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Reflections on Life:

thoughts and comments about the daily grind




July 2nd, 2009

A Real Place

I'm sitting on a balcony sweating in the humid heat of an Amazon evening. In a building across the street, the local band is playing selections from "Star Wars" and "Aladdin", sounding every bit like we must have in High School. It's now 10:00, and the children have gone to bed, while people watching small TVs outdoors tune into telenovelas.

There is only one road to this town, and it's impassable most of the year. I flew in this afternoon on a Boeing 737, but most of the residents can afford only to buy a ticket on a boat that takes more than two days to travel to the next big city--sleeping is done on hammocks because the nights are simply too warm for a cabin.

Santarem, during the dry season, is a remote tourist attraction because of white sand river beaches. But now, with the water 30 feet above that point, the beaches are underwater and the tourists are absent--myself excluded I suppose. There is a riverwalk, well more of a nicely paved floodwall, where dozens of young couples sit on benches and kids play on swings at night to escape the heat of the day. Night comes early here, actually, as it does in much of the tropics. Restaurants don't begin to fill up until well after 8:00 PM.

Before then, the streets are filled with people working, albeit more slowly. Motorcyclists carrying everything swerve in and out of cars driving too fast on streets too narrow. Vendors selling random assortments of things line a couple of squares in the city. No one shouts, no one pushes.

I can feel a palpable desire from nearly everyone to improve their situation. People try to make money virtually any way they can. Some of that money will go toward symbols of wealth: cell phones, dvd players, nice shoes. But most of these people will never know wealth, the kind that means they don't need to worry about money. Poverty and prosperity are next door neighbors in Brazil, and everyone builds a wall around their own lot, so that what they do have remains theirs. Only the poorest, those in the favelas, cannot afford walls.

The language is foreign to me, the food tastes different, the beds are less comfortable, and the spaces narrower. More is different than the same--in fact, nearly everything is a little bit different. I'm sure that's true of international travel, but I've not yet had the chance to do much.

What isn't different, though, are the people. Children play like children, adolescents swim incessantly, teenagers blare loud music, young people sit at bars drinking and flirting, men and women work all day, old women watch their grandchildren and groups of old men sit and laugh at jokes.

But then, the fact that I actually get to see this--that life occurs in public view--is almost entirely foreign to me. In the midwest, life happens indoors, or occasionally in massive soccer complexes. If we are outdoors, we are mostly alone or in very small groups. Life is private. We are embarrassed to share our problems, and unwilling to let others witness our embarrassments.

That seems strange from this balcony, actually. Living our lives indoors is like buying individually wrapped "fun sized" Skittles. Kids can share one with everyone on their next play date! Here, people would want nothing more than to scoop deep into the bulk food barrel and watch the rainbow flow into their bags by the pound. Life happens here. Not some focus-grouped, mass-marketed, anti-bacterial, climate-controlled version, but rather something more chaotic and far more real.

September 17th, 2008

A Major Milestone

Though I haven't written any new articles for Damninteresting.com lately, pretty much since Lydia came along, actually, I have been actively involved with the site. Over the last six months or so the writers that contribute to the site have been preparing a manuscript for submission to Workman publishing. And this isn't just some shoot-for-the-stars type submissions, we have a substantial advance and everything!

The book will be coming out in Spring 2009, and my contribution is about 1/20th of the total material--not very much, but still enough to be officially in print! Some of the material is new, other parts were from articles I'd previously written.

We just turned in the complete manuscript to the publisher last night/this morning. From there, we still have a lot of work to do. We'll undoubtedly have more edits, plus we have to create artwork/hire artists for the book's many hundreds of images.

I'm not entirely positive what format the book will be, but at about 300 pages of written material plus graphics, it will most likely be a large-format hardback initially.

If this book is successful, which would be at least 10s of thousands of copies sold I'm guessing, we'll soon have a follow-on ready for which I would contribute substantially more material. That's not terribly unlikely, given that the site has 30,000+ regular readers.

Ah well, that's for the future. Today, I have to focus on getting another manuscript finished: my thesis.

August 26th, 2008

Bourgeois Environmentalist?

I have finally found a solution to commuting to work without my car.

If you recall, last summer I tried the bus for about a month. It worked, sort of. The commute was at least 45 minutes each way, with a transfer in between. That meant it was hard to relax, and almost impossible to work.

Then, early this summer I tried biking in to work. It took about 35 minutes for the actual ride, and I arrived at work sweaty and exhausted. That was okay, because I just stopped at the IM and showered. But the ride home, oh the ride home. That was not fun. I found the flattest possible route, and it still nearly killed me by the end. After weeks and weeks, I'm sure that I could have improved and commuted perhaps 3 times a week. But, since the one-way distance is 7.5 miles, I'm not sure I'd ever get in the condition to ride 60 miles per week.

I had given up for a while, and just committed myself in principle to eventually moving close to my job so only one of us has to drive to work. Then, Cheryl and I stopped over at my Dad's house two weekends ago, and I was reminded that he has an electric bike. This bike is really cool, because the battery/motor doesn't actually move the bike on its own, it simply adds to whatever force you are applying. The best way to explain the effect is that the bike moves as if you are in a high gear, but rides as easily as if you are in a low gear.

Luckily for me in this instance, my Dad averages nearly as much time in China on business as he does at home, so the bike was not being utilized to its potential at his house. I asked him if I could borrow it and he readily agreed.

Yesterday, I tried it out, and it was fantastic. I got to work in just over 30 minutes feeling as if I'd had a nice workout--but I was still able to climb the stairs to the third floor (really, once I actually had to take the elevator after riding my normal bike). Then, the ride home was equally easy. See, the bike provides the most help during acceleration or while going up hills, and then does very little on straightaways. So, the hardest parts of the commute are made much easier.

I figured that the hardest test would be if I could actually comfortably ride to work the next day. The bike actually has two settings "On" and "Eco". "Eco" provides less assistance than "On". Yesterday, I'd ridden in with "Eco" and today, I switched it to "On". It was almost too easy, actually.

I must totally look like someone from a third world country (if you ignore the battery pack, that is), because I modified a plastic milk crate to fit on the rear-tire rack. I stuffed my coffee, lunch, and backpack (with a laptop, not so third world, I guess) in there.

Today, a guy in a truck labeled "Anderson Electric" came up to me, rolled down the window and said "Electric bike, eh?"

"Yup" I affirmed.

"Sweet!" the guy said.

I thought it was funny that an electrician would find my electric bike cool. Maybe he's just a big fan of electricity in general.

So finally, I may have found a solution to not needing a car for my commute. If this continues to work well, it may even be possible to go down to 1 car--I'd just have to ride the bus in the wintertime. But for some reason, I feel not so "green".

Yesterday when I got to work, I told my office mate, Dush, about it. He laughed and told me he'd just heard on the BBC something about an electric bike and had thought "That must be an American invention!" He's Sri Lankan.

Okay, there are literally millions of people worldwide, maybe even more, that have equally long commutes to work on their bikes. Have you seen the pictures of what the Chinese manage to carry on theirs? But, one must not be judged by the standards of others, but rather his peers. After all, we cannot necessarily condemn our historical predecessors for their racist attitudes when they were raised awash in such mistaken ideas.

Judged by the standards of my peers, my (Dad's) electric bike uses way less energy than my car, I get a really decent workout every day, and I stay connected to the world around me because I'm not encased in a metric ton of steel, glass, and plastic. So, bourgeois or not, I'm taking the first real steps to break my reliance on a second automobile. And that, I think, is forest green.

August 22nd, 2008

As I mentioned in my previous post, I spoke a few words about my Grandparents Kendall on Saturday. Here are the remarks I prepared beforehand. I didn't give them exactly as written, mostly I just wrote these down to get an idea of what I wanted to say. Nevertheless, what I said was actually fairly close to this.

I'd like to remark about the number of us here tonight. In ninth grade, I had just learned in math about the principle of exponential growth--and I had an interest in powerpoint. Curious one evening, I decided to take on an extracurricular math exercise: I wanted to calculate when the population of Kendall descendants would overtake the population of the rest of the world. So, I looked up a number of world population growth, wrote down a few pages of calculations, and whipped up a quick presentation.

I showed this presentation to Grandma and Grandpa one evening, and I'll never forget how hard they laughed when I paged through the slides. It turns out that, if all of Grandma and Grandpa's children had as many children as they (which, by the way, you've all failed miserably at) there would be more Kendall descendants than the rest of the world population in about 2400. The best part of it, though, is that we would overtake the world population at about 4 trillion. I tried to find that presentation for tonight, but it's somewhere tucked away on a floppy disk I think.

There are many, many things that I could say about Grandma and Grandpa, but I think tonight I'd like to talk about work. As everyone knows, Grandpa's list of chores is truly never-ending, and I think maybe the real reason he had so many children is so that he has a never-ending supply of below minimum wage labor. I think that nearly every one of us has been recruited to work at Grandma and Grandpa's house, and were always paid, of course. I clearly remember being paid 5 bucks for a whole day's work.

But I really can't complain, because Grandma almost always had cookies ready for us, or candy, or hot chocolate--and later coffee. And lunch was never just a sandwich like at home. It was a sandwich, maybe, but also cottage cheese, pickles, chips, salad, pop, and ice cream for desert. And then Grandma would apologize that she hadn't made us a real meal that day. And often after lunch we could take a nap. All in all, the conditions weren't too rough.

Grandpa used work as a way to teach us all something. He used it to teach us lessons that modern society and media just doesn't stress any more. The value of a doing a job right, not simply quickly. The importance of being on time. And of course, the fact that a board could be crookeder than a dog's hind leg, or alternatively flatter than piss on a plate. And, instead of rain coming down in buckets, it would rain like a cow peeing. I guess growing up in the depression, buckets were hard to come by...and for some reason piss was on plates.

Seriously though, there was one lesson that I'll never forget. During the summer that Tom and I worked on the addition, we had a bit of a tendency to get there a few minutes late. 7 am is rather early, after all. We would often pull in at 7:05, 7:10, and even 7:15. Not too long into the summer, though, Grandpa greeted us curtly, a said "If you can get here at 7:15, you can get here at 7:00". I took that to mean a lot more than simply the value of punctuality. To me it meant that if you really need to get something done, there's no reason to do it partway--do it completely and be proud of it when you're done.

August 20th, 2008

A Truly Wonderful Weekend

Growing up in a family of generally high-achievers, it can be hard sometimes to distinguish yourself. Cara, my sister, never had that problem--mostly because she made succeeding at things seem effortless. Academically, Cara got the best grades in school. She was a good athlete, and always a tenacious performer. She landed great roles on stage, and seemed to absorb the roles as if they had been written by her for her. And on top of all of her outward successes, she has a fantastic sense of humor and warmth that make her a truly wonderful person.

This weekend, she got married. Her new husband, Travis, is everything that an older brother could want for his sister: he's steadfast and reliable, honest and genuine, but he's more than that too. He's passionate, artistic, and imaginative--all in a manly way, of course. Mostly, though, they bring each other deep happiness.

The Pre-Wedding Party

Friday, they threw a pre-wedding party in Ann Arbor for about 40 of her friends and some family. Cheryl, Lydia, and I arrived at about 8:05, or 5 minutes past Lydia's bedtime. Despite nearly getting bounced because the bar was 21 and over past 9:00, we left at 11:30, with Lydia still going strong. We had great food, excellent craft-brewed beer, and some lively conversation. For most of the night, I just followed Lydia around from one small escapade to another, delighted the whole time by her sheer joy at getting to explore such a different environment. When we finally left, Lydia had fallen asleep within seconds of being buckled in, and slept all the way to the hotel.

Saturday morning, we had a very tasty breakfast in our hotel where Lydia ate nearly as much as I did. I was concerned, though, because she'd only slept for about 8 hours, much short of her usual 12. Our day ahead was jam-packed with wedding preparations. Cheryl got a manicure and pedicure while I tried to get our rambunctious little lady to take a nap.

The Birthday Roast

Saturday evening we took a break from the weekend of wedding festivities to throw a reverse-double-surprise 50th/80th birthday party for my Aunt Ann (50) and Grandparents Kendall (80). Some months back, Mom had the idea of having a Roast for our grandparents. During the roast, we would tell stories about them that were both humorous and touching, and try to tell them some of the things that we all felt.

As a bit of background, my grandparents had seven children, all of whom have had at least 1 grandchild. So, we had more than 40 people at the party, all immediate family. We rented out a room at a local restaurant and arrived at 6:00. Cheryl had prepared a 10-minute slideshow of family photos dating back to the 1940s, and one of my Dad's cousins brought a wireless microphone system for people to use for their speeches.

After a delicious meal, and cake and presents for Aunt Ann, my Dad announced the 80th birthday surprise, of which my grandparents were completely unaware. After the slideshow, which they absolutely loved, Mom stood up and said a few words. She told a couple of stories from when she and Dad were courting (as they did back in those days), and then made her best attempt at telling Grandma and Grandpa how much they have meant to her--but choked up and had a hard time getting the words out. I think they knew what she meant.

Then, for the next two hours, from youngest to oldest, at least 20 grandchildren, children, and children-in-law stood up, came to the front, and offered something about Grandma and Grandpa. Most people told funny stories in combination with more serious ones. I can't describe how much laughter there was that evening, and how truly wonderful it was to see my grandparents respond to each of the speakers.

At the end of the night, which most of us had managed to get through without crying thanks to humor, my Grandpa turned to my Grandma and said something like this:

"You all have said a lot about me, but I just wanted to say that I would be nothing without this woman. As you all know, I had a tough childhood, and was a troubled teenager. The good things I've done as an adult have been because you are my moral compass. Every day I went to work, you provided me with a hot meal at night, and raise seven wonderful children."

He said more than that, but I don't remember the words exactly because nearly everyone--including myself--was fighting back tears at that point. Grandpa had choked up, something that I have never personally seen him do, which caught us all by surprise. The sincerity in his voice is what I'll remember the most, though. I have never heard words so honestly spoken.

The Wedding Day

My sister's wedding ceremony and reception were being held at my Grandparents' home. Their home, a log cabin, was built primarily by my parents and my Grandpa--with lots of help from other family and friends. Then, twenty years later, my brother and I, along with my cousin Erin, built a new log addition to the house to handle our now much larger family gatherings.

To say that the house has memories is a vast understatement. Despite being built after most of the kids were grown and off to school, nearly all of them lived there at some point. I even lived there for a summer while my parents built our house on the river. I spent some of my most defining childhood days working with Grandpa, as did all of his grandchildren who lived nearby.

The ceremony would held on their front porch, after walking down a wooden boardwalk that I had helped build when I was much younger, and had helped to re-build just last year. They would take their vows in the shade of a tree that I remember decorating most Christmases, until it grew too tall. That tree stood within 30 feet of the burial places of my two childhood dogs, TC and Penny. That very porch offered me countless hours of shade under a hot summer sun during construction of the addition. Their reception tent was set up in a hollow that until last year held the pool that I learned to swim in, behind the small outbuilding we lived in for four months in 1988. The caterers set up in front of a woodshed that once housed the logs for their wood-burning furnace. Many, many cords of which I had helped split.

I could go on, and on, but I can't really capture how much it meant to me for Cara to have her wedding there, to imbue a whole new set of shining memories into the soil of that place. The wedding was beautiful, and Cara looked so happy. The smile on her face when she said "I do" is still infectious when I think about it. The catering was delicious and the weather was fantastic.

The wedding started at 2:00, and we left at almost 10:00. I spent much of the day chasing Lydia around. She was in her element, with 100 people to greet, and little cousins (once removed) to play with. When her energy started to lag near 6:00, she had most of my ice cream and caught a serious second wind. But, after three days of partying in a row, she conked out 6 minutes after we left. Not only was Lydia fantastic and happy for all three of those days, she made our time there more fun. I was so happy to have her with us.

For Cara, Travis, and her friends, the party definitely did not end then. They were all camping out under and around the reception tent. They had a fire in the firepit, and game of washers (involving throwing large metal washers, creative name isn't it?) going strong, along with music and a resupply of beer after the first keg ran out. You know how the farewell party in Fellowship of the Ring was portrayed? That was a lot like Cara's wedding, just without the wizard, and the hobbit feet.

The next morning, Cara and Travis came over to my Mom's house to open gifts. We lazily went about the day, and took a trip to Bilbo's pizza for lunch. Finally, facing the prospect of heading home, we decided to stop by Dad's place on the lake for a few hours. It's on the windward side of a jewel of a lake, which positively sparkles in the afternoons. Lydia, Dad, and I played in the water a bit, and Cheryl, Lydia, and I took a short trip in the neighbor's paddle boat. Mostly though, we just relaxed and enjoyed the peaceful surroundings. Eventually, after not coming up with a good enough excuse to stay for the remainder of the week, we got in the car and headed home, Lydia sleeping softly the entire way.

May 15th, 2008

Response to Tragedy

In the past two weeks, there have been two tremendous tragedies--Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan Earthquake. My response to both has been very different. Cyclone Nargis has so-far killed in excess of 100,000 people, making it one of the deadliest of all times. Yet I feel detached, and mostly anger if anything. Anger at the incompetence and corruption of Burma's military junta. But from the moment the Sichuan Earthquake was announced--at 5AM when my radio woke me up, it has affected me very deeply.

At first, until I could pull up the maps from USGS, I was worried for my Dad. At first, it was "Earthquake in China", but then, it became clear that an earthquake in Sichuan Province would have affected him little. I knew that he was in Hong Kong or thereabouts, more than 1000 km away. So, and especially after he called the next morning, I relaxed.

But, that same morning, I heard something on the radio. NPR's All Things Considered hosts Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were in Sichuan province, in the City of Chengdu, preparing for a weeklong series featuring the region to air next week. Melissa Block was in the middle of an interview when the earthquake struck. The audio recording is online here. That recording made the earthquake suddenly seem real to me.

And then, later that day, Melissa arrived at a middle school in Dujiangyan that had collapsed--when buildings around it stood unscathed. Her report that day was grief-stricken and anxious, yet hopeful, and reflected the mood of crowd of hundreds of parents and grandparents that watched as rescuers attempted to save their children. Listening to that report, I immediately pictured a 12-year old Lydia in that school. I couldn't help it. She was with me in the backseat in the parking lot at Family Video when I heard that story. I had to hug her and feel the warmth of life in her to assure myself that everything was okay.

But really, everything is not okay. The Sichuan earthquake has taken an indiscriminate toll on the Chinese population. But, because of lax enforcement of building codes during boom-times, children have been killed disproportionately.

Lydia is our only child so far. But, the children that died in that middle school by the hundreds were the only children of all of those parents. Two parents to every child. Four grandparents. Eight great-grandparents. Family trees in China are sharp-peaked inverted pyramids, tapering down to a single child. A single fragile human life represents the hopes for the future of so very many there.

Some, of course, could have another child. But others, many others, have lost their connection with the continuity of human existence irrevocably. It's one thing to make that choice deliberately. It's quite another to have made the opposite--to have created another life and invested so very, very much in that precious being--only to have your child taken away.

Melissa and Robert's reports have continued to shed light on this tragedy in a way I've never heard, but then maybe I'm really just listening for the first time. If you have some time, listen to this story as Melissa follows a couple who are frantically trying to get an excavator to their apartment to search for their 2-year old son and his grandparents. The story takes place over most of a day, and you can hear the vicious tide of emotion in Melissa's reports as the day goes on. And then, at the end, well I think you can guess. Their son is found, dead, in the arms of his grandfather--his Ye Ye--while his grandmother--his Nai Nai--clung to her husband's back.

March 20th, 2008

This year, I made a New Year's resolution, actually Cheryl and I made it together. I've never made one before, not seriously at least, but I have made many--less ceremonious--resolutions in the past. There was that time back in 7th grade when I resolved to quit being such a jerk. And in 8th grade I resolved to quit lying so much when I tell stories. On the heels of those early successes come this: Cheryl and I resolved to consume less this year--much less.

I won't lie to you (see?), we've had some help in this year's resolution. We're really quite poor this year. Poor maybe not like a starving refugee is poor, more like how someone sealed in a time capsule for decades realizes when they come out of hibernation that they should have invested their savings rather than stuffing it under their mattress (damn you inflation!).

But, lack of money doesn't explain everything. For my birthday this year I asked for nothing. Specifically, I asked that people give me nothing. And it worked! Well, I got some summer clothes that I really truly needed from my parents and parents-in-law. I guess I didn't need them like a starving refugee needs clothes, more like how someone sealed in a time capsule for a decade needs clothes when they come out of hibernation.

Seriously, though, our resolution goes beyond that, too. We actually turn lights off now. We've turned the heat a degree-or-two lower for much of the winter. We take our recycling to a place 30 minutes away once a month that happily takes nearly everything we can collect. I haven't bought a book since Christmas, and we even stopped buying TV shows and music from iTunes. But wait, what's the waste there? Without those extra things in our lives, we get to spend more time with each other, and with Lydia (it helps that Bravo has a lineup of reality TV shows: Project Runway, America's Top Model, and Top Chef, that Cheryl really enjoys that come for free through our cheap cable).

In honor of World Water Day on March 22nd, I'd also like to say that I cut my shower times in half. I used to take 16 minute showers during which I would also shave. Now, I shave first--3 minutes shaved (haha). I stopped using hair conditioner, separate face wash and scrub because I don't really need them-- 3 minutes saved. And then, I just decided to take less time reveling in the hot water--2 minutes more. I still take relatively luxurious showers, I just use less water and less stuff, only natural soap and shampoo (which will be natural when our petrochemically-derived massive bottle runs out).

Oh, and I took what I thought was the most radical step of all. I stopped using commercial deodorant/antipersperant. I'd read for quite some time that baking soda works great. So, I tried it. A small dash of baking soda plus a drop or two of water is the best deodorant I've ever used. And it's practically free. I haven't had a single problem with it in almost three months.

Fundamentally, though, these are all just surface manifestations of deeper changes. I have been trying to reshape my mind around this core concept:

Most of the time, most of us just buy extra stuff to replace the loss of real substantive human interactions forced by our busy modern lifestyles.

Few of us get together with friends and family and haul along all of the crap we have in our everyday lives. I've even stopped bringing reading materials like books because frankly I'd rather talk to people I don't get to see nearly enough. I thought this idea was really well captured in a comic referred to me by one of my absolute favorite bloggers, No Impact Man.

More Crap 2 2
Cartoon by Eric Lewis, courtesy of Cartoon Bank.

March 8th, 2008

Since September when Cheryl went back to work, our basic daily routine has consisted of bringing Lydia to day care between 8:30 and 9:30 and then picking her up again at 6:00 or so. We then go home, play a while, eat, take a bath, and then get her to bed at 8:00. Back during the summer, we were having trouble getting Lydia to fall asleep before 11:00 or 12:00 at night, and I daydreamed romantic visions of kicking back at 8:30 with a glass of Pinot watching last night's Daily Show.

But, when we actually achieved that 8:00 bedtime, it turned out that we still had at least an hour's worth of work around the house, so it was almost 10:00 before any kicking back could occur. And then, it's just too late for a glass of wine, and over 14 hours of continuous activity meant little energy for laughing at the comedy that is politics. In place of my romantic vision has come a somewhat gritty reality of exhausting days and too-short nights.

Last week, my boss asked me if I'd like to work an extra 10 hours each week, and get paid for the time. Money is a little tight right now, so I told him that I really would. But then, when Cheryl and I talked about it, I realized that I don't have two extra hours each day to give to work. For that to happen, I'd need to sleep less and ask Cheryl to do more than her fair share of the chores about the house--and I'd see Lydia less. Suddenly, a little extra debt seems like a better idea (that's predicated on the fact that I will soon be earning much more money as a postdoc than I am as a grad student).

Since deciding not to work the extra hours, I've started to look at how I spend my time during the day. I'm at work about 9 hours each day, and generally eat at my desk. Heck, I thought, I can reclaim almost an hour a day and still satisfy my patriotic duty of working a 40-hour week! But then, why stop there? I'm paid on fellowship this semester. Why not just work 7 hours a day?

The simple negative answer seems to be that I have way too much to do. I have papers to write, a thesis to put together, and a million little pieces of commitments I've made to people over the years that need to be swept into a coherent pile of fulfillments. Those two extra hours a day could mean the difference between an extra paper or two being written before I leave my current program. And those extra papers, combined with equivalent extra papers from my postdoc or early academic career will determine some future tenure decision.

But the more I think about it, and the more I read elsewhere about how people work, I might not need to make that tradeoff. You see, it turns out that to work 9 hours a day and still have time to properly raise my wonderful daughter, I've had to cut out nearly every other thing in my life. I don't exercise, I don't get enough sleep, and I don't get to have any hobbies.

The lack of time has started to strain my relationship with Cheryl, because when time is so precious, stupid little things like whether or not someone writes down that we need to pick up flour from the grocery store seem important. "I was just at the store and didn't know that we needed it! Now I have to go back!" Never mind that Meijer is literally 2 minutes away.

To put it mildly, I'm stressed, and not in particularly peak condition to deal with that stress--mentally or physically. This week, that stress came to a full boil.

Lydia had a small rash on Monday, which meant that I had to leave work early to take care of her, and that I had to work only half of a day on Tuesday as well. Then, Wednesday she was actually sick. So, I only got in about 25 hours of work this week. This was HUGELY frustrating to me on those three days. You would think that, given so little time then at work that I would have worked my tail off. But I couldn't. I got almost nothing done this past week. I was so stressed out by everything, including uncertainty about when and where my next job will be, that I couldn't work.

Divvying 45 hours of lost time between the remaining weeks between now and August, that means that I wasted the equivalent of 2 hours a week or so--almost 30 minutes per day! Good lord! I can't have that time back, and there's no bank of it to tap, no reserves to further deplete.

Now, this is obviously an extreme case of stress-induced lack of productivity, but I have no doubt that the chronic form of it has cost me well in excess of 2 hours a day for the duration of this semester already--and things don't look easier anytime soon. So, maybe I need to try something different. Maybe I need to take those couple of hours that I'll normally just waste and go swim or play racquetball for an hour. I should leave early and pick up Lydia at around 5:30 just to grab some extra time with her. And then, maybe half an hour of extra sleep each night will help ease the situation.

We'll see how this goes, but right now I am saying that this is where I draw the line. If I can't get done what I need to do in 35 hours each week, then chances are I'm trying to do too much. Because, at least for now, I can't do even 40 and still balance the things in life that are truly important to me: my health, my marriage, and fatherhood. Furthermore, I think that I will actually accomplish MORE by working less, and achieve greater satisfaction from my work by doing so.

Next week begins a new grand experiment.

March 3rd, 2008

Back in October, I noticed a job posting at the University of New Mexico. It advertised a faculty position that seemed written for me. But more importantly, the person heading up the search committee for the position had been a professor at MSU for a number of years who had always thought highly of me. Up until this point, I hadn't really thought too much about what I would do after I graduate, probably because the idea of graduating still seemed far off. But, I decided that I would apply for the position.

Then, at the end of October while visiting Denver at the annual Geological Society of America conference, I found out that Colorado School of Mines was also looking for a professor in my research area. Importantly there, too, the person heading up the search was a good acquaintance. Having two opportunities like that made me think that perhaps even more were out there, so I started looking harder.

I found literally dozens of advertised jobs all across the US for tenure-track faculty in hydrology (the study of the water, literally). I decided to apply for five: University of New Mexico, Colorado School of Mines, University of New Hampshire, Stanford (a long shot, that one), and Michigan State (in a different department). I could have applied for more, but I narrowed my criteria to jobs that I'd be happy having. I figure that if I don't get one this year, then I can take a postdoc position, burnish my credentials, and then try again in a couple of years with a much better chance.

Interview with MSU

Within a week or so of applying to MSU's Biosystems and Ag Engineering department, I got a call that they were interested in having me come interview at the end of January. The whole interview process takes about two days, and consists of breakfast, meetings, a 1-hr seminar, lunch, dinner, meetings, and coffee. Also, the meetings include both department faculty as well of lots of administrators and deans. It was an exciting two days, and I had a great visit.

The department is currently in a growth phase after a series of retirements over the last five years. It doesn't meet every requirement I might have, but then again it has plenty of potential and offers room for real growth. Perhaps the best part about the position is that it's at MSU, a school that I love, where I have dozens of established relationships with faculty in six or seven departments across campus. Here I could seamlessly transition (as seamlessly as moving from being a graduate student to a professor) to a new environment, and continue existing research projects with little interruption.

The search committee told me that they were trying to make their decision by the end of February. Well, the end of February has passed. And though I'm not worried quite yet, I'd certainly like to hear from them.


I thought that my best chance of landing an interview (outside of MSU) would be UNM. As the weeks wore on in January, I found myself obsessively checking their website to see if they'd posted their list of candidate seminars for the position. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I got the rejection letter. They said they'd had several "unusually qualified" candidates. I Googled the candidates chosen for interviews, one of which coincidentally or not, was a former MS student of my advisor whom I know very well (I went wine tasting with him in December of '06 in Sonoma Valley), and saw that they were indeed a well-qualified lot.

My bitter disappointment only slightly assuaged by this fact, I moved by anxiety on to the next two applications I'd sent out CSM and UNH (I'd given up Stanford long hence). Prior to hearing back from UNM, I told Cheryl that I'd given up on all of my applications; if I heard something, great, but if not, no big deal. Two days after that, no joke, I found out that CSM wanted to see my letters of recommendation (most schools only ask for a list of references upon application), and UNH said the same a few days later. This buoyed my spirits tremendously until the UNM rejection brought them right back down. Now, I'm still waiting. Both schools are starting to bring candidates in a couple of weeks from now. So if I don't hear soon, it's probably not going to be good news.

A Postdoc Opportunity

Amidst all of the faculty position application activity, I decided to apply for just one postdoctoral position. A postdoc, as it's called, is typically a 1-2 year research-only position undertaken immediately after obtaining one's doctorate--hence the name. The one I applied to was at the University of Florida, and the position seemed perfect for me.

At the beginning of February, I had a phone interview with them, and they seemed very interested. They wanted to me to come for a visit at the end of the month. So, they flew me down last week, from Tuesday through Friday. On Wednesday and and Thursday I went to a two-day symposium on water resource issues in Florida. The symposium was great, there were 450 people there from universities, private industry, and government. I got to spend 3+ days in Florida weather, and got an excellent view of the people in the department.

Prior to leaving, I was informed that they would probably make me an offer! I'm very excited about the position, even though it's not a permanent one. I still don't know if I could accept a postdoc position over a faculty position, but there may be real reasons for doing so. I should know very soon though, within the next couple of weeks. If I don't get interviews at UNH or CSM, and if MSU isn't interested in me, than we'll be headed to Florida. If MSU makes me an offer, I'll have a hard decision to make. And, if UNH or CSM want to interview me it might be another month at least before we figure everything out.

January 19th, 2008

The Good Days

Sometime a few weeks ago it dawned on me that nearly every single night consisted of the same basic routine. I arrive home shortly after Cheryl and Lydia, and greet them both to big smiles (mostly Lydia there) and occasional giggles (still mostly Lydia). We laugh, play, eat, dance, splash, read, crawl, bounce, and generally have a great time for a couple of hours until its Lydia's bedtime.

Then, every other night I get to hold Lydia in my arms feeding her a bedtime bottle until she drifts off to sleep. Slowly, when she's done drinking, I wrap my arms around her, stand up and walk over to her crib. As I hold her there for just a moment, studying her peaceful sleeping face, I get a glimpse of the infinite. An incomprehensible wave of caring sweeps over us, a threatens to wash away all else. Then, I set her gently into her crib, pull her afghan up over her, and kiss her on the forehead.

Sometimes in life, wonderful moments and small joys oft repeated can become almost ordinary, commonplace. But it has been nearly nine months, and I still look forward to going home each night to laughter and love. As I walk to my car each evening in the cold dark of winter, I know that just fifteen minutes away there is a warm house with my wonderful wife and amazing daughter. Most nights, when I arrive I lock the doors behind me, sealing out the wind and the chill of the night air. The air inside soon fills with the smells of dinner preparation and the sounds of a small child's first babbled attempts at speech. He who first asked "What is the meaning of life" must not have known this: love, family, life, and home can provide a fountain which needs no replenishment.

But outside that door, past where the warm fenestral glow gives way to the pale of moonlight, dwell some who must thirst for a drink from such a fountain. Out there, the winter's dark must seem so much colder. Denied for some reason the simple joys that warm the soul they are left with so little else. To them home is not synonymous with shelter, family not simply to whom they are related, and love may at best be just a dim memory of earlier youth.

Nearly two years ago I left work to drive downtown to buy my cousin Duane a bus ticket. He did not live in Lansing, had no means of getting back to Kalamazoo where he was supposed to be staying, and had spent a very bad night with someone of bad intentions. I didn't know him well then, but in talking to him I saw two people. One was bright, articulate, and friendly--especially considering the circumstances. The other I didn't so much hear as sense. You see, someone as outwardly capable as Duane shouldn't have been in the place he was just before I picked him up.

Last year it seemed Duane's troubles had caught up with him. He wound up in a hospital for weeks. Much of that time he spent in an induced coma being rocked back and forth held upside down by a mechanical bed so that his lungs wouldn't fill with fluid and drown him. My Mom visited him a lot during that time, he happened to be in Kalamazoo then. When he finally woke up she got to see that encouraging side of Duane, too.

Maybe it was the strength he exhibited by not showing his pain. That he could seem so outwardly unaffected by the storm that was so obviously raging within perhaps prevented him from finding the help he needed. I wish I could say more, or talk to him about some of those things. Even though I'm a relative stranger, I'm still part of his family and can offer him something very few others can.

But now I'll never get the chance. Duane died last night from a drug overdose. He was 18.
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