Archive for November, 2009
Have a Happy Tryptophan-Filled Thanksgiving!

Enjoy your turkey, tofurkey, pie, wine, or whatever it is you partake in this Thanksgiving.  We are off to Maine for a few days, and I will indeed enjoy the real deal—real turkey, with real tryptophan, oh loveliest of dietary amino acids!

We are very behind with uploading new Holden photos and videos, mostly because 1)  This is National Novel Writing Month, and Rob is closing in on 50,000 words.  Again.  2)  I am writing a grant.  3)  I am preparing an upper-division undergraduate seminar from scratch. 4) Holden continues to battle ear infections (most recently involving a ruptured eardrum. and 5) I have been battling a sinus infection.  Again.

So, it’s been unusually crazy round these parts. Nevertheless, I have managed to get all of H’s Christmas shopping done and all of his presents wrapped.  I don’t go too crazy for Christmas.  Rob and I decided on a couple of items ahead of time, and I more or less stuck with that plan once I got in the store.  I only allowed myself a single impulse buy for Holden (a miniature yellow school bus, complete with working rear emergency exit door).  His brain is going to explode when he gets it.  I just couldn’t resist.

Despite the total lack of prompting from us, Holden has cultivated a fascination with buses, tractor trailers, dump trucks, concrete mixers, excavators, and farm equipment.  He has us read to him the titillating book “Big Farm Machines” about 10 times each day, which features a dizzying array of telehandlers, combines, and baling machines.  Don’t know what those are??  Well, either did I, prior to this year.  Related to his “big moving vehicle” obsession, H’s favorite color is yellow.  Buses are yellow and most farm equipment is also yellow.  So now, Holden is constantly alerting us to all of the yellow things around him:  ”Wellwoah,” he says pointing to one of his building blocks.  He can also say “blue” and “purple,” but rarely identifies those colors correctly.  At this point, it’s mostly about understanding color as a concept, rather than getting the specifics down pat.  He’s been going through a word explosion lately, repeating almost everything we say, and occasionally stringing words together to ask questions.  The other day he pointed at a TupperWare tub full of scones that we were taking to brunch at our friend’s house, and he asked (clear as could be): “What are those?”  He has also learned the inevitable and self-centered “Mine” and “No No NO.”  He never says no just once.  He makes sure you’ve really heard him.

I’m off to do some last-minute packing and preparations for our trip out of town—I have so much on my mind and so much I want to write about, but it will have to wait another week or so (probably till after December 8th, when my grant is due).  Yikes!

I hope everyone enjoys the holiday.

ETA:  I don’t believe I blogged about it yet, but I weaned Holden 2 weeks ago.  It was effortless for both of us and it was time!  And he is sleeping MUCH better.  More on this later….

Itsy Bitsy Yoga

My dear pal Jessica is now offering Itsy Bitsy Yoga in Pasadena, MD.  If you live in MD and have a kid 4 or under, you should consider going for the following reasons:

1.  I have known Jessica since 3rd grade.  We went to middle and high school together, and even went to the same awesome college.  Anyone to stay friends with me for that long is a very special person.

2.  Her kids are very adorable.

3.  She has been a teacher of environmental education for a long time, so I am sure her classes (in any subject) are amazing.

4.  My first introduction to the word “gregarious” was by Jessica during a 7th grade field trip to the zoo.  She was using the word to describe one of the animals.

5.  When she makes nachos, she puts garlic on them.  Anyone who does this instantly wins points.

6.  She recently had solar panels installed on her house.  Extra credit points for that one.

Take her class if you can or at the very least, visit her website to give her some search engine oomph!


The school that H goes to is particularly good about exposing the kids to art, including music, visual art, and dance.  When we go to pick H up in the evening, we notice new works of toddler art that adorn the walls of the school.  The very first art piece that Holden brought home from school was a painting that he did sometime in October.  I was so touched when I first saw it—I had only ever used crayons with Holden at home.  Painting with a young toddler seemed so ambitious!  Yet when I looked at his painting, I could immediately visualize his fat little fingers smacking the sticky canvas.  I thought about how he probably loved the whole experience (except for having dirty fingers, which he HATES).  Tonight, I framed Holden’s first painting and will be hanging it in his room sometime this week:

Isn’t it awesome?!  He’s brought a few other works of art home since this inaugural painting, but none have really compared to this one.  Nevertheless, I am going to keep a scrapbook of everything he brings home from school.  I can’t bear to part with them.

This reminds me of one of my neighbors from when I was a kid.  I uniformly adored the other mothers in my childhood neighborhood, and one of the mothers relayed to my parents that she kept every single drawing or painting that her kids made.  I can totally relate to this behavior now—throwing these pieces out is too much like discarding a fleeting part of your baby to which you will never again have access.

Fall back

It was dark by 4:30PM today.  This means that getting through the next couple of months is going to be challenging.  Once we hit November, I find myself anxious for the end of the year when we start getting more daylight back in our lives once again.

Yesterday was Halloween and I ended up missing it with H because I chose to go to a conference.  Shame on me.  I attended nearly all of the talks, and skipped out of the banquet at the end of the evening which would have been an excellent networking opportunity for me.  I skipped the banquet because I thought I could make it home in time to get H dressed in his costume and head out on a little walk through the neighborhood.  Of course, by the time I got home, it was already after 6PM.  Holden usually crashes around 6:30, and he was clearly in no mood to participate in any of the festivities.  So I ended up missing a sorely-needed networking opportunity in addition to missing Halloween with H.  Really, there was no way to attend the banquet AND spend Halloween with H, so I don’t know what I was expecting from myself.  These sorts of work/childrearing conflicts seem to be cropping up increasingly, and it’s really starting to make me feel ineffective at everything I do.  Not to mention that the conference was an exercise in self-loathing for me.  I got to see a lot of amazing talks and hear about some really innovative research.  I got to hear about how successful a lot of my peers are becoming, and while I am happy for them, it also makes me feel like a failure.  I think some of my feelings are motivated by the fact that the time I took off after H was born is starting to catch up to me.  I have read on other “women in science” type blogs that the holes in your research program and productivity don’t surface the year that you have your baby.  Instead, these holes in your training usually take 1-2 years to surface.  This makes sense because it usually takes a couple of years (at least) from an experiment’s inception to its publication in an academic journal.  I have realized that this is what is happening to me.  I’ve published everything (almost) that was already in the pipeline, and now I have to generate a whole new set of data before I can even begin to write any more manuscripts.  I’ve also embarked on some new techniques which are taking an especially long time to troubleshoot.  In sum, I feel like I have been working really, really hard, without any sort of reinforcement for that work.  I know that this is essentially the definition of what is it to work in a scientific discipline, but still…

Today we tried to catch up on all of the house chores and yard work that we don’t do when we are otherwise working our butts off.  I’ve had a few weekends of having to go into the lab, or (like this weekend) attending talks all day long.  The amount of housework that had piled up was sort of astounding.  Even though we were both completely tired (Holden wakes up throughout the night and wakes up for the day at 5AM!), R and I managed to rake most of the leaves from our yard.  We planned our meals for the week, made the grocery list, and did the shopping.  We did several loads of laundry, cleaned H’s room, changed his sheets.  We took H to the park, fed him snacks and meals and small bits of Halloween chocolate.  We bathed him, changed him, nursed him, and read him stories.  Now that he is in bed for the night (please, please let it be for the ENTIRE night), I am trying to wind down and reflect on what I need to do to make myself feel more effective with my life.  More accurately, I am reflecting on the REASONS that I feel less than effective with my life.  This is what I have come up with:

1.  I feel exhausted all the time.  Because I always feel tired, I feel inefficient with my work, and I often fall asleep before I have prepared myself for the following work day.  This leads to me rushing around in the morning when I am still exhausted, looking for my fucking keys/sunglasses/laptop charger, etc., while H has fastened himself to my leg, determined to extract every bit of attention he can during these precious, hurried, and stressful moments before we all pile into the car and rush to the daycare center.  Does this sound familiar to anyone???

2.  Down time is never time for relaxation.  It’s always time to do all of the other chores and tasks that are otherwise not getting done.  When was the last time I relaxed??  When was the last time I took a bath/read a novel for fun/ate a leisurely meal?  I realized recently that I sometimes get stomach cramps during dinner because I am rushing to eat everything before H melts down.  Even at work, I eat my lunch in 10-15 minutes and then it’s back to the grind.  And I know that I am not very skilled at decompressing.  R and I have never been good about taking breaks.  In the 10 years we have been together, we have taken a single one-week vacation.  We’ve had a few long weekends here and there, but we don’t often take long breaks.  I know that I never really learned how to relax, which oddly enough, is a skill that one has to cultivate.  As a general rule, my family did not take vacations when I was growing up either.  My father worked over 30 years with only two one-week vacations to punctuate the time.  Can you fucking imagine?  This is not a pattern I wish to continue with Holden.  I think it is important to role model what it means to take care of yourself, which includes taking breaks from the unrelenting stress of work.  So far, I’m not being a great role model.  I try to leave the stress of work at work, and I never work when I am around Holden (after all, he makes it impossible!)  However, when he goes to bed, I pick up my laptop and start working on a grant.  Or a syllabus.  Or a lecture.  Or maybe I’ll answer some e-mails from some students.  R works after H goes to bed, too.  And I know we both do this because there simply is not enough time in the day to get it all done when we are at work.  I try to be efficient at work so that I don’t have to bring work home.  But with certain things I don’t have a choice—for example, my course prep cannot be done at work because currently I am paid to run experiments, not to teach.  The prep work for teaching is not something I get paid for.  Thus, that work has to get done at home.  And then, when I am running experiments all day long, there is rarely time to write my grant.  Thus, some of that writing gets done at night.  Etc.  The bottom line is that my evenings need to be about having mandatory relaxation time.  Period.  I have to work this into my day or else I am simply not going to last.

3.  I need to go to bed earlier.  Like by 9PM.  I can’t continue to wake up a few times a night and then be up for the day at 5AM.  I just can’t.  Holden is a morning person and that ain’t gonna change.

4.  Exercise!  OK, the ultimate irony here is that I am a scientist who studies the effects of exercise on the brain.  And here I am NOT EXERCISING.  Or perhaps it’s more precise for me to say that I binge exercise.  I will do nothing for months and then run a few miles on the treadmill most days of the week for a few weeks.  Then I sit around for a few months.  Repeat.  I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember.  What is my problem exactly?  I’ve decided it’s pointless to berate myself over this—frankly, I don’t feel like I should even attempt any more exercising until I’ve treated myself to a few quiet evenings where I soak in the tub and get the sleep I deserve.

5.  I think I need to start journaling some of my scientific ideas and goals.  This is so basic, it seems almost stupid to type it here.  I always make myself a list of experiments that I want to run at the beginning of each semester.  This gives me a nice, quantifiable list of things that I can check off as they get completed.  It is unambiguous.  Rarely, however, have I detailed the “bigger picture” goals….e.g. what overarching goals do I have with my research?  What do I need to be reading to fill in the gaps of my knowledge?  How are the answers to my research questions going to impact the field?  Will they impact the field?  If not, why the fuck do I even bother?!  Basically, what I’ve realized (and a former committee member accused me of this years ago during one of my qualifying exams) is that I can’t see the forest for the trees.  I excel at creating hypothesis-driven experiments with all of the experimental conditions described, justified, and analyzed in excruciating detail.  I am good at being focused.  I am good at thinking of all the little details.  In contrast, I suck at being able to contextualize my research.  I have a hard time seeing how it fits in with the existing literature and how to formulate an entire research program that can sustain itself with interesting questions years down the line.  Now, I say that I am not good at these things.  But I also have to say that these things are really hard to do.  They take a lot of experience, I believe.

Over this weekend, while sitting through some challenging academic talks, I came to some important realizations about myself and about my research.  I started to get some perspective about what I need to do to make things come together.  And part of that requires that I set some goals—instead of merely outlining the tangible aspects of the academic term (like what specific experiments I intend to run), I need to think more generally about WHAT I WANT TO LEARN.  It has to be about broadening my knowledge base and connecting it to what is already out there.  And from this, I realized that the problem I have with my professional life is the same as the problem I have with my personal life.  I focus on discrete tasks, chores, experiments, things that have definite beginnings and ends.  I tend to overlook (and perhaps even completely discount) the types of activities that should be ongoing and infused into my day-to-day life (relaxing, exercising, breathing! etc.).  I have been ignoring the natural rhythms that should govern my life,  and instead, I’ve been imposing inflexible and often ridiculous demands on my time (like going to a banquet while somehow simultaneously being able to celebrate Halloween with a certain 16-month-old turtle).  Let’s face it—it’s not all going to get done.  It’s not.  I just need to be fine with that.  And I need to realize that there is always a third option—-when given a choice between going to a banquet or celebrating Halloween with H, I could always do neither.  I could do NOTHING, and if I manage to give up the guilt that goes along with passing up either of those experiences, I will be in a better place, hands down.