Sunday, November 27, 2005

Vacation alter ego

So I've been back from 'vacation' for almost a week, but I'm still recovering. I've been having lots of comings-and-goings of achy pains, which I'm blaming on a variety of things. I've been doing yoga for my back, drinking lots of water, and taking various herbs and vitamin supplements, but so far nothing is consistently helping. I'm sure they'll all be gone by the time I see my doctor in February, only to return sometime in late March.

Sigh. It's good to be home.

This was a strange trip for me, because I effectively had no identity. We went to the wedding of my boyfriend's friends, with their family. I didn't know any of these people, and I didn't get the impression any of them wanted to know me, either. And I didn't have the energy to be Ms. Outgoing Girl. I'm saving that, perhaps optimistically, in case I get any job interviews.

I realized my world is usually divided into two kinds of people: my fellow scientist/academics/researchers/friends who already know what I do on one side, and on the other side, people who don't know the first thing about it but who are generally pretty impressed to be talking to a 'cancer researcher'. And both kinds are typically full of questions.

But the people at this wedding didn't know, or didn't care, and didn't ask what I do. And I had to admit, a lot of my identity is wrapped up in what I do. I found myself wishing I had the kind of job that included a uniform, or television coverage. Some kind of visible reminder that I deserve some credit, some respect. Gosh darnit. This was an interesting thing to realize: my persistent craving for feedback. It never really goes away. And it's not that I would really want to be an actress and hounded by the paparazzi, I just wish scientists were viewed as more valuable members of society.

But, even if I'm not talking science, I can list off a long reel of hobbies that usually provide interesting topics of conversation. To be perfectly honest, I didn't want to be too pretentious, so I mostly kept mum. This was, after all, a Walmart-shopping crowd, or as I euphemistically like to say, "they're pretty provincial." A couple of times I made the mistake of mentioning some of our recent travels, and was met with blank expressions and awkward silence. I really think these people don't believe other countries actually exist, much less that it is possible to actually visit them -- and find good things to eat there.

In that sense, it was useful, I think, to be reminded what the rest of this country is like: when we went out to eat, the waiters had my boyfriend taste the wine and pay the bill (where we live, things are bit more evolved than that). A long time ago we jokingly agreed that we would take turns paying when we eat out, but if they give the bill to him, he has to pay (pay for the sexism of the world, that is). So in more than one way, for this trip, I was The Girlfriend.

I hate being The Girlfriend. Hence my not rushing to be The Wife. Granted, we will be two PhDs if/when we get around to making an arrangement to be recognized by the State, but I'm sure we'll still get mail addressed to Mister and Mister's Wife. I'm just not ready to go there yet. I'd honestly like to wait until gay marriage is legal - or until we move to a country that recognizes it as legal. Canada, anyone?

So when the bride and her sister-in-law-to-be were talking about changing their names to match their husbands', I was thinking, "GET ME OUTTA HERE." They talked about pedicures and shopping in excruciating detail. (I've never had a pedicure and don't plan to ever need to pay someone to paint my toes, thank you very much, I can do it myself and no one is going to examine them with a magnifying glass, anyway.) And so on. The bride kept mentioning her ring, and her dress. She was no Bridezilla, but I was suprised she wore a veil, since the ceremony was pretty secular.

Having said that, I continue to be astounded at how many women seem to enjoy the ritual without really thinking about what it means historically: women as property. Preferably virgin property. (Her dress was ivory, btw, not white.) I found myself wondering, am I the only one who finds it supremely offensive to see people carrying on these customs? I guess I tend to be that way, since I'm atheist to the point where it makes me physically ill to sit in most churches anyway, nevermind if there is a wedding going on at the time.

Sadly, it was pretty clear that the bride is much smarter than anyone realizes, including herself. She clearly was raised to believe that being smart, especially for a girl, was 'nerdy' -- and therefore uncool.

In the middle of all this, one of my best friends called to ask me a question about some cells she's growing. Or not growing. The was the problem: she was calling to ask me to help her figure out why they seemed sick. I asked if she had seen any dark specks in the culture, so we decided it might be contamination. Et voila! I felt a little bit smarter and more useful, even if I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn't charge some kind of consulting fee for these questions. Of which there have been many since she started her job in industry.

Sigh. And the career crisis continues. Did I mention I'm up to four rejection letters?

Along those lines, I managed to mostly undo my general need for geekiness by going to brunch at a friend's house today. The conversation included quite a bit about computers and video games. I spent most of this last week alternating extreme fatigue with obsessively cleaning the house and trying to avoid going back to work. This morning I woke up and realized I'm kind of looking forward to starting some experiments again, finally. If nothing else, I'll feel like I'm earning the credit the world will never accord me.


At 6:37 PM, Blogger Laura said...

I know exactly how you feel. I just spent an evening with people in sales and accounting and the transportation business. They can describe what they do in 5 words or less. They think it's weird I live near a big city. And they all took their husband's last name. I did the whole wedding thing myself, mostly for the sake of our families. We wrote the whole ceremony and took out all the references to god that we could. I think there were two left. And there was no giving me away. The party afterwards was worth the agony of the ceremony.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger ScienceWoman said...

One of the more annoying things about being married to "provincial" folk is that the extended family of in-laws don't really understand what I do. They think that since I am "still in school" it must mean that my days are much like high school and undergrad, and they wonder when I am going to finish up and get a real job. Sorry folks, I have an income (and a cubicle) and I am supporting Husband. So I can totally feel your pain at becoming the invisible girlfriend.

But re: the wedding thing. I think many women deserve more credit than you're giving them. I know my married friends and I spent a long time thinking about each of the traditions involved in a church-wedding ceremony. For example, I am not property (was not given away, husband and wife not man and wife, didn't change my name) but we did say most of the traditional vows. There is something comforting about taking part in customs that have lasted hundreds of years, and have led to some pretty great partnerships. Just my two cents

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, the weird thing is that we continually are looking for some respect and then draw dividing lines with the "provincial" folk. I can't tell you how many times I have been to my family events and the questions come: "what are you doing right now?" Upon trying my best to give an answer about cell cycle regulation, most mouths drop open and the blank stares come. My partner thinks it is quite funny and he goes around the house saying things like "transcription factor, cyclin E, A, D, CDK, etc. and vortex" all the time. He gets a kick out of these words and thinks it is hysterical when I am trying to explain concepts to my unassuming relatives. I just got back from a trip that was part conference and part pleasure. The conference part was fairly untraditional for me, as it was taking on the miscommunication in the science realm with respect to the public. While I know that I have been "educated" to death, there is something that begs respect from what I do in my life. I would think that explaining what I do would be able to satiate this, but the deer-in-headlight responses don't match up to my expectations. With the recent AACR e-mails I have been getting about sending a letter to my local representative to beg for NIH budget increases, I think that we need to somehow put all of our talents to better use. Yoga has been great for me, but somehow, we need to be better citizens and mix our Trader Joe hawking lives with everyday consumables and life. Don't get me wrong--the cynicism and angst I usually carry about me is sharp as a knife, but we need to somehow insert ourselves back into society. Given the fact that we are now becoming beggars for tax money to do our work, I can think of no better time to flex our muscles. Perhaps the provincial folk may even start taking on the role of doing more than just wearing pink ribbons and walking "race to the cures."

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog because it reminds, me although I feel lonely in science a lot of the time, someone else in a similiar situation experiences the same things I do. Having to explain what you do to non science people can be so frustrating as they just give the blank eyed stare, with the look of how can that be useful? Plus friends who now have "real jobs" are always like wow you are still in school? Yes, yes I am and will be for two more years! I want to scream it's a PhD- not a another bachelors! oh well, Thanks for writing!

At 6:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So the "provincial" people just don't understand what we do as scientists and researchers....that is the classic conundrum that befalls most, if not all, PhD scientists and researchers. The very nature of the process of acheiving a PhD causes most scientists to be SO specialized and SO focused on their little corner of the world that they forget the bigger picture in life -- and there MUST be a bigger picture to what we are doing. There MUST be a point to all of this. The whole point of science and research, besides the selfish notion of just plain loving to figure things out, is betterment...betterment of people and their lives, betterment of humanity as a whole. Yes, alot of times you are going to get blank stares when you try to explain to non-science "provincials" what you do for a living, what your focus is in life. And therein lies our burdern and challenge as scientists and researchers: to find a way to connect to the non-science people out there. Because lets face it folks...most of the world does not have PhDs, and most of the world is not science-oriented. It is our responsibility to make the connection to these people. It CAN be done. Sitting back on our laurels (or our throne?) and complaining that no one is capable of understanding what we do does not help us as scientists, and does not help our purpose in this world.


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