Sunday, September 18, 2011

Silent Sunday

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone because my daughter has commandeered my laptop

Friday, September 16, 2011

the tyranny of time

Never enough hours in a day. Never enough days in the week. This sums up our life and I suspect the life of all working parents.

Today I was struck by the importance of even tiny increments of time. Fifteen minutes lost or gained can dictate the whole course of a day.

Biological science experiments are divided into precise chunks of time. Experimental protocols state precisely how long cells must be incubated with test drugs, how long they must be spun in the centrifuge, how long a reaction must proceed for before it is stopped and the result read out. If you ever visit a biology lab you will see harried scientists with timers clipped to their jeans chugging down too hot coffee during the precise 5 minute break they have between steps in an experiment. Once you start your experiments you can't just stop half way through and continue the next day, either, so if something is going to take four hours from start to finish you need to organize your day accordingly.

On Thursdays I take the kids to gymnastics class. It is one of the high points of their week, and mine too, but it starts at 4.30pm. With our new double drop off kindergarten and preschool schedule this requires me to leave the office at or before 3.55pm at the very latest to arrive at class almost on time. My working days are split between desk work and lab work, and my experiments sometimes fall on gymnastics days. Seemingly insignificant issues can throw the whole day out of whack. Needing a sharp pair of scissors to open the box of 96 well plates, and taking five minutes to locate one; needing to restart the computer controlling a critical instrument, there is ten minutes lost; having an urgent email to answer, that's twenty more minutes gone....

Today at 3pm I realized that this dribbling loss of little bits of time meant that I no longer had time to run my experiment and get out in time for the gymnastics class. The experiment was very important for a project, a project with its own timelines and deadlines, and it also utilized a very precious human tissue sample, one that had been donated by the family of someone who had died, so I felt a strong obligation not to waste this gift. I had to do the experiment, and if I did there was no way I could get the kids to the class any less than twenty minutes late. I tried to justify that missing one gymnastics class isn't a big deal, but to them, it is. I have disappointed them before, showing up at school and having to tell them that actually, mummy is too late to take them to class. They struggle to understand what I could have been doing that mattered so much. I send a message that I don't want to send; that my work is more important to me than they are.

The story has a happy ending. I don't work in a vacuum, I work with a team of other scientists, most of whom are also parents. I've learned, rather belatedly in life, to ask for help when I need it. My coworker finished my experiment for me, and I made it to class.

I'm blogging via the free wifi at gymnastics class now, watching the kids with half my brain, blogging and responding to the ping of my work email with the other. Stealing a fragment of  time back for me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years

I heard about it from Geekydaddy. Back then we were cohabiting, not yet married, though we were already living in the home we still have here in San Francisco. He called me from his drive to work, and I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit. My mum and dad were visiting from England that week, and on the morning of September 11th 2001 they were at the San Francisco Airport, waiting for a flight to Las Vegas. They watched the events unfold on the airport TV monitors. They were efficiently bused back to an eerily quiet city, and wondered about the wisdom of being dropped off downtown amidst San Francisco's skyscrapers. I took the shuttle to work, everyone sitting on it in uncustomary silence, watching the sky, waiting and wondering whether our iconic American structures too were destined to burn.

Sometimes it doesn't feel as if ten years have passed since then, but other times it feels as if we live in a different world. Especially when traveling by air. International travel always had fairly rigorous immigration and security, especially at Heathrow, but do you remember domestic US air travel before 9/11? When, if you didn't have bags to check, you just walked into the airport and strolled right up to the gate to check in? There were no security checklines, and you could carry whatever you liked in your carry on bag. Your non traveling companions could walk you to the gate and kiss you goodbye right as you boarded the plane. Geekydaddy would meet me at the gate, often with flowers hurriedly purchased at the airport shop designed for just that purpose, when I arrived home from a conference.

When I moved out to San Francisco back in 1996 I was invited to ride in the cockpit for part of the flight, courtesy of a friend of my fathers who worked for the airline. I can't imagine my children will ever get to do that. The children are seasoned travelers though. For them it will always be normal to remove your shoes at the airport, to walk through body scanners and to pack tiny ziploc bags of miniature toiletries. We all moan about the inconvenience, but to be honest, I have got used to it. Perhaps it has already saved us from other acts of violence. We probably never hear about many of the near-attacks that are prevented.

No amount of security can protect us from idiocy though. Southern California should have been on a code red idiot alert last Thursday, when someone flipped the wrong switch and inadvertently sent the whole of SoCal into the dark ages. We are so dependent upon the flow of electrons through our world. When there is no power there are no ATM machines, credit cards are useless, cell phone service is patchy and gas pumps don't work. I was standing at the self check in machine, ready to fly back home from what was supposed to be a day business trip to San Diego when the screen went blank. A long line began to form behind me. My scheduled flight time came and went. People started to mutter and wonder if something more ominous than a simple power outage might have occurred, this anniversary being forefront in everyone's minds. Twitter reassured me that there was no foul play, so I found a taxi to take me back up to my company's office in La Jolla so that I could join the rest of my stranded colleagues. Our admin staff back in SF got us booked into a powerless, but fortunately not drink-less hotel, but there was no way to get flights rebooked while the airport was still without electricity. I was fortunate to be with our company president, an amazing woman who I always want to be with in any crisis situation. She found a cab with enough gas to drive us to LA, and had enough cash on her to pay the fare. The amazing admin staff, working overtime back at mission control in our SF office, got us booked into the LAX Hilton, and on flights back to SFO the next day.

This was a minor crisis, a mere adventure in the grand scheme of things. Even the children were unphased by the news that Mummy would be back a day later than expected. I showed up at work the next day in a snazzy LA souvenir T shirt, having been reminded that so much in our lives is beyond our control, and is instead in the hands of the randomness of chance. From now on though I will always carry cash, and have spare pair of knickers in my handbag.

Monday, September 5, 2011

clothes maketh the woman

I consider myself a feminist. I like to be admired for my intellect, my scientific insight, and my hard work.  Often I find myself wondering why I also care so much about my appearance. I worry too about projecting this onto my daughter. Geekygirl is a gorgeous kid, and people tell her so. Peggy Orenstein in "cinderella ate my daughter" raises concerns about teaching our daughters that their value lies in part or at all in their looks, that this will set them up for eating disorders and poor self esteem, but the ugly reality seems to be that no matter how much we wish it were not so, looks do matter.

I'n my profession, I'm a scientist in the biopharmaceutical industry, looks are probably less important than in many others. There could even be a downside of appearing too "bimboey". I wonder sometimes whether I should cut my hair, embrace my natural brown locks rather than spending a fortune on blond mane maintenance at the salon, and relax my rigorous figure-maintaining salad eating and exercise regimen. Science is a forgiving career, personal grooming wise. I was recently at a party filled with the other, more glamorous bookend of our industry, pharmaceutical sales reps, and felt distinctly dowdy, though I was secretly delighted to be proclaimed by one "way too fabulous to be a scientist".

Finding that balance between looking both attractive and intelligent consumes far too much of my energy and money. Before business trips, mental energy time that should be spent pre reading slides and brushing up on science is devoted instead to preparing what to wear, down to what type of underwear will provide smooth support for my aging bum under my nicely fitted but not too tight slacks, without causing me to have to keep adjusting them all the time (these are great, in case you are looking for such an item). I spent far too much time coming up with a formal yet feminine style for my trip to Japan last year. I was pretty happy both with how the trip went professionally and with how I looked though, I have to say. So much so that I snapped this shot of myself in the hotel room mirror!

It was with great interest, that I read this quite old article, which points out that there is no neutral work ware for women. hair up, hair down, short, long, every style says something about you and how you see yourself. High necks, a touch of cleavage or an eye popping bustier. Make up or no make up. Everything makes some kind of statement, whereas a man in a pair of grey trousers and a blue or white shirt, as long as both fit him and are vaguley clean and pressed, blends in to the background. Men can choose to stand out, of course, with jewelery, exposed chest hair or flashy shirts and ties, but most don't even have to think about the image that their clothes project.

Changes at work leave me back in the world primarily of men. Nice men, don't get me wrong, but people who tower over me, leaving me with the dilema of whether to wear comfy flats that leave me a head and a half below the conversation, or to rock shoes like these babies, which give me an almost eye level experience with our senior team, but walk a fine balance between 'executive' and "stripper".

It took me until I was about 27 to become reasonably happy with my own physical appearance. I spent most of my teen years designing elaborate hairstyles and eye make up techniques to detract attention from my too large nose, and most of my twenties worried about my weight, despite only ever skirting the edge of the overweight BMI category. Now I've hit my forties the brief period of being vaguely satisfied with my appearance is passing, as the spectre of aging looms and lures me, a scientist who really should know better, to spend stupid sums of money on tiny pots of expensively packaged face cream. I run and do pilates, not just to keep my blood lipid profile healthy, but to ensure I still fit into my slim pants. I get great satisfaction from looking slim, pretty and sexy, and feel miserable when my skin flares up in dry scaly patches, when the bags under my eyes reveal my age or when my tummy wobbles over the waistband of my skinny jeans. I really don't understand why I feel this way, since what I look like has no bearing at all on how well I parent my kids, do my job, or live my life.

In hope of understanding more about this issue, I picked up  two books exploring this very subject. The first, The Beauty Bias : The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah Rodes, explores the unpleasant reality that attractive people are more successful, especially women. The author speculates that this is a form of discrimination that should be legislated against, and exhorts women not to buy into it, to stand firm and age gracefully. She also accepts that there is an uphil battle for change while men are in charge, since men just seem to prefer pretty women. The second, The Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom by Catherine Hakim takes this thesis further and offers a different solution, accepting it as brute fact of life and encouraging women, indeed everyone in all walks of life to use their looks, their "erotic capital" as she coins it, to get ahead.

I'm still distilling my thoughts on this complex topic, but I would love to hear yours.