Sunday, January 28, 2007

This Blog's Been Such a Downer Lately

I've noticed this blog's been kind of a downer lately. People dying of cancer, moldy carrots, and identity crises. So, for a change of pace, I'd thought I'd blog a bit about the mundane day-to-day, to show that my life isn't all tears and trauma; because honestly, it's really not.

Three nights ago, I was laying in bed, writing up a presentation for a course I'm taking. The boyfriend came to bed, and I started zipping up my laptop in its case. He asked, "Time for sleeping?" I replied, "Nah, I gotta poop." He saw I was looking for a catalog to flip through, and he asked, "Is this going to be a 'Number 5?'" [I've been known for some fantastic craps.] I said, "Nah, just a regular number 2."

Three days ago I attended a talk by a woman from a tiny little college. Her talk was great, and afterwards I told her so. I told her, "I'm so used to the top 'distinguished lecturers.' They aren't at all good at giving speeches. Your talk was fantastic and your work is really interesting!" Her talk was especially engaging, because while she spoke about Markov chains and stochastic processes, she still connected her research to pop culture and recent events.

Two days ago I attended another talk by a guy from a big university. Lucky for me, his talk was also quite good, and I was pleased with getting two good talks in two days. He made some analogies to connect the audience with his work; and I was very pleased he didn't use stupid sports analogies. He was talking about a best-fit algorithm, and he said, "Who here is married? Well, for those of you still looking for the perfect mate, I'm sure you have that list of qualities you want from your mate. Maybe you want a blond, but she's a brunette but a great woman otherwise. Maybe you want a guy whose over six feet. He's great, but only stands at 5-11." At that point, I looked around and noted the male-to-female ratio was 40:1.

Today I had a radio show. I'm a DJ at the local community show, and in addition to my "World Music" show, I help out with a Sunday show from time to time. For the first time in a while, I had a great time. The music was great, I featured some local artists who'll be playing in town next week, and my announcing voice was smooth and sexy. Hopefully I can keep it up next week during my regular gig. If you're interested, check out the following folks:

Amelia. My favorite band out of Portland, it grey smooth sound evokes visions of rain clouds.

Martha Berner. Out of Chicago, "Down and Out in San Francisco" is my favorite from her recent Indie-Folk-Rock album "Ten Tiny Little Pieces."

Katie Herzig. Currently living in Nashville, she's recently produced her own album "Weightless" which is gutsy, soft, and poetic.

Sally Spring. A musician whose been around 30 years, played with the Monkees, and has a new rock-folk album featuring Glen Parsons and Marshall Crenshaw.

Kristin Diable. A New Yorker via Louisiana whose music is rooted in blues, folk and soul.

Rose Polezani. Said to evoke "early Liz Fair or Edie Brickell."

Persephone's Bees. Russian singer/songwriter Angelina Moysov, influenced by Russian Gypsy music and British Punk.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Moldy Carrot

Folks may not be aware that I'm currently on week three of physical therapy for a shoulder injury that I've been carrying around for about a decade. My New Year's resolution is to get it back to health. My therapist originally diagnosed it as two rotator cuff muscle injuries, but today she said, "Let me try something." She mooshed around the shoulder joint a bit and said, "There, does that hurt?"


Turns out, I have three, THREE, muscle injuries, ah ah. The therapy has been slow going, and I've been incredibly grumpy these past few days from my achy shoulder. Still, I did carry this injury around for ten years, so it's quite clear I have a high threshold for pain.

so that's not the only reason you are grumpy?

Gee. What insight.

I've been trying to figure out ways to work more productively. I recently read the book, "How to Organize and Your Work and Your Life." Overall, the book is okay, and can be scanned in one sitting. The exercises at the beginning, however, are really what motivate the reader to hurry up and get organized. In one such exercise, the reader is asked to write down everything she wants to accomplish in her life. Here's my list, in the order that the goals popped into my head:
live abroad; visit to New York; see the Atlantic; attend an Indian wedding; meet Nancy Leveson; graduate; obtain tenure; publish a novel; help my parents improve financially; backpack in New Zealand; have a happy, fulfilling partnership; donate a large sum of money to a good cause; work somewhere with a critical-mass of women and underrepresented minorities; bake a Pastel de Tres Leches; visit Mexico; live in a 'green' house; live in a big city; return to Tokyo; 'perform' in front of a large audience; bike a large distance; foster a child; hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail; do 5 pull-ups; like myself and my body; learn to ride a motorcycle.

Hm. Nowhere on this list do I see, "Win Best Paper Award" or "Write Outstanding Thesis" or "Work at Top-10 University."

I recently visited a fellow academic diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. She's gone bald from the chemo, and is facing her upcoming surgery. I asked her what she does during the day, and she replied, "I spend time with my son. I don't care about papers or proposals anymore." She also reports that her old colleagues have all been rather cold. Just like Penelope Leech in Status Anxiety, her view of work has changed dramatically. No longer is it a source of fulfillment, but rather a task in which one does as little as possible in order to do the things one really wants.

Lately, I've been wrestling with my own career path. Cutsy teaching school or top 10 university. Unlike many of my fellow grad students, I don't get much fulfillment out of the work that I do. To me, it's just work. There are days that I have to trick myself into being even vaguely interested in Kalman Filters or NSF.

All the cards are before me. The list of life goals, how moved I was by my fellow acadmic spending time with her son, and my ambivalence towards things computer science. One might think that would put me in a good mood. I'm a planner, and I derive joy in knowing the next step. But I still have a ways to go in the PhD. "10 papers in three years" says the advisor.

What the organizing book seems to presume is that completing individual tasks and acheiving particular goals will fuel one's energy towards more tasks and more goals. But it seems there are some other, underlying carrots as well. Do a good job on the report, and the boss gives you a raise. Finish the review on time, and you'll be in line for the next promotion. The PhD offers very few carrots such as this. For me, it's been the same carrot that it's been for the past five years.


I don't get raises. I don't get promotions. It's just the same shit year after year. Admittedly, the carrot is getting moldy, and I am really having trouble even wanting the carrot anymore.

And so, all that there is why I'm grumpy.

For now, I will go and enjoy the Posole I made for dinner, and try to focus on the joy of the moment.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Don’t pout, your face will freeze that way and then you’ll be sorry

Thinking back to my childhood, I can't remember if my mother ever told me that my face would "freeze that way" when I was pouting or grumpy. My mother had more memorable sayings like, "gahdamsonnuvabich" or "he's so dumb, he couldn't pour piss out of a boot." I'm sure I heard from television how my face could freeze into a permanent frown, or perhaps it was just one of those sayings that I absorbed one time when I went to McDonald's for lunch. However I managed to hear it, I've been thinking a lot about it. I've not been thinking about it in terms of lying to kids to get them to do what you want, but rather in terms of permanent changes from temporary behaviors.

I mentioned before that it's qual time here in GradShitTownVille. For those that have an oral qual, I tell people that in order to succeed one either has to *be* cocky, or be able to *fake* being cocky. Professors here are like a big litter of puppies; they'll maul the one that's not like them. If you can't exude that particular flavor of confidence--which, by the way, smells a bit like rotten orange peels--then you may be packing out of here with a masters degree, heading west for Google to make a fantastic wage. Poor you.

Personally, I'm not particularly cocky. I don't like to remind people of how much I know or how awesome I am. In fact, I maintain that I'm probably the dumbest asshole in my whole department. The good part is that I can at least *fake* being cocky and confident, smelling like rotten orange peels just like the rest of them. I'm a hermit crab, entering an abandoned seashell to protect my soft belly just long enough to last through a presentation, a conference, or a conversation with a faculty member.

I treat the faux confidence like a temporary shell because there are places in life where it does me absolutely no good. A yoga session, for instance, is not about knowing the poses better than everyone else. It's not about being a rock star. It's not about competition at all, in fact. It's about keeping an open mind, being able to observe how my body is responding to the pigeon pose: which, by the way, is sometimes just "Ow" instead of "Om."

I've seen graduate students here enter a similar hermit shell, but never come out. They've evolved from that cute and determined undergraduate who just wanted to teach, to a younger version of their workaholic advisor, working on a proposal the night his baby is born; all to be the next rock star in wireless ad-hoc networks using resource slicing to provide channel isolation. Or whatever. Basically, their faces froze.

I'd be fooling myself to think that I, too, haven't been changed by this place. I'm quieter now; less willing to talk. I'm more selfish with my time, unwilling to give any random request for help an unhesitant "yes." Perhaps those are good things. Hard to believe that I used to talk more than I do, and I'm more sane now that I'm working on my writing rather than helping some Tom, Dick or Harry move.

There has been some damage, too. I remember coming for the PhD just to be another fantastic professor at the little Catholic school on the Bluff. Anymore, I don't know what I what I want to be when I grow up. I cannot divide the messages I get about "Top 10 This" and "Top 10 That" from the things that I think will make me happy. Yes, I'm a clinically diagnosed workaholic. Yes, I want to do the best job possible. But can't I do that at a place where it's okay if I knit an hour every evening? Or where the choice is not "kids OR tenure?"

Hard to say.

All I know is that I'm done with that proposal, and I can get back to working on the things that will actually get me outta heeere.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

My favorite moment during my two-week break in Portland

Eating dinner with good friends Mr. and Mrs. Clock. Making small talk. Chatting and joking and enjoying the company of nice people. And Mr. Clock asks,

"So, when are you going to be done."

And Mrs. Clock, who has obviously seen this post, lunges across the table with her best mom finger and says,

"Don't you DARE ask her that."

Dang. Really wish I could have had her as my body guard all during my break.

The Screen Door Slams

We begin with a dream sequence. It's 8:30 am on a Monday, and I'm currently oversleeping, risking being tardy for a meeting. My subconscious knows I'm taking risks, and because it would much rather sleep, I begin to dream that I'm in my meeting with Moira and a professor. I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, meeting with exactly whom I'm supposed to meet.

Professor: Well?
Me: Ah yes, of course.

[I reach for my bag and pull out two $50 gift certificates for the coffee shop where we're meeting. The gift certificates are beautiful. Printed on 60lb paper with script handwriting, subtle rainbow security background, and a small hologram. Nothing like in real life.]

Professor: Thank you.

[And she begins looking at the gift certificates, which have since become a pamphlet for birth control. She turns to the page describing Ortho Evra, the patch that has long been removed from the market due to health issues. The professor points at the page, making a sound of disgust.]

Professor: Tsch.
Moira: I know. Bananas and water.

[And as I nod my head in dreamy agreement about how 'bananas and water' the patch was when I was using it, I start to realize that I'm not in my meeting after all and I really need to]

Wake up, only to find I've started my period. And I realize quickly it's going to be that two-tampons-at-once sort of day.

* * *
Three days later, and it's 4:00 pm and I'm sitting in my pajamas listening to Bruce Springstein, stifling back tears of absolute frustration. I'm trying to finish an NSF proposal I'm preparing. The professors, including my advisor, are all out of the country, and I'm suddenly a post-doc/secretary. It's one of those things where I'm proud to have been asked, but I realize the small damage it's doing to me. The proposal is due three days after a paper deadline I should have submitted to, but just couldn't put enough energy into writing them both at the same time, AND get a real Christmas visit with my family. I made the choice to spend time with my parents over the break, rather than in a coffee shop basking in the glow of the iBook. And so, my prelim is postponed yet again, but I'll have the experience of an NSF proposal. One of those, "Better that I did it, now I know better, but I wish I hadn't" sort of things. Like donating eggs, smelling a freshly-cut durian, or going skiing (and falling out of the lift).

* * *

My friend is about to take the qual. She studies 23.5 hours a day, and talks about it all the time. She talks about quitting and failing, like qualers do. Like I did. Of course I do not envy the stress she's going through. But, in a way, I envy very much the constant progress she's making towards a concrete goal. I think my current tears of frustration are coming from working dilligently, and getting nowhere, an old chevy, without a differential, stuck in the mud. It's a funny scene in "My Cousin Vinny," but not at all in the Ph.D.

It's all so just bananas and water.