Month: November 2014

Grading, with Squash

The long Thanksgiving weekend has been filled with mom stuff. Fun, chores; laughter, whining.

My valiant plans to do work (grade midterm! edit student papers! review manuscripts!) did not materialize. When will I finally give up these silly ideas and stop planning to do work during weekends or holidays? When it becomes possible to go home without feeling the death grip of guilt over all the work that looms unfinished. Or never. Whichever comes first.

I have to grade tonight. Here’s a picture of squash. Just look at the carnival squash beauty on the left; I saw it in the produce aisle and absolutely had to have it. By next weekend, two thirds of this still life will be obliterated.


Growing Pains

Parents of grown children always say that you’re supposed to enjoy the period when the kids are little, and that the teenage years are much harder. As all new parents, I thought my experience would somehow be different. I just knew my kids’ infant years were the hardest ever, and that I would do such a good job with raising my kids that the teenage years would be a breeze, because my offspring would be the best teens in the history of adolescence.

Eldest is a freshman in high school. He is smart and funny and kind; he’s the kindest person I know. But even if you have the world’s best teen, which I am pretty sure I have, those parents of grown children are still right. Why? Because, while your kid may be responsible, with a good head on their shoulders, not prone to imprudent activities that lead to physical danger, and channeling their energy into productive outlets, you as a parent cannot (and should not) protect them from coming-of-age pains.

When kids are little, there’s Tylenol and bandaid and kisses for small cuts and scraped knees. But there’s no pill or patch for disappointment or rejection. You give them space and offer support, try to be there when they need you. Intellectually, you know that’s all part of growing up, but it is very hard to watch your kid in pain and be unable to make it go away.

Brief and Random

Thanksgiving is a slow time in the blogosphere.

I have been fighting a headache all day, so I have very little to give here. But, a promise to blog daily in November still stands, so…

Why is it so hard to get a teenager to go to bed, even though he knows intellectually that he’ll be a zombie if he doesn’t get enough sleep and he needs to get up early to go to practice?

I saw the movie “Predestination“.  It was quite good, even if not exactly subtle near the end. They kept dropping hints to the same final twist like 7 times. Alright — we get it! Geez.

Finally, how busy people are versus how busy they think they are. I remember thinking I was super busy in high school, then college, then grad school. Those were all fun and games. My life now would kick the winds out of my younger self.


Party Meh-ness

We went to some friends’ from work for a Thanksgiving party. The food was good and abundant.

I must say I didn’t have a great time, and I take full responsibility for it. Actually, I can’t remember the last time I had fun at a party. People do invite us, and we either go or don’t go, but whenever we go it’s always very meh. I am not sure how to make it not be meh. (Actually, I do: Magically create a circle of 8-10 super close friends to which you belong, then attend your close friends’ parties.)

When we go with kids, there is the overhead of having to chase and/or feed the young’uns. What’s interesting is that I no longer mind it. I actually savor it, for my kids are the people I like and am comfortable with, and who like and are comfortable with me, even if they need me around to fetch them food or take (only one of) them to go potty. I used to mind having to tend to the kids, because I wanted to mingle and get to know people. It seems I don’t give a damn about meeting people any more. I don’t think this has to do with people getting boring, they are probably just as boring or not boring as they have ever been. I think I might have  simply become a curmudgeon. There is only so much small talk one can absorb in life, like radiation, before it starts impeding your well-being.

The other day Justine wrote about wandering whether she was uninteresting because she had temporarily put career and self-improvement on the back burner on  account of her children.

I think — no, I know — that I am pretty boring at first, second, and even third glance. Heck, all the way up to glance No 72. John Mayer wouldn’t give me the time of day, I am sure.  I am an aging working mom who lives in the suburbs. (Go on, yawn! No need to stifle it.) Being a mommy is hip, bouncy, with yoga pants, tank tops, and a pony tail swooshing from side to side while your smiling baby  does the airplane during a “Mommy and Me” class. Being a mom is synonymous with tired and mostly lame. (The role of the patriarchy in all this is not lost on me.) The other day I was talking with Eldest, who is very similar to me in personality and we get each other really well, about how anything that he gets to do with me sounds really lame, much lamer than if he were to do it with his dad. Note the difference in coolness for the subject being a teenage boy:

“I went running/biking/kickboxing with my dad.”

“I went running/biking/kickboxing with my mom.”

“My dad is teaching me how to drive. ”

“My mom is teaching me how to drive.”

(Bonus lameness points for “My grandma is teaching me  how to drive.” Nobody apparently met the speed demon that is my 63-year-old mother.)

But yeah, what is there to say? I have my work and I have my family, and I love to talk about both, they are both very important to me. I am not a doctor or a firefighter or a lawyer. I travel more than most but don’t care for it any more. I watch movies and read, just like everyone else. The life is ordinary, and ordinary makes me happy.

I would like to think I am not boring among the people who know me well and where I am relaxed. I have fun in this space, so hopefully some of you get some amusement from my excursions into doodling and drafting. Being in my head is great fun for me.

One thing I have noticed with aging is that I am going back to being how I was in childhood. I was a serious kid who spent a lot of time alone, with books, Legos, and drawing. I don’t remember craving other kids. With teenage years, other people started being more important, essential even, for the well-being and happiness.  I thought for a while that was my true nature, but it doesn’t really seem so. I am not an extrovert, but I play one on TV.

These days, people are… just draining. DH and I like going to see a show or a concert. Topping it off with a dinner with another couple sounds like it would be fun, but since we don’t have really close friends, it’s always just meh. Essentially, real-life social interactions with all the people who are not family are meh. I take full responsibility for the meh-ness.

I enjoy the (positive) interactions online quite a bit; you get to know people over time, through comments, and get to discuss topics with them that might never come up in “meat space,” because everyone is so busy and so guarded… And because the small number of people geographically close to you may not be your people. I know this is hardly a revolutionary insight, but there you have it: being online connects you to people you would otherwise never meet. Often, that’s a great thing. Occasionally, it sucks. (Not being on Twitter or Facebook helps with the sucking; those seem like downright terrifying places to me.)

Anyway, being boring is quite alright. Being with my family, with my students, and mostly in my head are really fun, though. Some of that fun, I am hoping, spills into this space.

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting!
Happy Thanksgiving to those whose bellies are stuffed with turkey, and may the gods of good digestion be with you.


15-min Improv Blogging

Call this an experimental post: I give myself 15 min, and I write whatever I write. When the timer goes off, I stop, edit very lightly, and publish.

Here goes.

1. I am reading “Bad Feminist” and enjoying it for the most part. I will have to reconsider my deep love for semicolons. Roxane Gay does very well with short sentences that would, in my case, be longer and connected by semicolons. By the way, if you never read John Scalzi’s “Lock In” (SPOILERS AHEAD!), he wrote it entirely without semicolons. I sort of liked the book, but as one commenter somewhere aptly said — it’s excellent in terms of world building, but the plot is thin. I greatly enjoyed the accompanying free novella “Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.”

2. I am positively fatigued by all the review requests. I think I definitely did more than my fair share of refereeing this year. I attempted to count how many today, and got exhausted at the enormity of the task. I review for a great many journals and all the requests are in a Completed Reviews folder, but there are first and second reviews, so I would have to look at each to make sure I don’t double count… I took a 5-second look at the list and thought “Nah.” All I will say that the APS (American Physical Society) alone sends me at least one paper per month, which is just as well, because as I publish with them extensively. But they are hardly the only publisher I review for, and I probably review 1 paper per week or 3-4 per month. I think that may be too many for my current overall workload…

3. I am teaching a 100-student sophomore class in the spring, so that’s going to be fun, for the definition of fun being “occasionally excruciatingly painful.”

4. I have a pretty heavy travel schedule in the spring, mostly connected with the funding agencies that graciously give me money and now expect reports and/or service. I cannot say no as I am up for renewal, on which I  am really counting. The trips are 2-day for the most part. I have two weeklong overseas trips in the summer.  2015 hasn’t even started and I am already exhausted thinking of all the work ahead. I will also be becoming the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything in mid 2015.

5. I promised my grad students 4 papers in the pipeline will be out by New Year. I am not sure how I will pull that off, but mid-January sounds plausible. Maybe.

6. Tomorrow is turkey day. We are going to our friends’ place for a party and potluck. Alas, I haven’t bought all the ingredients needed for cooking yet. I am counting on the overpriced store to have the needed vegetables in stock if my regular hunting grounds prove empty.

7. Fifteen minutes is a lot of time — who knew?

Stopped here with 40 seconds to spare. Now just for some light edits…

Happy Thanksgiving to US readers!


A Regularly Scheduled Rant on Being Bugged about Foreignness

Long-time readers know that I passionately hate it when people with whom I share a fleeting interaction cannot curb their rudeness and curiosity enough to stop themselves from either inquiring about or making stupid assumptions about my origins. This post has been brought to you by the three separate incidents  that happened between Thursday and today. This is a high frequency even for me; something must be in the water.

1) Today, I was leaving daycare with Smurf. One of the office staff came to us and asked about Smurf “Does he speak Vulcan?” (I wish she had asked that. No, it was a certain Earth language). I said “No, and neither do we.” She laughed like what I had said was the funniest thing ever. This led me to suspect that she didn’t get my point, so I explicitly said “We are not Vulcan.”

WTF? This is not the first time people assume we are from Vulcan. In fact, my planet is not even a neighbor of Vulcan. We are from Romulus and share perhaps only the most distant past with the Vulcans. We live on Earth and my kids speak only the Earth language known as English.

The woman who asked, by the way, is an Earthling from Thailand (I only know that because some info on her was in the newsletter some months ago, where she was introduced as a staff member). I would have never asked her where she was from. Never.

2) Last Thursday: My husband usually picks up Smurf from daycare in the afternoons. Near as I can tell, nobody asks my husband anything ever, perhaps because he looks like someone who doesn’t want to talk. (No unnecessary eye contact. Smart man. I should learn from him.) When I picked up Smurf last week, the afternoon teacher, with whom I had interacted 3 times in my life for 5 seconds each time, absolutely had to use the 5 seconds to ask me where I was from. I took a deep breath and gave her my canned response in a robotic voice. That’s the best I can do not to pop a vein and to try not to embarrass the person who was asking. Then she asked about where my husband was from, and then she proceeded to tell me about the erroneous assumptions of  where she thought I was from; I am not sure why sharing her thought process about my origins was supposed to be interesting, informative, impressive or anything to me.

Why? Why does she have to know? That has nothing at all to do with any of our interactions. Tell me about what my kid did, or what other kids did. I will tell you that the roads are bad because it is snowing or whatever. I promise I will not ask what godforsaken village in this fair state you are from.

3) I saved the best for last; this one happened on Saturday. Eldest has been swimming non-stop, and the winter boys’ swimming season was  kicked off by a 2-hour breakfast for parents as well as swimmers. There was information, but mostly food and mingling (parents and swimmers separately); I was nursing my coffee in the corner, only surfacing to top the cup off or checking out team apparel. Of course, I was asked where I was from a few times, after I shared my name; I didn’t mind it too much as I was expecting it and was psychologically prepared with my trusty canned response. But one dad made my day (not). First, he interrupted the conversation as I was saying my name to someone else, then proceeded to tell me that when he usually hears my name it is pronounced differently (because I do not know how to pronounce my name and I need to be set straight by a random dude; what you are familiar with is a different name with a different spelling, a$$hole, which explains the difference in pronunciation). Then he asked where I was from, told me all about his trip to a country in the neighborhood when he was 13. The discussion was mercifully cut short by the coach who started with the announcements. Unfortunately, the dad managed to corner me twice more with questions thereafter, such as which town I was from, surprised that I was from a big city (I was close to telling him that we shockingly had indoor plumbing and electricity, too). Then he asked me what the main industry in my country was. Then he asked me what my parents did — are you fuckin’ kidding me? How is that an appropriate question for someone you just met? (I said they were middle class.)

Why can’t we talk about our kids swimming? My kid is a freshman, his is older, how about tell me about your experiences on the team. That’s why we are both here, right? If you are making small talk, have mercy and stick to the subjects that you know are of interest to the other person (such as school and boys’ swimming for a meeting of parents of the boys’ swim team).

As I wrote before, having a hard-to-place accent is like being perpetually pregnant. People badger pregnant women with all sorts of intrusive questions all the time, some even touch the belly. Random strangers think it’s fine to ask you when you are due, if it’s your first, if you are having a boy or a girl, and then proceed to give unsolicited advice. If you were pregnant once, maybe you found it endearing. With multiple pregnancies, it gets old. Now imagine being perpetually pregnant and FOREVER having to endure the inquisitiveness of strangers, whenever, wherever, without regard for what you may care to talk about instead. FOREVAAAAAAH…

Usually when I complain about this, I am told to lighten up because people are just making conversation. Why is it my job to satisfy everyone’s curiosity? Why can’t people stop to think that, while the fact that they noticed the accent and don’t know what to do with it may be riveting to them, it is likely completely unimpressive to me?

Lastly, I may be cynical, but I am not sure that people are so well meaning. There are a great many people who really just want to emphasize that they have noticed I have no business being where I am. I wonder when one of them is going to ask me to show them a valid visa. They ask because they want to remind me that I am Other and to let me know that I have been spotted.

I have taught veritable hordes of undergrads over the past decade. Only very, very infrequently does it happen that a student asks where I am from, and only after they have been coming to office hours for months. Most never ask, even if we have spent a lot of time chatting, even if they have had multiple courses with me. How is it that the students don’t care, or care but don’t want to bother me with their curiosity, while the grownups, who should know better and presumably have more experience, cannot bear not knowing exactly which stupid compartment to put me in?


UPDATE 11/26/2014:

Here are some old posts from Academic Jungle on the same topic.
Accentuating Deflection
The Return of Where are You from
So Where Are You Really From?

Research University, Now With Words

I am at a major public research university. Sure, this is a university and teaching is important, for some definitions of important; anyone who says that research does not beat teaching to a pulp is a liar.

Bringing in extramural funding is the most important metric in most STEM fields. It translates into overhead dollars for the university. It also generally translates into high-profile work, for money means you are doing work that is “hot” and also money can pay for a lot of smart students and postdocs who actually do the work in many fields (with the exception of math and some fields like theoretical physics and computer science). The most highly paid and most coveted members of the faculty are those who do flashy, news-worthy, high-profile work. [Between research productivity and  funds raised is an implication (–>) rather than equivalence (<–>), i.e. money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for high productivity or flashy papers; there is such a thing as having too much money to efficiently handle. But I digress.]

We are professors, yes, but our peers and our administration care about research almost exclusively. So, where do teaching and service come to play?

Teaching has to be good. If it is bad, you will not get tenure. It has to be decent. But, anything better than decent, unless it is at the level of prestigious national teaching awards, is not rewarded. Being better than a decent teacher is all on you, and feel free to do it if it makes you feel good. But, if you are doing a better-than-passable job, people may (as I know from experience) ask what it is that you are not doing instead when you are wasting time on this silly teaching business. Not all colleagues are like that; in fact I have several in the department who really value and do an excellent job of teaching while also having some political gravitas. However, for the most part, spending considerable time on teaching is looked down upon by the most-research-productive colleagues, who sometimes consider teaching a nuisance that should be minimized or avoided to the extent possible.


For example, when I told a colleague that I give 3 midterms, hour-long and in-class, over the standard 2 longer evening exams (more frequent exams are less nerve-wrecking for the students because their grade does not hinge on any one exam so much, and it’s also less daunting for me to grade so I do it faster and they get the results sooner), the colleague told me that I must have too much time on my hands; he, who apparently must be the yardstick by which all workload is to be measured, has only one midterm (this is way too few for undergrads, in my opinion). So it’s not “you do this, I do that,” it’s an explicit statement that me doing something that I feel benefits the students is indicative of an unforgivable professional deficiency (not being busy enough). The same colleague told me “That’s loser talk” a few years ago when I complained that a grant was unjustly slaughtered in review (likely by this guy); needless to say, I am not discussing grants with that colleague again.

People who run very large groups and raise a lot of money generally have very hectic travel schedules and are overall very busy. I know from what students tell me that it translates into many cancelled and rescheduled classes, which is probably not a big deal for graduate students, but it is for undergrads, whose days are usually packed to bursting with classes, labs, project group meetings, and often part-time work. The extremely busy colleagues would often love to have the absolute minimal teaching load, and perhaps they should, for everyone’s benefit.

What about service? There are some important service assignments, and I understand and endorse that they have to be done. Many of them have to be done by faculty (e.g. serving on PhD dissertation committees, or tenure and promotion committees). My beef with service is threefold. First, there are people who really do the fewest and the lightest assignments; they tend to be either among the very high performers or, unsurprisingly, among the very poor performers (deadwood) who have mentally checked out. My second beef is that there are many committees that are pointless because what is needed is money, but the money is not forthcoming; while meeting to brainstorm and bloviate may appease whomever because it seems like something is happening, nothing really is, so the whole thing is a time-wasting charade. Third, service doesn’t do anything for an individual’s career unless it is a formal administrative position (e.g. you serve as department chair), and even so the gains appear… dubious.

The most aggravating part of life at an R1 university is that, during the semester, teaching and service can easily eat up your entire work week. I have several student papers to edit, I haven’t been able to get to them in way longer than I would like. We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research — the only part that can potentially advance your career — suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.

I don’t think faculty are at fault here. People do what is expected of them, and smart people read expectations very well.

Sausage Links Sans Sausage

* Go check out yesterday’s cartoon. Go, I’ll wait.

By the way, all (or most) of the cartoons doodled by your hostess can be found under category Cartoons, also tag Comics. I am still not clear whether they are cartoons, comics, or just SAHDS (Stupid Attempts at Humor by a Doodling Scientist ). Of course, they totally are SAHDS (not the stay-at-home-dad kind), it’s just not clear whether or not I should create a category with that name. Hmmm…

On  a related note, I have been thinking about teaching and what role it plays at major research universities. More specifically, the role that the most active (read busy, globe-trotting, fundraising) academic researchers play (or fail to play) in the education of the undergraduate populace… But these thought will have to wait for some other evening.

* I am a real grammar-and-punctuation nerd, in all the languages I am familiar with; probably even more so in the languages other than my native one, because there I don’t have a native speaker’s intuition, so rules and structure give me confidence. I find that grammar has inherent beauty, like math.

Here are some of my favorites in US-English punctuation:




Quotation marks

* A world record in parallel parking plus Mano Singham’s fool-proof directions on how to do it perfectly every time.

* I have started reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I have read five pages and I already love her. She sounds warm and real.

* A not-so-old, but good post of mine, Honorary Dudeness. Probably one of the better ones I wrote in the soon to be a year in this space. Ride It Like You Stole It is up there, too. Heck, just go read up all the posts under tag Women in STEM.

* Man, I suck at this link business; it’s all self-referential, you’d think it would boost my h-index or something.
But I know who is great at providing links: Nicoleandmaggie and Cloud of Wandering Scientist. Enjoy!