Friday, April 29, 2005

A tiger by the tail

Verlyn Klinkenborg reflects in the New York Times about the redemptive value of installing new (Apple) software. My Tiger arrived this afternoon as promised, and I've managed to install it (the rate determining step was my getting my desktop back from my 8 yr old). I admit that I do feel renewed, if not redeemed. My calendar's to-do list seems tidier, though I rationally realize it is just as long as it was this morning (longer?). I can now make a thesaurus appear with the mere touch of a finger, and check the weather in California with a stroke of the mouse pad - there is a power in renewal.

The thesaurus is my word "lost and found" - not a place to shop for an all new vocabulary, but a thrift shop where I can exchange the outgrown skates for a pair as well-used, but better fitting. My mother taught me how to wisely shop a thesaurus when I was in 3rd grade. Mastering technique for looking up a word (first in the index, then to a page of related words) felt like a rite of initiation, rewarded at the start of 4th grade with my own copy of Roget's Thesaurus. That tattered edition still sits on my shelf, its acid-ravaged pages a mirror of my mother's increasingly fragile skin. I'm afraid to open my relic, not wanting whatever vestiges of my mother's touch that remain inside it to crumble away. My electronic thesaurus is sturdy, but can never be quite as rich in text as my first Roget.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Walking and talking at the same time

The woman walking past me was having an animated conversation with no one. It wasn't her voice that caught my eye - it was her bright yellow shirt. I thought nothing of it, until we interesected again and I realized that she wasn't on a cell phone. Ten years ago my instinctive reaction to a fellow pedestrian talking loudly to someone I couldn't see would have been to cross the street. It struck me that now I assume s/he is on a cell phone, and hardly count the behavior as odd at all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Medieval iPods

Thefts of iPods on the subway are up in New York. Those white wires dangling from pockets send a clear signal about the status of the bearer: you have a life that merits a sound track. Well, that, and you know good design when you see it.

Medieval ladies hung their good taste around their waists. Delicately illuminated girdle books advertised the wearers wealth, status and presumably, their literacy. Often these were Books of Hours, collections of psalms and prayers to accompany the canonical hours of the day. The Hours are still kept today, and like the iPods provide a "soundtrack" for a life. Some monastic communities still sing them (that's what the monks are chanting in those CDs), but most people who pray the Hours don't.

The Hours have been a soundtrack for my life for 20 years. The subtle changes in the texture of the psalms and prayers as the day waxes and wanes bring a sense of order to my chaotic existence. The songs have wrapped their way around and through the loss of a husband, the births of two sons, teaching and the laundry. My book of Hours is not the elaborate status symbol of the medieval courts, but a well used friend, whose ribbons hanging from my briefcase send a clear signal to those who can read it: my life has a soundtrack.


Monday, April 25, 2005

Life with Rufus

I share my study with an 8 year old, a 10 year old and a hamster. The cat only visits. This works better than you might think. The hamster is liveliest at night, and cognitively demanding work anywhere in the house isn't possible once the guys are home from school, so they may as well use the space. Every once in a while, though, all three spheres coming crashing together - literally. Last Wednesday I spent a delightful afternoon doing quantum mechanics, just as the last pieces were falling into place, my 8 year old comes bounding in from school with our neighbor (age 6). I showed Chris what I was doing and pleaded for "5 Minutes Peace" to see if I could finish it and find out if I could discover something new. "Will this get you the Nobel Prize?" "Unlikely, but I'm still really curious!" He conceded me the five minutes and assured me that he and Andrew could find something to do. They could. They did. They put the hamster in his little transparent ball and let him loose in the study. Finis!

Friday, April 22, 2005

Leaky Luggage

The line between my professional life and my personal life blurs deeply when I'm on the road. Good night kisses in one time zone overlap chairing a conference session in another. E-mail sessions and conference calls are interwoven through a visit to see my mother, who is dying. The spheres begin to leak into one another, as colleagues eavesdrop on bedtime blessings and my mother becomes privy to confidential goings-on at the college. When I'm away, I seeem to carry more baggage than what fits in the overhead bin.

Monday, April 18, 2005

If Harvard's president had really wanted to be provocative...

As a woman faculty member in the physical sciences teaching at a women's college, I was particularly struck by Lawrence Summers' recent remarks concerning the apparent unwillingness or inability of married women with children to manage the sacrifice of working 80-hour weeks. He might consider whether it is that women are less willing to sacrifice than men, or if they might have to sacrifice more. Few women scientists enjoy the luxury of a stay-at-home spouse, which means they must at best, take on half of the hours necessary for management of the household (and at worst, significantly more than half). I note that Princeton's recent study of its science faculty found that the majority of male science faculty had a spouse at home at least part time. None of the women did. If you don't have to prepare the meals, grocery shop, do the laundry, take the children to lessons and school, clean the house, you can work an 80-hour week, commute, contribute the roughly 10 hours a week that the average man does toward the upkeep of the household, sleep 7 hours a night and still enjoy 3 hours a day of down-time. That's enough to have a life: read a book, watch a movie, coach your kid's soccer team. Those three "extra" hours a day are roughly what I spend doing dishes and laundry, making beds, taking care of children, and mopping floors. In families like mine, where both spouses have to split the household management, there is a "second-shift" awaiting us both at home. I'm reasonably sure the majority of the guys at Princeton are not coming home to mop the floors!

I wonder why the general assumption that doing great science requires 80 hours a week doesn't appear to be up for discussion. I don't spend 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in the lab doing science, yet I have maintained a significant, high-quality research effort for almost two decades. My average number of citations per paper -- in some quarters a measure of their quality -- is competitive (or better) than that of the Harvard chemistry faculty. So while I may not publish as often as the faculty in Harvard's chemistry department, what I do publish is clearly read and used.

If Dr. Summers merely wishes to provoke, by all means rehash arguments that skirt the edge of "can women really do science and math?" or "women don't really want to work that hard". Instead, why not be truly provocative and ask why 80-hour weeks are necessary for academic science, ask if we are confusing quantity of publication with quality, ask if success in Ivy League science departments should depend on the unpaid, invisible work of women at home.