up on such friends, freeing oneself to make new ones in brand new broad world of the freshman dormitory. It was almost thus between my name and myself. It was a stranger I was inexorably tied to, a part of me I could not rid myself of, but to whom I did not need to give much thought, another sacrifice made to reap the benefits of life in a foreign culture. I did not mind losing it, I thought. I had another name, a private one, less showy, to be sure, but unsullied in its simplicity. I kept it apart from my associates, guarded it against violation from tongues that could not dance.

I have a list of names people call me. They are all approximations of that which my mother, in her attempt to endow me with something special and incorruptable, hung around my neck. My given names range from the mundane common English name to the fanciful: a Xena-esque warrior princess, or an exotic island deep in the Pacific, whose own much distorted name rolls off the Anglo tongue with dreams of garlanded women in grass skirts. The oldest on the list is a string of monosyllabic English nouns strung together by a third grader to help her teacher during roll call. I made a similar list of words to arm my brother for his first day of kindergarten. I keep this list in a shoe box, unpinning the titles given to the name on my birth certificate, laying them carefully in the dark and protecting them from dust in an accessible part of the hall closet. They are earned medals, to be polished and shown around when I have company, each makes a good story over a department tea, worth a titter when there is nothing else to talk about.

The Pacific Islands I imagine are much prettier than any pronunciation of my name.
I learned early to wear my name lightly. It was not until I sat in that kitchen that I learned to respect it. It was not until several years later, that I fully responded to the thrilling sound of those three syllables, when a man who was not my lover pronounced  them properly. In the intervening years, I have struggled with the roles of my two names, the public mutilated one, venturing into the world every day to perform the tasks that need to be done, trying to rebuild a sense of dignity and propriety for herself, and her quiet, shy, protected sister, who had never left home, who had always learned that her place was by the hearth, who is mortified at the possibility that she may be forced to wear a public face. I listen to friends tell me how this concept of two names is not so different, that in far away Thailand, they have a similar custom. I shut the door and tell the private name not to go out today.

I find another who lives with a duality of names. By intention or accident he fell upon a split world, where two circles of his life knew him by different pronouns. It seems so strange to people raised in the west that all parts of our lives, private and public, work and leisure, childhood and adulthood would not be united by one overarching word. In fact, it is the most obvious thing in the world that it should not be so, as natural as taking off one's uniform when coming home from work. I share my duality with him, I revel in the fact that he understands, in spite of the very different pathways along we reached this common state.

I live now in a third country, one that saw neither my parents' nor my own birth. It has a convoluted history with the first of these three. I find books in my parents' language in the library, and women dressed as my aunts and cousins at the bus stop. I visit my brother's lover's parents and relearn that educated, liberal, political upper middle class of this third country still see that first as one that must still be guided; a wayward child of a man who once served the household long and loyally, back in the day when servants were still easy to come by. How strange is it that the old man who watched your shoes as you entered the mosque expects to be tipped, how quaint that he smiled a great toothless smile when you gave him chewing gum instead of change. How different this queer culture is from the civilized practice of tipping the man in the cloak room at the restaurant last night. 

I will raise my son here. I do not fear that his friends will wonder if he lives in a teepee, not only because the lifestyle of the nomadic tribes of the great midwestern plains is not an integral part of childhood culture here. I take comfort in the knowledge that his peers at least know the continent of his grandparent's birth. I realize that he will face a different set of challenges, ones that resonate more closely with my experience being called Aunt Jemima on the school bus, challenges created by a hatred that is born of an over familiarity with a disdained culture. His teachers will not ask him how to pronounce his name. They have seen other names like his, children colored like him pass through their hands every year. None of them ever objected to what this country christened them. They know better. They have done this before.

I watch my son correct me over the mispronunciation of his own complicated name, lovingly hung on his neck by his parents, a jewel encrusted albatross to distinguish him in this new foreign land. The accent is on the penultimate syllable, mom, not the first. Don't you know ANYTHING? I let it go. If I am lucky, history will repeat itself fully.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Friday's Female: Advisor Abuse

I have a friend suffering from a horrible advisor. I cannot write her down. I don't have the words. He is sexist, a quite bit more than the run of the mill sexism, certainly not the worst that I've ever met anyone complain of, but that is not a fair standard to hold an advisor to. That is like saying that your science is not good because it only got the largest ESF grant in the field to date, you have not won the Nobel.

He is sexist. She faces a regular drip of comments from him. She deals. Occasionally she rants in my office. Life goes on. She admires him. She admires his science. It is amazing what lengths people in abusive relationships will go through to survive. Sometimes survival requires admiration.

She wrote me recently to tell me that he is racist as well. Not that there haven't been hints of this over the time that I have known her. Early in our relationship, she gave me a hug of delight because I could pronounce her name correctly; her advisor, apparently, sees no need to try. The other day she told me a story where she sat with her advisor and coauthor and listened to them insult her country. She dealt. Amazingly well. She wrangled an apology from the coauthor in the room, but not one from him. A partial victory, but worth applauding.

I am stunned. Not by her courage. Anyone who has ever faced humiliation and power plays, whether or not of a racist or sexist origin, knows the steel one must have instead of a spine to talk back in the face of it, while it is going on. But that courage is not impossible, and I know my friend well enough to know that these ordeals will, in the end, just be a training ground for a woman who cannot be messed with. I expect no less of her.

No, I am stunned that this type of abuse happens in public. It so rarely does. When was the last time someone you knew and interacted with regularly made a racist or sexist comment to you or action towards you in public? In my case, it has been a decade. I am not talking about the drive by catcalls or shrieks of white power or go home screamed by strangers. Those are easy to say. They will never see me again. They are possibly already drunk. They probably have a team of cronies behind them to back them up. I am talking about the consistent, regular, day to day abuse that we put ourselves at risk to whenever our entire [fill in blank here] depends on one fucked up person. Very few of these people will abuse in public. In most cases, having a witness depletes the situation of complete power they have over the target.

When it is done in public, one of two things are likely going on. Either, the person has completely lost their own sense of scale, enough to misjudge the risk of public backlash, or, the person is completely aware of the company they keep, and know the witnesses think the behavior acceptable. Her advisor is not crazy. He knows the company he keeps. That he can find company at a major university that finds it acceptable for him to pick on a woman just over half his age, that will go the extra step to join him in the act, in 2013, in a country that claims that problems with race are a thing of the past is .... Is what? Astounding? Devastating? Farcical? Enraging?

I cannot write her experience. I have no words. My native tongue has failed me. Even now, the words on the screen before me dance dangerously around the wall I have built to segregate the memories of people in my life who live with far more intensity and frequency of abuse than this instance I have no words for. I have no words for them either. I acknowledge my privilege, beg their forgiveness, and move on. It is hard to write about abuse without feeling the need to pull out the most extreme cases. Compassion and understanding are such scarce resources. It is hard to survive it and not compare your own story with others', sometimes for comfort and commiseration, sometimes for a pissing contest of pain. This is not a pissing contest. This is about one woman.

I will show my friend this post, if only to tell her I am thinking of her. Any bits of wisdom or commiseration you may have for her, I am sure will go appreciated.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013


There is a curious camaraderie of conferences,
Coffee, cake, conversation--
Colombian, Danish, Deutsche.

I hate when someone comments
on the rich diversity of an event.
I know they can count their diversity
on the fingers of one hand.
I am always one of those fingers.

In the kitchen of a shared hotel suite,
We sit over coffee and eggs
Taking about our parents, our boyfriends, our kids - real or imagined.
We are three shades of brown
With three mother tongues
From three different continents
Bound together on a fourth
by circumstance, laughter, and concern over how our talks were received.
We are the X-Y diversity of this meeting.
Together, we make half a hand.

I hold up three fingers.
I flip them upside down.
We or Me.
It is a subtle change.
It is a phenomenal shift.


I am exotic, by color and culture --
Always passing, a hair's breadth from belonging.
Twice exiled, I spend afternoons on the balcony with nomads.
The Iranian pontificates on the duties of political exiles to their home countries.
Should he go back? Should my grandfather have left?
The Lebanese discusses the dominion of depression on a thesis,
And the anxiety of an arranged marriage.
The Romanian speaks to me in Spanish -- allowing me to answer in English.
Like me, he has no identification barring his passport.

I have lost my country.
I have put aside my child.
This is all the community I have left.
It is a strange solace for my solitude.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

I disappeared several months ago, it would seem. The stress of living apart for most of the spring term got to be too much on myself and my family, and I stopped writing, at least publicly. So what have I done these last few months?
Hide it in a hiding place where no one ever goes
Put it in the pantry with your cupcakes.
I started writing privately, my partner and I took a series of steps that felt logical at the time, but have had deep repercussions on our relationship now, we both became a little lonelier, I finished my term in University F, Epsilon is supremely happy to have me living at home with him.
It's a little secret, just the Robinson's affair
Most of all you hide it from the kids.
One of the problem with four year olds is that they are very good at reading their parents. They have little else to do. So when one or both of us start acting strangely, he notices. Not that we believe in hiding anything from our child, that feels too much like lying. Just pointing out that it is not as easy to do as our parents possibly made it seem. Perhaps it becomes easier when the child is older, and less of his life revolves around our facial expressions.
Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes
Moving back to His Town, my partner and I have both realized how isolated we are. Living apart for extended periods has always had a toll on our relationship. It is hard to recalibrate with each other, especially when one or both of us are suffering from a bout of depression induced by the associated stresses.

It is not that we do not have friends. We have friends scattered across three continents. Some of them even respond to e-mails. Most of them, we manage to keep in touch with.  I know at one point, I had developed a community at this blog.  And then the D word got in the way, and I fell silent. I have no idea how much of that community I still have. If you have followed me for a while and are still reading this, let me know. I am curious.

I still find the community building aspect of blogs mystifying. A blog is a very intense view on one or two aspects of a writer's life, more personal, sometimes, than the casual reader has any right to know; personal enough that many posts that have generated encouraging comments from readers, when sent to certain friends, dumbfound with the intense nature of the communication. Perhaps I need better friends. Perhaps, like Aadam Aziz, in Midnight's Children, it is easier to deal with a person piecemeal, through a round hole cut in a white sheet.

Whatever the case may be, I think I need to stop writing without an audience. So I return to this forum. What will be different? The visual format is, for a start. At least at first, the next few entries will be a bit raw. A lot has happened these past few months that needs airing. Some of it academic. Some of it not. Nothing salacious. I will still attempt to keep this from being a diary. In the short term, there will be more poetry. I may eventually introduce a few pieces of prose fiction, though with a clear warning. I suspect this space will become less about academia, and more about gender and emmigration, but that is pure speculation at this point.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday's Females: The marriage problem and other stories

The  Marriage Problem

If you are an economist, or computer scientist, or in a related field, you probably know this problem, possibly under the less loaded title of Stable Matching Problem. If you don't know this problem, and don't want to read the wikipedia articles linked, this is a problem of having two sets of n (possibly infinite) elements, that one wants to match. Each element in each set has a set of preferences of which element of the opposite set it is matched to. The problem is to find a matching that optimizes along the predefined preferences. In terms of marriage, one wants to find a way of marrying the people in the two sets off, so that there are no two people who would rather be married to each other than to the person they are married to, thus resulting in stable marriages with minimal risk of infidelity. The criterion for solutions to this problem existing is fairly well known at this point. Finding them efficiently, I understand, may still be tricky. In particular, I believe the problem becomes much easier if there is one element that is indifferent towards (or equally happy with) all the elements of the other set.

A friend of a friend of mine (yes, this story is being told third hand, sorry) was sitting in a class at University F where the marriage problem was being discussed in the local language. When the lecturer turned to the case of an element with an indifferent set of preferences, he described her as the bitch attracted to all the men, switching to English for the single word. In retrospect, I suppose it could have been worse.  He could have decided to call the element the slut. This got me thinking. If I put on my man-hating hat for a moment, and decide that this indifferent element is male, what would I call him? Mormon or Muslim come to mind, but I don't want to insult religions that allow for one-sided polygamy for the purposes of this exercise. Serial rapist, I suppose, but that is a classification of someone convicted (or at least accused) of a crime, not a casual insult. Don Juan has a positive connotation to it, as does player. I am again shocked at how surprisingly hard it is to condemn a man for the same sexual behavior that would easily get a woman labeled as slut or bitch, or worse. English just doesn't have the words. Any ideas?

The Loan Shark

The discussion of the marriage problem got me thinking about other contexts in which it may or may not be appropriate to bring up gender in a classroom. A friend asked his students a question about violent loan sharks (the knee cap breaking kind) and incentives for repayment of small loans. As the class was about microcredit, where most of the participants are female, and from a general cultural practice in this department to use the female pronoun for problems, my friend used she to refer to the lendee. Upon showing this problem to a colleague, the colleague suggested that my friend change the gender of the pronoun used, under the general principal that, as stated, the problem evoked violence against women in a way that was possibly distasteful. Since part of the point of this problem was to examine the societal benefits and detriments of the proposed loan shark situation, my friend let the wording stand. Unlike the previous situation, the use of gender in this context is not completely gratuitous. The reality of microcredit often is that women take on the responsibility and the associated risks of the loans they take out for their families, though the potential violence faced in microcredit is different than that of the loan shark situation described, who would probably have a mostly male clientele. It makes me wonder.

The New York Times

My partner found an interesting blog post attempting to study how men and women are treated in the New York Times. It looks at the relative frequency of words used in sentences about men versus women in the New York Times, during the week of Feb 27-Mar 6, 2013. (The full description of the methodology, as well as parts of the code used to do the analysis can be found in the post.) The results are fascinating disturbing unsurprising.

Male words
Ratio Male Female Word
11.2 72 02 prime
10.8 70 02 baseball
9.5 92 03 official
9.5 61 02 capital
9.5 61 02 governor
5.8 75 04 fans
5.3 120 07 minister
5.3 51 03 sequester
5.2 118 07 league
4.5 58 04 failed
4.4 57 04 cardinals
4.2 54 04 finance
4.0 78 06 reporters
3.9 50 04 winning
3.8 73 06 finally
3.6 116 10 players
3.5 56 05 acknowledged
3.5 67 06 address
3.4 66 06 attack
3.3 108 10 opposition
3.3 54 05 rest
3.3 53 05 camp
3.2 52 05 costs
3.1 91 09 goal
3.1 50 05 crowd
3.0 118 12 bank
2.9 57 06 referring
2.9 66 07 sports
2.9 56 06 surgery
2.9 56 06 missed
2.8 55 06 pressure
2.8 64 07 teammates
2.8 91 10 economy
2.8 54 06 release
2.7 123 14 pope
2.7 130 15 meeting
2.6 84 10 victory
2.6 58 07 veteran
2.5 226 28 political
2.5 104 13 spending
2.5 64 08 effect
2.5 56 07 spend
2.5 72 09 continue
2.5 95 12 foreign
2.4 71 09 injury
2.4 94 12 election
2.4 78 10 running
2.4 116 15 manager
2.4 54 07 elected
2.4 99 13 tax

Female words
Ratio Male Female Word
100.0 0 29 pregnant
100.0 0 17 husband's
51.6 1 16 suffrage
40.3 2 25 breast
12.9 4 16 gender
11.8 6 22 pregnancy
6.8 10 21 dresses
5.7 13 23 birth
5.5 13 22 memoir
4.8 25 37 baby
4.7 17 25 disease
4.6 14 20 interviewed
4.6 12 17 abortion
4.6 24 34 dress
4.5 23 32 married
4.3 12 16 activist
4.3 25 33 author
4.1 14 18 drama
3.9 30 36 hair
3.8 18 21 rape
3.6 24 27 dog
3.6 19 21 novel
3.5 99 108 children
3.4 16 17 statue
3.4 17 18 victim
3.4 51 53 cancer
3.3 41 42 violence
3.2 32 32 younger
3.2 20 20 festival
3.1 34 33 study
3.1 30 29 teacher
3.1 27 26 sex
3.1 43 41 fashion
3.1 20 19 opera
3.0 18 17 singing
3.0 62 57 child
2.8 23 20 wear
2.8 30 26 native
2.6 34 27 dance
2.6 29 23 graduated
2.5 33 26 writer
2.5 23 18 favor
2.5 41 32 eyes
2.5 22 17 becomes
2.5 47 36 kids
2.5 21 16 eat
2.4 29 22 domestic
2.4 29 22 traditional
2.4 77 58 parents
2.4 32 24 drug
The author sums it up best:
If your knowledge of men's and women's roles in society came just from reading last week's New York Times, you would think that men play sports and run the government. Women do feminine and domestic things.
As someone who used to read the NYTimes a lot, I'm not shocked by this revelation. Our brains (or at least my brain) pick up on these messages subconsciously. Our brains also pick up on a lot of subconscious messages that aren't actually there, or at least not supportable by the data. It's good to see this backed by numbers.