Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Day 2 - A season for nonviolence

2 -- Today, I will look at opportunities to be a peacemaker.

Okay, on first blush, this one doesn't look so hard. I just have to look at the opportunities, right? Not actually do anything? Maybe I'll work up to action by day 34 or so...

In truth, this one is difficult for me. I don't think I'm unusual that, as a female, I feel at times like it's my sworn duty to make peace between people around me; often, this is unhelpful for everyone. It's not a long path from trying to be a peacemaker to trying to please everyone, and I have come to realize that I've made a lot of relationships more difficult than necessary by doing just that. Being a peacemaker may be more of a tightrope act than I've realized in the past. Too much action or effort often decreases the peace, yo. (It had to be said.)

As a grad student, I don't get to interact with a lot of other people on a daily basis -- I'm holed up in a cave, just me and my laptop and my well-worn copy of Unix for Dummies. It's not hard to make peace with or between people who aren't there. I'll probably get my opportunities to practice this after I go home, since my mother-in-law is currently visiting us. I'm going to do my best to listen to her, and be with her, with a clear mind. I'm going to try not to listen for negativity or criticism, and try to hear what she really means, as opposed to fixating on the words she says. She and I have different native languages and different ingrained cultural assumptions, so I'm going to work on giving her that space to be who she is and not judging her according to my own history and assumptions. I'm going to try.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A season of nonviolence begins today

The 64-day period from Jan. 30 (the anniversary of the death of Gandhi) until April 4 (the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.) has been designated a Season for Nonviolence by some group called the Association for Global New Thought. This past Sunday, our church included an insert in the order of service with a list of 64 ways to practice or promote peace and nonviolence, one for each day of the season.

I like the idea of taking these practices into my life for the next couple of months, so I'm going to try to incorporate them into this blog. Some days I may just list the daily practice; some days I'll reflect on it or share how I incorporated it. The basic daily list is linked off the AGNT website, but I can't seem to link it directly here.

Day 1: Today, I will reflect on what peace means to me.

I'm actually a bit proud of myself, because I woke up this morning at 4:30 with a backache and the knowledge that I was going to have to get out of bed to go to the bathroom before I'd be able to fall sleep again, which would normally be a guarantee of future resentment and crankiness. Once I get out of bed, I'm generally awake for at least an hour. As I lay there, trying to convince my feet to leave the quilt behind, I started thinking about peace instead, and what it does mean in my life. The older I get, the more I lose touch with my desire for "world peace" -- it's become something of an irrelevant construct, and an idea that is fanciful, at best. It surprised me this morning to realize that I don't find that depressing, though. I do believe in peace, but I believe in it in a very personal way, and on an individual level. It's a cliche, but there you go. Peace in the world begins with peace in your own heart.

Peace in my own heart -- now that's something I can work on.

Now, later in the morning, after not getting much more sleep, a particularly discombobulated breakfast time, a cranky Rocco, a self-centered WonderGirl, a bizarre interaction between my car's belly and a metal something-or-other which my car won, but only after sustaining $600 worth of bruises, and a DT who had to spend far too much energy helping everyone else, when he really needed to be helped himself, I can say that I do feel peaceful. I'm sure it won't last all day, even, but for now, waking up with the thought of peace first in my mind, and meditating a bit on the idea that peace at home is intensely relevant, has left me better off than I would have been had I slept later and not had that quiet time, waiting to be able to convince myself to get out of bed.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Old habits die hard

Here are a few things that I know to be true:

  1. I am not pregnant.
  2. Given #1, I cannot currently be miscarrying.
  3. If I were miscarrying the baby with which I'm not pregnant, it wouldn't be happening through my nose.
And yet, just now, when I blew my nose and saw a bit of blood, my heart started racing and my stomach dropped. I wonder if I'll ever fully lose those reactions.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Yesterday I attended a fairly small and informal talk given by Bitch PhD. I've never seen a blogger in real life, and as she's just now starting to straddle the line from anonymity into open identity, I'd never seen her picture. As I wandered around the building, trying to find the room where she'd be speaking, I found myself wondering if each person I saw was her -- but what does a feminist, political, open-marriage-embracing, maternal academic blogger look like?

Pretty much like you'd guess, actually. She does the confident, geeky hip look very well.

Her remarks were mostly focused around mentoring graduate students, and some obvious changes that could and should be made in the process. The focus was squarely on humanities disciplines, and if it hadn't been, I think I would have run from the room, gasping for breath. The length of time it takes to get a PhD in English, for example, and the job prospects afterwards are, to put it bluntly, depressing. Whatever issues I have, at least I'm not facing the question of, "Okay, now I've spent 8 years working on my degree, my personal life is shot, and I don't know how to take care of myself anymore -- which of these jobs outside of my discipline am I willing to take in order to pay the bills?" So. There's that. At least I haven't spent 8 years here, and I'll likely get a job in my actual, you know, field.

She did repeat the conventional wisdom, which I hate, that grad school is the ideal time to have kids. Her son was born while she was writing her dissertation, so she hired a nanny for three hours a day, focused intently on writing while the nanny was there, and poof! Everybody's happy. Again, a difference between the humanities and the sciences -- the competition and push for grants would never successfully allow that kind of schedule here. Obviously, I do have flexibility now, but there is a cost that isn't openly acknowledged often; it's become like a personal crusade for me to make those trade-offs explicit. I do believe that having kids while writing is probably easier than many other times, but there is a popular conception (which I heard over and over) that it was actually easy. Bald-faced lie. Recall bias. Call it what you will.

One other comment that she made that resonated with me was in response to a woman who earnestly laid out the chronology of her life: graduated college, took a couple of years off as she had been advised to do, did a terminal masters in order to get into a PhD program, now was in the PhD program and if she graduates after the average number of years will be - wait for it - OHMYGOD 32! And then, apparently, someone told her, "Don't forget about menopause!" So, she was panicking and felt like she'd been misled. Bitch addressed it perfectly -- told her that you have kids when you have kids, and you can't plan your life like that. More importantly, though, she reminded her that where you are is, well, where you are. This is the point -- not your eventual job, not your eventual family. You are living your life, not waiting for your life to start. That's how I've been approaching grad school, and truthfully is a large part of why I'm still here, instead of having pushed to finish. This is my life.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Disorganized thoughts, because that's all I have time for

The conundrum, in a nutshell: my top priorities in my life are:

  • my kids
  • myself
  • DT and our marriage
  • my work.
The list is unordered, because each of these things is my top priority. They take precedence at different times, and in different ways, but I feel like I never get past these four things. What I've lost:
  • completely wasted time -- although I'm intrigued by getting a Wii, for example, I feel like I couldn't justify playing it, unless DT and I played together and it was serving as together-time, or unless it really is strenuous and I could count it as exercise, which I haven't truly done in months.
  • mental wandering time
  • haircuts, etc.
  • peace of mind.
It's the last one that's causing the problem. I feel such pressure on most of my time that I can't relax into whatever I'm currently doing, to borrow a yoga image. I feel guilty, right now, for writing this post instead of working on my dissertation, because I'm in the middle of a valuable, and short, block of potential-work time today. I'm writing anyway, because I need to begin to sort these feelings out, but I'm getting less out of it than I should because I feel the pull of other needs.

I just got back from WonderGirl's school, where her reading group put on a puppet show of a book they've been reading. I knew they were making puppets, but was surprised yesterday (yesterday!) to get a handwritten note in her school folder, "Dear Mommy: (her first colon -- I'm so proud) The puppet show is at 10:30. Please come. Love, WonderGirl." So, of course, I went. And I loved it, and she was happy to have me there, and I wouldn't have missed it, even if it took an hour out of my day for a 7-minute puppet show.

While I was there, waiting for the puppeteers to be ready, I basically attacked another mom, asking how she does it. Both she and her husband are tenured professors; she told me she was on the verge of quitting her job when she had her son because she just couldn't imagine how to do it. Their solution? Her mother retired early and moved here to help. I mentally list the other couples we know: one makes it work because the oldest child goes to the same school at which the father teaches; one mom works part-time, at home, when she can find a babysitter; one dad quit his long-distance consulting job to be home; one mom quit to stay home after the second child. We all have ad hoc solutions. For DT and me, I'm generally the ad hoc solution. He does everything he can to be flexible and pick WonderGirl up from school a couple of days each week, to give me an extra hour or two to work, but the fact is that he's the one who pays our mortgage and allows me to be a student. He only has so much flexibility, so I make the trade-offs, and the kids always win over the work. That's the right decision, and I make it knowing that it's the right decision, but I just wonder why I ever thought that I could do both well, much less put energy and time into my marriage and myself.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Mauling the language

My research involves doing a lot of computer simulations; I write nearly all of my programs in (get ready to be disgusted and swear you never read this blog) Fortran. This morning, I've been spending time trying to adjust some code so that I can compile a program on a few different machines - they're each persnickety in slightly different ways, and I have to be careful with different issues. If I can get it to work, it means I can use more machines, though, and therefore run my simulations faster. This, of course, will free me up to do even more simulations, which means more work, which means... oops, better not think about that right now.

In any case, I've been banging my head against one particular platform for the last hour or so, not sure why my program was giving funky results. I just realized, though, that I had a typo in a crucial function. While trying to multiply two matrices, instead of using the "matmul" function for matrix multiplication, I was eagerly encouraging the computer to "matmaul" the data. This may have been my first digital Freudian slip.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Like many families with young kids, most of our grownup friends were introduced to us by our children. We've been lucky that our kids have good taste in friends, and we've slowly, but surely, developed a circle of families with relatively-similar temperaments, habits and drinking preferences. A typical weekend usually includes at least one accidental dinner party, where we meet up at someone's house and hope that our children play nicely so we can recharge with some adult conversation and wine.

(Side note: for a few years after I was out of college and my first bout with grad school, I used to complain about how hard it was to make friends in the "real" world. In school, you have a ready-made pot of people to try out and test for connections; once you're an adult it gets progressively more difficult to find opportunities to let those connections build. Now, I think kids are essentially the dorms of adult life -- if you're around the parents of your kids' friends enough, you're likely to find those gold nuggets of people that enrich your own life.)

Last night, we took the accidental kid-inspired dinner party motif much further than usual, and we had a semi-accidental chamber-music concert. One of our friends is also a former violist/violinist and has pestered me often to play with him. His enthusiasm for playing together is intense enough to overcome my incredibly rusty skills, as well as my natural inclination never to play my violin where someone else might hear me. We've played duets a few times and I always really enjoyed it, despite the shock of hearing how god-awful I am now. Last night, he'd arranged for two of his co-workers to join us and we had a true string quartet.

It's hard to describe, to someone who doesn't play, the intensity of being in the middle of a group of musicians. It makes your skin crawl in a good way, feeling the melodies and harmonies pass back and forth around and through you. It's almost like being caught up in a musical version of peristalsis. We played for a while, had dinner, played some more... it was one of the most rewarding evenings I've had for a while, not least because I knew my kids were listening and watching and absorbing that this was what adult life was like: you get to play music and relax with friends. While we were playing, I was thinking of my mom. Yesterday would have been her 65th birthday, and I'd been struggling a bit to think of how to appropriately honor her. The quartet was the right way: she was always the biggest supporter of my music, and if it weren't for her, I wouldn't have been in a position to be part of the group last night.

So, happy birthday Mom, and yes, I'll start practicing again. Thank you.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A truly random act

Last night we decided to go out for dinner. This time, our excuse was that DT and I deserved a rest after spending the day tackling the mother of all organizational projects: The Desk and Filing Cabinet. Without going into gory details, let's just say that The Desk doesn't give up easily, and it was only with startling bravery and steadfast determination that we won. But win we did. HAH!

So, we ended up at our favorite local Indian place for dinner. When we arrived at the fashionable family-oriented time of 5:05pm, there was, somewhat surprisingly, a couple already there, sharing a thali. We executed our typical drill of ordering the kids' meals before we were fully seated, since hell hath no fury like a child stuck in a wooden high chair with nothing to eat for 20 minutes, and settled in.

WonderGirl and Rocco were, for once, simultaneously on the peak of the sine wave that is kid behavior -- WonderGirl was coloring relatively quietly and only occasionally tricking Rocco into trading his full-length crayons for useless nubs, while Rocco was doing his best "I love you" smile to the other couple in the restaurant. Although they seemed friendly, I was trying to keep Rocco distracted and focused on our table, because it's obviously a bit awkward and creepy when someone's toddler is trying to seduce you while you eat. Instead of being irritated, though, the couple struck up a conversation with us, the man telling us that watching Rocco had made his wife tell him she wanted a baby. We joked about how they should stick around for the inevitable kid-splosion that would come later, and see how they felt about fertility and its aftermath at that point.

As our food came, we kept talking intermittently; the couple had never been to this restaurant before, and was asking what we'd ordered, because it looked better than their meal. They were friendly and interested in food, which is all DT or I really need to know about people. Eventually, they put on their coats and got up to leave.

As they passed our table, the man put a receipt down and said, "Your dinner is paid for. Happy New Year." DT and I both sat with our mouths open; apparently, "agape" is a cliched but apt description in that situation. We did manage to say thank you, and start to protest, but it didn't matter because they were grinning and pretty much ran out of the door. We didn't have much time to react.

I'm still not sure how to react. Here are the basics, as I see them:

  • We didn't need the generosity, weren't in military uniforms, don't look particularly needy.
  • Even though the above is true, these strangers still bought us dinner, for absolutely no reason.
  • I was nearly in tears for almost an hour afterwards; just writing about it now is bringing back the drizzly eyes.
  • It is stunning how much a small (or not-so-small, we eat a lot) gesture can affect you. Being on the receiving end makes it clear just how much random kindnesses can matter.
  • I wish I knew a way to bottle that initial rush of surprise and appreciation; it's inspiring at the time but turns cheesy pretty quickly.
  • For both DT and I, our first reaction was that we had to do something to make up for the fact that we didn't deserve the unexpected generosity. His first thought was to donate the amount of the dinner to a charity; mine was to resolve to give someone else that same sort of unexpected (and probably unneeded) surprise. I think we'll do both. I hope that we grin as much as they did.
Happy New Year, indeed. What a wonderful start.