Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book review of "A Song of Ice and Fire" aka the series that the "Game of Thrones" tv show is based upon (in other words, why I haven't been around)

I thought that I didn’t have time to read fiction. I thought being a mother and scientist sucked all the time away. I turns out that I do have time to indulge in fiction. . . as long as I give up blogging, blog-reading, reading the newspaper, looking at my children, talking to my husband. . . I’ve spent the last few months in a daze, sucked into the universe created by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series (the basis for the HBO series A Game of Thrones). The series has gotten so much hype this year that I fell for it and started the first novel this summer. More than 4000 pages later (that’s not a joke), I finished the fifth and latest novel this week. Guess what? The hype is totally deserved.

The publisher summaries on the backs of these novels are vague. I understand why—they’re difficult books to describe. Epic fantasy in a medieval-based world? That sounds so clichéd. It is a medieval-based world, the story is epic in scope, and there are elements of fantasy. . . But for large parts of the series, the fantasy elements are pushed to the edge. High-stakes political intrigue—diabolical and brutal, the “game of thrones”—takes center stage. Much of the first novel feels less like fantasy than incredibly gritty and detailed medieval history. This isn’t the medieval world of Tolkien or his early imitators—no happy peasant villages where the common folk are all well-fed and literate. Many of the knights in this series are as likely to rape a maiden as to rescue her. The caste system of feudalism is rigid. And men really do shit themselves in battle.

But on the edges of this harsh feudal world, the fantastical lurks. There are blue-eyed zombies (called “wights”) in the frozen north. There are the zombies’ mysterious makers and commanders, known as the Others. The reader comes to understand that the Others and their zombies are the real threat to the realm, but the kings and would-be kings are too busy fighting for power and tearing the realm apart with their wars to take heed of the threat. Across the sea, an exiled queen plots to invade the realm and claim her family's throne. And above all, winter is coming. In this world, winter can last years.

A Song of Ice and Fire is like a glorious mash-up of genres and themes. There’s war, and coming-of-age arcs, and political intrigue; straight-up action adventure and horror; lots of witty dialogue and cinematic flourishes. And in a story remarkable for its seeming “realism,” every now and then there comes an infusion of pure myth. There is one haunting scene in the third book that involves a rescue by a flock of ravens. It’s a startling, dream-like scene, evocative as any image from the Brothers Grimm or ancient myth.

But it’s the characters that really sell this story. The plotting is intricate and brilliant. The world-building is complex and fully-realized. But the characters. . . oh, my. Did I once write a blog post raving about how taken I was with the characters in the Hunger Games? I did, but I knew nothing. The characters in George R. R. Martin’s world are developed with a complexity and vividness that I’ve rarely seen. During the course of this series, he can take a character that you hate at the beginning, and then two books later switch to that character’s narrative viewpoint and make you fall in love. He can take a character that you already love and make you fall even harder than you thought possible. Of all the characters in these books (and there is a named cast of hundreds, with the narration told from the viewpoints of no less than twenty), I am most taken with the character of Jon Snow. Bastard-born son of a great lord, Jon Snow is a boy looking for his place in a world with little regard for bastards. In a world where there is little of black and white, where every decision is haunted by moral ambiguity, Jon Snow is—as described in a fan forum—“one of the lightest shades of gray.” He is one of the few undeniable heroes. Yet he’s no bland goody-goody, and much more than your standard-issue hero fare. His character is complex and multi-layered. When we first meet him, he’s only fourteen years old: proud and insecure, controlled yet rash, ambitious and hungry for glory. And he’s also kind and noble-hearted, with the courage of a lion* and all the integrity and honor of his great father. Watching the boy grow to a man is one of the chief pleasures of this series.

The author has the diabolical habit of piling up cliff-hangers at the end of each book. The end of the fifth installment, Dance with Dragons, is no exception, and ends with the worst, most diabolical cliff-hanger yet. I understand that George R. R. Martin took five years between the third and fourth books, and six years between the fourth and fifth. I am fervently hoping that the HBO series will light a fire and force him to move more quickly with the last two planned installments of his series.

And, um, now I’m bereft. I feel like a big hole has opened up in my life. Without another book of A Song of Ice and Fire to read, what am I to do late at night? Read science?

*or, er, direwolf. For those of you familar with the story.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Indian summer, lab reunions

It’s summer in October—the days unexpectedly balmy, women in sun dresses and children running in shorts, all under a brilliant blue sky and trees flaming in reds and gold.

Our family took a trip to Old Postdoc city this past weekend. The lab where my husband did his research fellowship was celebrating its 20th year in existence. Quite a milestone, obviously. Lab alumni from around the country flew in for the event. A mini-symposium was even organized, where alumni (the ones still in research) gave talks on their current research. While Husband went to this Saturday symposium and reunited with old colleagues, I took my girls to one of the most beautiful parks I know of. The kids found sticks in the grass, wound them with stems of grass and poked them through leaves, and then tossed their concoctions into a lake, proclaiming that they were “launching boats.” After more than a half hour of this, I persuaded them to see the other sights of the park, and they chased each other over four bridges and under tunnels of trees. Gold leaves rustled above them. Ducks and swans and kayakers moved past on the river. All the colors of autumn—the warmth of russets and dark gold, the intensity of fire-orange and scarlet—were in that day.

Afterward, I met up with one of my old lab mates for lunch, and we were later joined by two more friends. We hung out at one of their houses, and the host spoiled my children with ice cream and cookies and allowed them (actually encouraged them) to play with and torment her poor cat. My old lab has shrunk considerably since I left, and my old PI seems content to keep it small. Although he would seem to be very successful with grant funding (two R01s!), he appears to be spending most of his time on administration these days, and is scaling back the research. His last student graduated a year ago, and the PI has said that it will likely be the last student he ever takes on. “We’re in the same place,” my one friend, a very senior research scientist, told me. “I am not so ambitious as I was, and I don’t think he is either. Once I wanted all my papers to be Nature or Nature Cell Biology. Now I’m content with MBC. I don’t want to work 14 hours a day. I want to enjoy life.”

I picked up my husband from his symposium, and we later went to a celebrated local restaurant for the 20th-year lab-anniversary reception party. More reunions, as my kids started melting down from the late hour. Four years on, most people looked mostly the same—maybe a spiky new hair-do, or a suddenly dapper wardrobe, but mostly the same. Many of our old friends’ lives have changed little, but some have changed dramatically. We heard tell of new engagements, marriages and significant others. Babies. Divorce and remarriage. Career changes. Of the people who showed up for my husband’s lab reunion, about half were in academic research. And half were working in “alternative” careers—from jobs in pharma and biotech to jobs working for a defense contractor, a non-profit science lobbying group, and a job for an health insurance agency (“the dark side” my husband termed that last. His own “alternative” was to move from research to full-time clinical work in medicine).

“Good for you!” a number of people told me after hearing that I was back at the lab bench.

Good for me, indeed, I feel. But I know that I’m not as ambitious as I once was. I’m not one of the eager grad students in my current lab, working crazy round-the-clock hours fueled by Mountain Dew and the energy of youth. I may still hope for that big GlamourMag publication, but I know that a solid MBC-type journal would be more realistic (and is also perfectly fine). My expectations are adjusted downward. If I could just keep a long-term job as a perma-postdoc/staff scientist in my current lab, I would be happy as a clam.

It’s been interesting to see who among our former lab colleagues is still swinging for the glamorous prize of PI-dom, and who has stepped away. The PI from my first postdoc was once very hard-driving and ambitious, and I would not have expected him to contentedly downsize his lab as he has done. I am not surprised by the choices of other people . . . And I admit that I feel some trepidation for the other postdocs/non-tenured scientists who are still in the academic game.

It all feels very unpredictable—life, that is. Or predictable in broad outline. . . and then not at all. The evening was so unseasonably warm that the reception area on the enclosed patio felt hot. We stayed through the dessert (the kids now past the meltdown phase), and my husband’s old boss hugged us good-bye. I don’t know if we’ll see any of those people again anytime soon. I can’t say that we are truly still close to any of them. But it’s a small world, and the academic and medical worlds even more so. Somehow, the goodbyes I’ve said to old labs have never felt final.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday lab rant

Have you ever walked into your lab, taken one look at your cells, gone "F---!!", and then wanted to walk right out again and never come back?

Yeah. It's one of those days.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On vacation

No, I'm not physically gone. But mentally I'm away. Against my better judgement, I gave in to peer pressure and hype and picked up Game of Thrones, first in a five book (so far) fantasy series which totals at least several thousand pages. Trying to put this book down at a decent hour is like trying to stop at just one potato chip.

Plus, it's summer. I'm trying to kick back. Or to at least kick back as much as I can.

So it's summer hiatus on this blog. I'm going to vacation a bit in Winterfell, try to get out of the lab this weekend, and remember to look at my children and husband.

See you all in a bit.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My new niece

The midpoint of summer comes as it always seems to of late—far too soon. Already the newspaper is publishing articles on back-to-school shopping. Looking at the calendar, I see that Bean-girl’s summer camp ends in just a few weeks. We’re in the midst of a dire heat wave, yet fall is just around the corner.

Do you remember when you were a kid and summer lasted forever? At least it did for me. No schedule, no place to be, nothing I had to do: summer was a limitless day, an empty bucket begging to be filled. My sisters and I played with each other and neighborhood friends; we read books, lounged about the house, quarreled. We had to actively look for ways to pass the time. We sometimes complained that we were bored. Now I’m catching my breath from school graduation, getting used to the rhythms of packing lunches for day camp, and suddenly it’s time to think about back-to-school shopping. Do things slow down at your work in the summer? someone asked me recently. No. If anything, my experiments seem to speed up in the summer, as new data comes gushing in.

This doesn’t mean I don’t take any breaks at all. We’re off on a family vacation this weekend—a small getaway Up North to a place on a lake. My husband and I did sneak off in June for our anniversary. And two weekends ago we managed to get away to the Big City where my sister and brother-in-law live. Our new niece lives there, too, who was born this past fourth of July. I would post a picture, but I think that might freak my sister out. So let me just say my niece is the cutest baby that was ever ever born. And I can say this with perfect loyalty to my own children, because they were also the cutest babies ever born.

Baby M, I will call my niece. She was crying when I took her in my arms. I rocked her, and she went silent in surprise, her mouth open, her blue-black eyes staring at me in shock. WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU??! her eyes said. Then her eyes closed and she went right off to sleep.

It’s my sister and brother-in-law, of course, who are the sleep-deprived ones. Baby M will sleep and eat, sleep and eat, coddled and pampered by her loving parents. She’s sooo cute! Bean-girl kept whispering, creeping up to gaze in awe at her cousin’s face. Legume, less impressed, spent her time playing with Baby M’s toys.


They are doing remarkably well, Baby M’s parents. Almost preternaturally calm and confident. Where did they get that from? Was I like that? Did I give that appearance?

We in the Bean family are looking forward to getting to know Baby M. I envision vacations where our families get together, where the cousins all gather and play. My sister doesn’t know it, but I’m imagining spring break together in some warm family-friendly all-inclusive resort.

I imagine the cousins playing together on the beach. Summer.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Work-life balance rant, and tribute to fathers

Oh, dear. I didn’t mean to get sucked into the perennial work-life balance meme. I really didn’t.

There’s certainly been temptation of late. From excellent posts by Cloud and others, a crazy-ass op-ed piece in the New York Times and the resulting blogosphere uproar. . . I wanted to say something because, hey, someone is wrong on the Internet (and thanks for that link, Cloud!) but really, last week all I wanted to do was get to bed before midnight.

But something—and I can’t even remember what—has just set me off again.

In all the discussions about women, motherhood, and work-life balance, one point is often brought up: that parental leave and family care and work-life balance are not “women’s issues”; these are issues that affect both mothers and fathers, men and women. I see women bringing up this valid point in various feminist comment threads—but often (not always, of course, but often enough) there is something angrily accusatory about it. The tone is often not Gee, we should also respect men’s rights to parent and have a decent work-life balance but Goddamnit, if men would just step up to the plate this wouldn’t be such a problem! If those lazy-ass dads would just pitch in and change a diaper it would be easier and things would change! Those @!*%! men! They are not helping out and it’s all on us women, all the time!

Look, I don’t doubt that there are douchebag husbands and fathers like that. Thankfully, I don’t really know any of them. This blog post is not about them. It’s about the many fathers I know who struggle every day to share equally in the demands and joys of child-rearing, family care, and domestic chores. The dads who need to be respected for that—just as their wives are. Who turn down certain opportunities at work because they put their families first—just as many women do. The truth is that in American society, it is really more acceptable for women to “opt out” of the workforce for a few years to be a stay-at-home parent than it is for a man to do so. It’s still more acceptable for a woman to duck out of a meeting early, or miss a work event because she is tending to a sick child or attending a parent-teacher conference than it is for a man to do so. When I think about including men in the perennial “work-life balance” discussion, I don’t mean to complain about selfish pigs who aren’t doing their fair share—I want to talk about the men who are trying their best to do their share, and talk about how to make it easier for them to do so. How to make it easier for everyone to do so.

This is not your father’s generation, as the old saw has it. Even the fathers I know who have stay-at-home wives are incredibly involved and committed to sharing in childcare duties. Two of the postdocs in my lab are fathers with young children and stay-at-home wives; they both get into work at an ungodly hour (6 am) so that they can leave early and have dinner with their families and see their kids before the littlest ones go to sleep. They coach soccer and spend as much time as they can with their children. When his kids were recently sick, one of the postdocs took time off from work to stay home with them—even though his wife wasn’t working and was home anyway. He knew that she needed a break and some help—three kids sick at once!—so he helped out. Somehow, I don’t see this as common among male scientists and workers of a generation ago.

My brother-in-law is seriously considering quitting his job to stay home and be primary caregiver for his soon-to-be born baby daughter. My parents are absolutely horrified by the idea.

And I haven’t even talked about my husband, and all he does for his daughters and for me. We absolutely share in home and childcare duties—sometimes it tips more his way for a while, sometimes it tips more my way. Overall, it works out to 50-50 (although it can be so exhausting that it often feels more like 120/120).

So to end this rant. . . There are committed fathers who want to share equally in childrearing and family life. It’s not just a matter of haranguing men to take more responsibility. It’s a matter of making it more possible for them to take more responsibility—of offering reasonable paternity leave as well as maternity leave, of making it more socially acceptable for a man to ease his work hours or take time off from a job to care for his family. Although yes, I am also aware that in the United States of America, a country with no paid maternity leave and no paid sick leave, the idea of a paid paternity leave and more humane working hours lies in the same realm as unicorns and leprechauns. *

*Because in the end, you know (and as GMP eloquently pointed out in a blog post) no one really cares.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Once upon a time I saw this blog as a digital baby book of sorts—a place to record memories and milestones of the bean children. But they grow too quickly, my bean girls. The milestones fly past. Before I knew it, my first toddler became an articulate six-year old, a beautiful girl who dresses herself in the morning, finds her own snack to pack for school; who lost two front teeth in one week, who can read to herself (for a long time I despaired over the reading issue), and who, impossibly, just graduated first grade. How did this happen?

And my other bean child, the Legume. I thought she was a baby. I want to see her as a baby. But it’s been a long time since she was a baby at all. Two weeks ago, she turned four. Yes, four. I carry her when I don’t need to. She wiggles in my arms, squirms away. There she is, running away. “Bye bye,” she flaps a hand at me as she runs off to her friends at daycare/preschool. Her eyes crease into half-moons when she smiles. She has peaches for cheeks; her arms and legs are still rounded and soft. But those legs and arms have lengthened and thinned; she dangles against me when I lift her, and I can’t deny that she’s growing.


“Legume doesn’t walk,” my husband observed. “She gallops.”

It’s true. She gallops. Or hops. Or skips. Or runs. Maybe a better word is galumph. She galumphs through the house. And clumsily knocks into walls, chairs, furniture. She seems clumsy, but then is very agile when it comes to scaling heights in search of candy and treats. She follows and worships her big sister when she is not squabbling with her. Her nickname (among many) is “Fire-pig.” My husband discovered this name when he looked up her Chinese horoscope and found that she is a pig with elements of fire. Somehow the name fits, and she delights in it. We told her daycare teachers, as she often refers to herself by this moniker; they were also delighted by the name, agreeing that it fits her spitfire personality. “The Fire-pig fights fires!” she proclaims. She and Bean-girl weave a complex mythology of the Superhero Fire-pig with laser eyes who fights bad guys. “Stay away from the stove!” I tell her, and she responds, “But mommy, the Fire-pig fights fires!” (yes, and stay away from this one).

She can eat a watermelon like nobody’s business. I’m talking an entire small watermelon, all by herself.

She is a tomboy who likes to play with trucks, cars, trains, space ships, and has a special fondness for fire engines. She wants to be a fire fighter when she grows up. And a scientist as well (just like mommy).

We despaired of her ever being toilet trained. We thought it might never happen. “I’ve yet to send a child off to kindergarten in diapers,” her lead daycare teacher told us. “There’s always a first time,” my husband said grimly, and the teacher had to nod in agreement.

But our stubborn stubborn child is coming around. When you are four, you have to use the potty, we told her. And now she seems to have finally agreed. I shouldn’t jinx it be writing this here, but I think just maybe we won’t be packing diapers in her kindergarten bag, after all.


Time goes too fast. Last week I noticed the lilacs by our front door blooming, giving off their evocative scent. Today the blooms are already gone. Our youngest daughter turned four, and my husband and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. For the first time in years, we went away for an entire weekend, just by ourselves. Focusing just on ourselves. My parents came up for the weekend to take care of both kids—a first for all of us. Lilacs were blooming in the lakeside resort town my husband and I visited; lilacs lined the walkway to our B&B. It was a pretty tourist town with art galleries, ice cream shops, and little to do after dark. We walked on the beach, window-shopped, and ate out. On Saturday evening we took in some community theatre. The play, These Shining Lives, was well-written, although the amateur cast was mostly stiff. (The lead actress, however, was wonderful, completely natural and affecting. She was a college theatre major, and the training and talent showed).

On Sunday morning we sat in the B&B’s lobby and read the newspaper front to back. The silence felt like a heavenly indulgence.

The weekend made my husband and I remember that we need to take time out to focus on just each other. The last time we got away for a weekend sans kids, it was for a wedding. Fun, but not really a weekend of alone time amidst the usual wedding whirl and socializing. This time it really was a weekend just for us. A little bubble of peace and quiet. Our bedroom suite was beautiful. And my husband, who does not normally express his feelings in words, expressed them in a card that made me cry.

Ten years. Four and ten. My newly four-year old daughter was born on the date that my husband and I married ten years ago. I can’t believe how the years have flown by.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bad Science Week

It’s been a Bad Science Week.

Nothing catastrophic, just a hum-drum Bad Week. Microscope acting up. Western blot FAIL (second one). Cell lines not behaving appropriately. The big experiment that I completed—the one that was supposed to be Figure 2 of my hypothetical manuscript—the experiment that involved two staggered month-long cell culture assays—well, it didn’t work quite as expected. The trend is there. But the controls misbehaved, and the numbers don’t line up well enough with the first experiment in the series. Let’s just say that I will not be making my hypothetical Figure 2 tonight, after all.

But I was reminded again of what awesome colleagues I have. Even in the midst of the blues, I could vent and laugh today with my friends. Who else understands, but those of us who work in the lab? And more than one of us has had a Bad Science Week so far. One of the grad students was looking for Ibuprophen today (headache from staring at the computer screen too long) and heard a rumor that the guards at the security desk have a stash. “Ask them for some,” a colleague suggested. “Say that you could cure cancer today if you just didn’t have this headache.”

My benchmate patiently listened to my tale of woe and tried to cheer me up. “But it’s real,” he said of my experiments. “The trend is there, so you know it’s real. That’s important.”

It reminded me of my own pep talks that I’ve given to others over the years, and I smiled just a little, very ruefully, inside.

And a friend who had had a Very Bad Science Weekend (and aren’t they some of the worse?) gave an excellent lab meeting. She’s been disappointed that a certain hypothesis has not panned out, and she told me that she’d had a mini-meltdown over the weekend after multiple gels leaked and an expensive piece of equipment crashed. But she gave a great lab meeting that was enthusiastically received. She’d complained that her results did not support Hypothesis A, but after seeing her presentation I think that the failure of that hypothesis actually opens up a more interesting and exciting avenue of research. Other people evidently feel the same, as the room started buzzing with enthusiasm during her presentation.

There are two days left, and tomorrow’s experiments might yet (partially) turn this week around for me. Hope springs eternal and all that. I just hope Bad Science Week doesn’t become Bad Science Month or, heaven forbid, Bad Science Year. Because I’ve been in that latter place, and it’s a bad place to be indeed. Even with awesome colleagues who make me laugh.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I am an idiot

Yesterday I transferred two gels backwards overnight. (In my defense, it's been about four years since I regularly ran Westerns, and the transfer apparatus in this lab is set up with exactly the opposite orientation of my last lab).

So today I got to pour new gels and re-run them in between other experiments. Set my gels to run super-low voltage while I ran to pick up my Bean-girl from school and get dinner on the table. After dinner I went back in. Just came home and everyone is asleep--including Husband, who fell asleep next to our little Legume.

Oh, and it's Legume's birthday tommorrow! And we forgot to get her a present in time (although we did order a cake). And I even had a three-day weekend in which to go shopping. How many kinds of an idiot am I?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mother's Day recap

I wrote this post the day after Mother's Day. But such is life--I had
no time to even post it until now. I made a promise to myself to blog more... and I've already broken that promise (this month is crazy, yo). Anyway, I'll post this here now, for the memories of that weekend. Happy belated Mother's Day to all the mothers out there!


Mother’s Day tea at Bean-girl’s school, Friday afternoon.

Bean-girl was waiting for me in front of her classroom. When she saw me enter the school building, she fairly flew down the hall to me, eyes bright. She carried a corsage in her hand. A flower of brightly dyed cloth (later, I realized that it was a tie-dyed coffee filter --blue and purple, my favorite colors). She tried to wrap the pipe cleaner stem about my wrist, then gave up and let me do it on my own. Proudly she led me to the gymnasium, where a mass of first-graders stood waiting patiently on bleachers for the show to start. The walls of the gym were covered with hand-drawn pictures of the children’s’ mothers, each picture decorated with an award: “World’s Best ------- .” At least half of the pictures were decorated with a “World’s Best Cook” award. I turned my head, searching for my own portrait. The room buzzed. I looked curiously around me at the other mothers, many of whom were greeting each other as close friends. All of us had found the time to make it here at 2:45 on a Friday afternoon, many of us undoubtedly leaving work or leaving younger children home with a sitter. I will admit that my first reaction upon receiving the invitation from Bean-girl’s teacher was annoyance. That’s mean, I thought, reading the letter which admonished me (or so it seemed) to please come to the first-grade class tea because “the children have been working very hard on this. If you can’t make it, please have someone special come in your place.” And what of the working women who can’t come? was my first thought. And what of those working women who don’t have relatives in the area—no retired grandmothers to take their place? How are those children supposed to feel, singing to no special person in the crowd and serving tea to no one?

But I was there. One of the great perks of my job is its flexibility. So I could make it, as well as the other lucky women around me.

The children launched into their Mother’s Day concert. A series of songs honoring mothers. I pride myself on being unsentimental. My husband and I both affect cynicism. But by the second song, I found myself melting. A mother is like a flower, the children sang. A mother is like sunshine, and Bean-girl and her classmates crossed their arms over their hearts in the sign for love.

She got me right there.

And afterward, she and her classmates served us iced tea, lemonade, strawberries, cookies and Hershey’s kisses. There were only enough seats for the mothers, none for the children. So most of the kids ended up on their mothers’ laps, eating off their mothers’ plates. Bean-girl did not sit, but stood attentively and formally at my side, asking if I had enough food (and then helping herself to half of it). Bean-girl has my heart, but the boy in the formal dress shirt next to us also stole a bit of it (there’s hardly anything more adorable than a little first-grade boy in a dress shirt and tie).

But one of the best parts of the day? Bean-girl got me my portrait, and my award was not for being best cook, or gardener, or best crafty-mom. I had an award proclaiming me “World’s Best Reader.” And I was very pleased.
Because I’m not a great cook (that would be my husband). I hate baking. I hate gardening. I can’t sew and I’m terrible at crafts. I’m impatient and not good at playing on the floor with the kids, and I don’t like board games. But I love to read. And I love reading with my children. I will always love reading to and with the both of them.

Thank you, Bean-girl.


And then a baby shower in Chicago

There was more to the weekend, much more. I feel like Bean-girl when she exclaimed over all the things she would have to write about in her school journal on Monday. We drove to Chicago for my sister’s baby shower—her first baby. Saturday morning my hugely pregnant sister took me speed shopping for the perfect suit jacket and skirt (needed for later this month). Then off to her house to prepare for the shower. My mother took over the kitchen (and took over the party from the official host). There was the usual family squabbling. My mother burned the pad thai and blamed the stove. I cooked batch after batch of spring rolls. There was yelling over cucumber slices and raw eggs. The house filled up, people ate and ate, children seemed to multiply, three kids had toilet training accidents (including one of mine).

My sister stood next to a business colleague, discussing motherhood and work. She absently rubbed her round belly. Her friend was talking about a “night nurse” that she employed. I had never heard this term before. Apparently, a night nurse is a person who comes to your home and gets up with the baby when it cries at night so that the parents can get some rest. Two of my sister’s friends employ night nurses. They also have nannies.

Life is different among the business executives of Chicago.

“My husband still travels 100%,” my sister’s friend said. “I cut back on travel when I had my kids, but I still go out of town 3-4 times a month.”

Academic scientists like to bitch about how hard we work. About how hard it is to balance work and family. But truly—many others have it worse. (although the high-flying execs do get paid more).

A father with a month-old daughter cradled her head tenderly. He had the dazed, shell-shocked expression of new parents. “As you can tell, we’re still learning,” he commented.

“Will you come stay with me after the baby is born?” my sister asked me. “We don’t even know how to bathe a baby! One of my friends said it took them an hour the first time they tried! I don’t even know what to do!”

Nobody does, at first. You learn.

The house was filled with parents in various states of learning. High-powered dual career couples. Lower-key families with a part-time working spouse. A full-time stay-at-home father and his wife. My sister and her husband have a wide range of friends, and various occupations and lifestyles were represented.

My sister has worried aloud about combining motherhood and career since the day she was engaged. Actually, I think she’s been worrying about it long before. Her husband is also nervous. He wants to be a good father. He’s actually talked about quitting his own job to stay home with their child.

I do worry about her. It’s not easy. And I don’t just mean about the work/family issue—it’s not easy period. A new child is sleeplessness and stress and an inevitable toll on the marriage. That wrinkled little baby will stretch you and strain you and change you in ways you cannot imagine.
But she will also bring you love and expand your heart in a way you cannot now understand.

I look at my sister in her pretty patterned dress, round and glowing and beautiful. I worry, but her husband is a good man, solid all the way through. She is worried about what lies ahead for them, but I know she’ll learn and be okay.

She’ll muddle through, just as the rest of us are doing.

Happy late Mother’s Day to you all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My job does not count as "me" time

I love my job. I do.

But now and then I look back wistfully at my life as a part-time science writer. There was more time, then, for reading fiction, attending meetings of my mothers’ group, and writing. There was time to get good home-cooked dinners on the table without too much stress (other than that provided by small children hanging onto me). There was time to relax with the kids at home. There was time to go to the gym.

Every now and then I read the online discussion threads of my local mothers’ group, and I feel a pang of envy as I read women making plans to meet up with one another (children in tow) at the local coffee-and-indoor-playground spot. I read of plans for a new monthly cooking club subgroup, a girls’-night-out, or the latest book club discussion (which I’ve missed again). My fridge is full of vegetables and meat that I buy over the weekend in the delusional belief that I will actually prepare it all during the week. Instead, I am racing through a restriction digest at work, and then running for the parking garage and off to pick up the kids, late again. Dinner is frozen Costco potstickers (nothing wrong with that; the kids love them and would eat them 5 nights a week if allowed. But I tire of them, and I do feel guilty about not introducing more variety into their diet!)

I do love my job. But sometimes, I also look back longingly at my prior life. And with summer approaching, I look back even further to those first two summers here in our Midwestern city, when I was home full-time with both kids, watching them splash in the kiddie pool and run through the backyard; arranging playdates; making friends with other stay-at-home mothers and exploring the parks and museums of our new home with my children.

It’s not that I want that old life again, exactly. I was bored out of my skull plenty of times, and crawling the walls. I have only to look back at some of my old blog posts to remember that. I love my children, but staying home full-time with them really take it out of me.

And yet. . . Husband was also more understanding of my need for “me” time back then. He was encouraging of my outside interests and nights out. Now that I work full-time at a job I enjoy, he seems to believe that my job counts as “me” time.

Newsflash: it doesn’t.

I love my job and children both. . . I just wish I had more room to breathe.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


There are moments when the children play so sweetly together that you pause in the middle of dishwashing or cleaning to stop and stare. The older one is reading a “Clifford the Big Red Dog” book to the younger one. She reads it from beginning to end in her newly confident 6-year old reading voice. Then, at her sister’s request, she reads it from end to back, and they both laugh over the silliness. They are cuddled together on the couch, sunlight falling upon their hair.

The older one allows the younger one to sit on her lap at the kitchen table as she works on an art project.

The children head into the basement to play, and they play long and quietly and peacefully together, while you sit and read the Sunday paper.

And then you pack them up for a trip to the annual butterfly conservatory exhibit at the local botanical gardens. You’re meeting a friend and her family there. And although your children have never before met your friend’s little boy, and the little two-year old boy can barely talk, the children become instant friends. Wordlessly, the little boy leads your daughters in a spur-of-the-moment game: he finds a rock to sit on, and they both sit on either side of him. After 30 seconds of happy sitting, he darts up and finds another rock 10 feet away to sit upon. They race after him and again settle on either side. After 30 smiling seconds, he gets up again. Repeat.

And then the children all hold hands and make a train around the greenhouse conservatory together. Chugga chugga choo choo, your youngest daughter says.

And you wonder why world peace doesn’t reign. Because children are obviously naturally good and loving and open to everyone. People are inherently good. The little boy hugs your daughter, and your daughters hug their new friend, although they cannot even remember his name.

And then that evening, hell breaks loose, and your little angel girls are shoving each other, and hitting each other with hard toys, and the youngest one willfully scatters toys all about the living room and she bounces heedlessly on the couch and shouts, I’m a bad kitty! I want to be the Bad Kitty! and you realize, okay, maybe just maybe (as though you needed any evidence other than the evening news) world peace isn’t so easily attained after all.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Indulgent whining

I think I hit a wall this week.

The gloomy dregs of winter, the endless colds, the endless demands of work and family and laundry and experiments and "that time of month" (you know what I mean, ladies), well, it all seemed to come together in a potent brew that has left me spectacularly unmotivated.

For, well, about the last four days now.

Not that I haven’t been working. I’ve dutifully done the minimum of what needs to be done to keep certain experiments going. And other than that, I’ve been staring into space, logging onto Facebook for the twentieth time that day, gathering a stack of papers to read in the café or library and then zoning out completely with papers in hand.

The latest discussions on the perpetual postdoc problem have not helped my mood. Anxiety is the undercurrent to a postdoc’s life: the knowledge that the odds are against you, that you have a vanishingly rare chance at even being able to have a sustainable career in the field you trained for, let alone a shot at assistant professorship at a decent research university. Me, I would be perfectly happy being a staff scientist, of the class that Jennifer Rohn envisions in her recent Nature editorial. Indeed, there are a number of such Ph.D.-level staff scientists at my institution. But word on high is that with current budget constraints, such slots will not be as readily available as in the past. And such a position is still no safeguard against insecurity; one is still dependent upon the funding of the primary investigator. I’ve seen one previously well-funded lab at my institute slowly dissolving over the past year, and one very senior staff scientist there (he’d been in that lab for nearly ten years) had to leave his family here in America while he took a second staff scientist position in Asia.

Insecurity is the name of the game in science these days—whatever level you may be at. I’ve hitched my scientific fortune to a mentor who is a rising star—but you can never tell what will happen. My husband jokes that maybe I’m bad luck: my first postdoc advisor lost his Howard Hughes funding two years after I joined his lab, and my first lab at this Institute (which I joined as a scientific writer/editor) rapidly lost funding and went from 15 people to six during my tenure there. Then again, I think it’s not so much a sign of my bad voodoo, as simply a sign of these very tough economic times.

Which is enough to get anyone depressed, along with listening to NPR and reading the global news.

So I hid out in the Institute’s library yesterday, tried to read a review, and stared into the gas flames of the fireplace. Outside was damp and gray, and the heat of the fire seemed the only warmth in the perpetual chill of the Institute.

Next week I have more experiments geared up. I’m going on vacation in early April, and there is so much I need to get done before then. If I think too much, I feel a little panicky because there is so much I need to get done always. And then I feel overwhelmed.

I need to get up and get motivated. Kick butt. Read, think, plan, do a dozen experiments, cook healthy dinners, spend more quality time with my children, try not to neglect my husband, and vacuum the inside of my car. The inside of my car is a disaster. If you saw it, you would shake in horror. Things are breeding in there. I subject my kids (who are also the major source of the disaster) to this horror every day when I buckle them in for our commute.

Okay, motivation is lacking.

Could someone please send Spring soon?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's 2011--our new friend

“I think you’re really going to like your Valentine’s gift this year,” my husband remarked to me in bed a few weeks ago.

“Oh?” I said in a neutral tone, wondering what he had up his sleeve.

Last week was brutal. Kids sick. Kids crying. Kids throwing up. Me missing two days of work because I’m the one with the flexible job, not my husband. Me staying home all day with the children and then going to work from 5-9 pm last Wednesday, because there were cells that had to be harvested and things that had to be done. Experiments that didn’t work. Experiments that technically worked, but not in the way that I wanted them to. And last Friday, I topped off a hellish week by dropping a plate of Super Supreme Nachos in the cafeteria line. Shards of ceramic skittered across the floor, amidst clumps and puddles of chips, guacamole, cheese and beans.

Somewhere during the week of Legume’s night terrors and the vomit and the snot attacks, I stumbled into my bathroom in the darkness, having just put Legume down to sleep for the night.

I noticed that the lid for the toilet seat was down, which was odd. Then I sat, and noticed something even odder. I flipped on the lights and saw cords trailing across the floor.

I strode into our bedroom and said “What is going on!” to my husband, who was busy reading his iPad.

He did not even deign to look up. Didn’t even crack a smile.

“So I guess that’s my Valentine’s present,” I said.

Yup. A heated toilet seat.

“You spend so much time in there—I thought you would like it,” my husband explained.

And I have to admit, after several days with our new friend—it is pretty nice.

So that’s my Valentine’s day. The kids are healthy again, and brought back bags filled with cards and candy from their classmates. My husband’s admin baked pink frosted cupcakes for the office, and gave him a plate to take home for the girls (and they were so stuffed with treats from their own school parties that they could barely nibble at them). Our neighborhood babysitter dropped by with two huge foil-wrapped “Hershey kiss” treats for the girls (actually rice crispy treats molded and wrapped to look like Hershey kisses). Two hours ago, I found out that my sister is expecting her first baby girl, and the Bean and Legume can expect a little girl cousin to play with in five months. Husband is passed out upstairs in Legume’s room after reading her a bed-time story.

Almost ten years married now. We are not, by any stretch, a romantic couple.

But I do have my toasty warm toilet seat now. Husband does still sometimes surprise me. I was thinking of jewelry, but he gave me something I didn’t even know I wanted.

Maybe heated bathroom floors, a double-headed shower, and a Jacuzzi tub are next?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Letting go of mysteries

In this business, I have begun to learn to let go of mysteries.

In graduate school, my lab studied a large family of signaling proteins. We were particularly focused upon one particular subunit of a heterotrimeric signaling complex. The “gamma” subunit comes in many flavors or isoforms—twelve different isoforms, the last time I checked. Why? This was the burning preoccupation of my PI. Why so many isoforms? These subunit variants have little amino acid sequence similarity (between 15-30%) and are all exquisitely conserved across mammalian evolution. That suggests that there are important functional differences between these isoforms. But what the hell are those differences? What are these protein subunits really doing in the cell? Why, my PI would frequently say with exaggerated frustration, are there so many of them?

It’s been over ten years since I left that lab, and the answer is still unknown. My old lab has made important progress on the function of some of these proteins, but my old PI’s question is essentially unanswered. It was a question that preoccupied me for a while, but I long ago left that field. The answers will not come from me.

During my first postdoc, I became absorbed by a different set of questions. And in the year before I left that lab, I made some interesting observations. Overexpression of a certain gene in a certain cell line led to striking changes in cell morphogenesis: the cells were suddenly able to form long branching tubules that could invade through extracellular matrix. Why? How the hell did they do that? Interesting, my PI at the time commented, and then remarked that he had no clue what it meant or how to pursue the finding. My time in that lab was limited; my fellowship funding had just run out, and I would be out the door in a few months. There was simply no time to follow up on my discovery. It was a mystery that would be left unpublished, unanswered.

The image of those branching tubules from my first postdoc has stayed with me. When I joined my current lab, I decided to make use of the cell system I had learned during my first postdoc. And I realized that some of the cell lines I had made during that first postdoc would be perfect controls for experiments I was planning for my second postdoc. I further realized that this was a chance to solve old mysteries: the assays I had planned for my new project could also be applied for that old project I had abandoned. I would crank all my cell lines (old and new) through the assays together; I’d get two papers for the price of one! I told my new PI my idea, and he gave me his enthusiastic support. I wrote my old postdoc PI a long e-mail, catching him up on my career transitions, asking him for my old cell lines, and outlining a collaboration and project proposal. In response to my one-page letter, he sent these exact lines: “Great to hear from you. Happy to send the cells.”

Well, you may have guessed how this ends. In theory it sounds easy to process multiple cell lines together through complicated assays; it sounds easy to balance different projects. It is, most of us find, not that easy. Especially when my primary project began taking on intriguing new dimensions. The work from my first postdoc did indeed serve as useful controls, but they have not served for anything more.

“We need to look over your goals,” my current PI said shortly after the new year. He’s big on making goals in writing and revisiting them regularly. We looked over the list of goals I’d written in the fall. One of the first was to complete that project from my first postdoc lab, and get out a minor publication on it. “I think we’ll going to have to drop this one,” I said regretfully.

“You don’t want to do it anymore?” he asked.

“I would LOVE to do it,” I answered. “But I just don’t think we can.”

“It would benefit you more than me,” he said honestly. “I think you’re right. I don’t like having my people drop their goals, but you’re right.”

I don’t like it either, but my primary project, the R01-funded project that funds me and this lab, is the one of primary importance. It’s the project that will help determine, in a few year’s time, whether or not this assistant professor gets his R01 renewed and this lab survives. And that primary project has taken off. It’s soaring. And it’s in a wide open field—I have no competitors (that I know of). That side project I dreamed of, an old observation of branching cells? It’s in a competitive area, and the work involved to bring it to publication would be a risky commitment, and far more than I can afford.

So I find myself again saying goodbye to a past mystery, even while the mysteries of my current project deepen. I wonder if anyone will follow up on that long-ago observation I made in my first postdoc? Nothing has been published on it. Perhaps no one has yet noticed the effect?

That old mystery may someday be solved. But—like the mysteries of my grad school lab--it will not be by me.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Year's resolutions: 2011 edition

I have one resolution for this New Year. Just one. To fit in two 30 min work-outs a week. It's now Jan 10, and I can grandly say that I've kept this up for an entire week. With discipline, I might even be able to keep this up for a month!

(It helps enormously that my Institute has opened a small fitness center in the basement. Really, I don't have any excuses now.)

I was fairly pleased at how my resolutions for 2010 worked out. I might not have kept all of those up for an entire year, but I did have a good run at them, and I did actually cross several off my list.


Health goals

--Exercise at least 2-3 times a week.
--Take a pilates/yoga class (went to the first class last week—public humiliation).
--Eat more fruits, veggies and whole grains.

During my five month stay-at-home stint, I actually did all those things. I took a combination Pilates/yoga/tai chi class which was utterly humiliating for the first three sessions. By the end, I found that I really enjoyed it, and of late I've found myself missing it. I would love to take a class like that again, but there is simply no logistical way to fit it in.

Creative writing goals

--Finish second short story, send out to some trusted readers, eventually submit and hopefully publish somewhere.

--Start a new story.

--Revise and submit a very old story.

--Try daily journaling/writing.

I finished that short story, sent it out to a trusted reader, and realized it just didn't work. It's still sitting in my desk drawer.

I started and completed a new story. Score! Was accepted to a small, but up-and-coming online literary journal.

Revised very old story, submitted it to a few literary journals, got some form rejections and one seemingly nice rejection.

Daily writing? HA! This blog is as close as it gets.

Home goals (domesticity)

--Sort and donate old clothing (done!)

--Sort, get rid of, organize the toys taking over our house.

--Organize the home office

--Print and organize backlog of family photos

Progress on these home goals? HA HA HA HA!!!

Yes friends, I'll be pretty pleased with myself if I can just keep up a weak workout routine for the next year.