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 cafĂ© 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?