Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A less edited version of myself.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to have some kind of outlet, so that as I am told to conform, conform, conform at work, I can continue to be ME ME ME somewhere else.

I was pretty un-selfconscious about starting this blog, but then the trials of Botanical Girl getting outed in her department and other bloggers sharing their various tracking techniques have made me somewhat more concerned for remaining anonymous. Which makes it less fun.

See, there I go, I just started to edit that last sentence frag, but it's hard to do the Allen Ginsberg first-thought/best-thought method of writing when you're contantly on the backspace key correcting your smaller mistakes... it's easy enough to just keep going and take out anything incorrect or otherwise, you know, personalized.

Lately I feel like a shell of a person, probably because I spend too much time worrying about my image at work. I dress differently than I'd like to, keep different hours than I want to, and try to watch what I say to everyone, all the time. I edit emails over and over until I'm sure they're short and to the point and don't contain anything that could be perceived differently than how I intend. And I hate all of it. I've dropped most of my hobbies for lack of time and energy, leaving very little of anything I enjoy or identify with...

One of the things that worries me most about the academic lifestyle is how you're supposed to be well-rounded in some ways, but in science it's pretty much impossible to really be good at anything outside of work if you also want to have a personal life of any kind. The people I know who have one major activity- their family, or a sport- seem to manage okay, but add even one more thing onto your plate and you get divorce and sports injuries instead.

Sigh. I never wanted to be one of the people who had a 9 to 5 job and then some lame hobby horse activity in the evenings or weekend warrioring, but the older I get, the more I can see why people do that. Separation of church and state. And a chance to be something other than a cardboard cutout imitation of who you wanted to be when you started out.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

First one in, last one out.

I hereby officially award myself a medal for, although maybe not working the hardest today out of everyone who was here, being present for a full work day and working all of it.

Which is more than I can say for the rest of these clowns. Argh.


Something of a Worthy Goal.

Today I got a pep talk about staying in academia to help improve the state of academia for women.

Some days it really is the only thing keeping me going.

This pep-talking friend was leading by example, giving me advice to surround myself with women who are farther up, and farther out, of my immediate circles.

This was new advice, or at least, it sounds different from the vague command I've gotten before:
"Get a mentor!"

She said there are some women out there who, like me, want to help bring others up behind them.

And more importantly, she knows some and wants to introduce me.

Hooray! A minor victory. Amazing how sometimes meeting just one person can make such a huge difference.

And another minor revelation.
Obviously I knew these women must, statistically speaking, exist.
And that some might even be on my campus. Somewhere. I just never met any at my university before.

But I know you're out there. I've e-met some of you, however anonymously, through blogging.

And then I realized that, while knowing intellectually that this is true, and while I have benefited from it at a distance, this is another place where my faith has been lacking.

Why the lack of faith in my fellow chicas? My big attempt at having a female advisor totally backfired. I'm still mucking through the emotional damage she caused. Today I was reading about aggressive personality types, and guess what? Now that I can name all the tactics she used, I can say with confidence that she is way up there on the aggressive end of the manipulative scale.

I think this is why I assumed, perhaps subconsciously, that the women in my field wouldn't help me. Or worse, would actively try to discourage me.

That one was awful, went the logic, so why would any of the others be different?

But as anyone who has been discriminated against knows, that's not fair at all!

I was over-extrapolating.

I have been guilty of assuming that women in other fields wouldn't want to be bothered or couldn't help.

But I'm not giving us enough credit. We're smart, we can see parallels and patterns, and abstract away the differences in the details, and apply what we know to different areas.

And we know people who know people.

So, a Worthy Goal and a minor revelation or two. Not bad, even if I didn't do any experiments all day.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Another installment of: Sometimes I wish I hadn't gone to grad school.

Recently I've had the opportunity to meet more professional women from industry, and talk to them more than I had before. Some of them do not have PhDs.

And yet. They are doing the same kind of work that a person with postdoc experience would do. They are designing new assays and doing research. They are using multiple techniques.

Multiple techniques! And here I thought that without a PhD, I'd be doing nothing but multiplex PCR, day in and day out.

(In fact, I know some people who have PhDs who do nothing but one technique, day in and day out).

They are paid well. They dress well. They get per diem when they travel. They work with other women because the imbalance is less severe. They have all the toys at work. They don't work weekends.

And so I have to wonder what the hell I was thinking. If I had known how much the industry would change, and that there were industrial bachelors or masters degree level positions where I could do a multitude of interesting things, I might have thought twice about grad school.

If I had any idea what grad school would actually be like, I'd like to think I wouldn't have gone. I'd like to think I would have chosen the chance the get paid more right off the bat and move up sooner based on abilities and experience, rather than irrelevant diplomas and other superficial measures.

The one shining light in all this is that I know I get more freedom. And I get to read.

Unfortunately I can't go back now, and there's no guarantee that even in industry all the suffering to get the degrees and postdoc experience would pay off.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Couple hires.

This issue was discussed over at Science Professor, but I had so many thoughts about this, I figured I'd put them here instead of clogging up her comment box.

I think the thing that bugs me the most about these couple hires is that, since men typically look better on paper than women do, the wives of recruited men get closer consideration than single women applying our own.

Her CV gets pulled out of the B pile when he gets picked for an interview. So someone who might have fewer papers - but gives a great talk - gets the chance to give her talk, where she might not otherwise.

Obviously I think everyone brings different things to the table, and I'm glad these women are being hired, however they got there.

In fact, the vast majority of successful women in my field were couple hires, because of their husbands looking better on paper and the sexism of their generation, etc.

That's fine, except for the part where they are horribly ill-equipped to advise me on how to get my foot in the door. And in some cases, they are so psychologically non-functional as to not even want to admit that this is probably at least part of why they were able to get a job at all.

Perhaps the hardest part - getting noticed - was at least a little bit easier for them because of their husband's work and/or boy's network contacts, even if they were ultimately hired on their own merits.

I ran into a friend recently who is in the opposite position. His wife is a successful young professor, and because he wants to be near her and everyone knows it, his department has been exploiting this fact by keeping him in a glorified postdoc position for way too long.

It's cheaper for them than offering him a faculty position, and because they know his wife isn't willing to move away, it seems like the savvy business choice.

Except that he's spectacular and they're idiots not to give him more resources; conversely, he and his wife should be getting competing offers from elsewhere, even if they're not sure they'd want to move. It seems to me this is the only way he'll ever get out of his current rut.

Except that he's feeling like I am, that maybe he's not deserving of a faculty position or he would have had one by now.

Little do they realize he's thinking of quitting and going to industry. Academia is always more than willing to cut off the nose to spite the face.

I suspect his type of story occurs more frequently, or used to, with the woman as the trailing spouse and the man as the professor who doesn't want to leave?

I'd like to think the tide is changing. I have another friend who just published a very high impact paper, and she and her husband have been going on interviews. I'm not sure if she realizes it, but her work is MUCH better than his. And I suspect this is why they're getting interviews.

I'm curious, though, to see if she continues to outshine him after they both start their labs and start having kids.

Something like this happened with a couple hire at our university a few years ago, and I still don't quite understand how it all played out. Having seen both of their job talks and publications, my impression was that the wife was the better scientist and more of a 'catch' than her husband, and that she was the reason they recruited him.

But since they've been here, he seems to get all the attention, and I don't really understand why. Has anybody else seen this phenomenon? Is she just getting buried with writing grants and papers, while he is out giving talks and getting face-time? They seem to have a division of labor where he is much more social and political, perhaps because she's the one taking care of their young child. I've found the whole thing really discouraging, even just watching from a distance. I have to wonder if it's because he dumps all the house and childwork on her, if he's that type of guy. They seem to be in the majority, even now.

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On counting PhDs:

Today I read in USA Today (though I can't find it now online) that 2005 had a record high number of PhDs in science and engineering, close to 28,000. I'm guessing it has continued to go up in the last 2 years, but they don't have those data yet?

On counting mentors for PhDs:

Yesterday I had to laugh, because MentorNet sent me a survey to fill out.

They had a series of questions where you had to tick off who had helped you with each of several career issues, and after your PI, other faculty, students, postdocs, etc.... 'virtual online community' was one of them.

For some of the categories, I had to check 'No one helped me.' That was sad, but I took some evil glee in thinking it's good that NSF is sponsoring MentorNet to do this study where they're actually collecting data on the lack of mentoring.

But my pseudonyminous (is that a word? maybe not, but it makes me giggle to say it out loud) friends here (i.e., YOU) scored very well as having helped me deal with career issues, particularly those issues where I feel I can't ask anyone in my lab or at my university.

Thanks again!

And I'm happy because it validates the blogging and blog-reading I've been doing 'on the side' - and the time I've spent doing it - as legitimate career-building exercises (not just as therapy!).

So blogging counts. I'd do it anyway, but still.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

What is my why?

I'm having a self-helpy book kind of day. It's not Augusten Burroughs, but it's about my career, so that kind of counts as work, doesn't it?

The Adversity Advantage is full of all kinds of affirmations. My favorite one so far says you don't have to be the best, you just have to be good when it really matters.

That made me smile. I never wanted to be the best, I just wanted to be one of the good ones.

The authors divide adversity into several levels:






(the point being, of course, the last one).

If you've been reading this blog, you know that lately I've been doing a lot of surviving, some avoiding, a little coping, and not a lot of managing.

According to their descriptions of the categories, it makes a lot of sense why I feel so burned out. When you're in survival mode for too long, it's draining.

OH! So that's why!

But. And here is where I'm stuck. To get back on track, you have to have the will to move up the levels.

You have to know why you want to do the thing you're trying to do.

My problem for the last couple years has been that it's hard to remember what I'm doing this for. Maybe that makes me more of an Avoider (runs from adversity) or a Camper (stays put rather than moving up) than a Climber (the greatest of greats). In fact, according to my Chinese zodiac description on the Animal Planet tv special yesterday, people with my sign tend to want to run from trouble, because we have no natural defenses besides speed.

I'm a postdoc because it is the most common way to move up to a faculty position, not because I ever wanted to be a postdoc as an end in itself . So I at least started this enterprise as a (wanna-be?) climber.

Maybe all the Buddhist stuff about being contented with who you are is killing my ambition?

But let's go on a tangent for a minute here. Yes, there are other ways besides doing a postdoc. There are a few people who go to industry and then come back to become faculty.

I'm less clear how that would work and whether I would enjoy the intervening non-academic time more or less than being a postdoc.

Case in point: I went shopping today for suits, but was totally overwhelmed by the women's business suit section. There was no one in the store, so it might as well have been a section full of straightjackets. I found myself wondering why all these women want to wear these boxy looking things with shoulder pads. Seen all together, they all look the same, and I found myself wondering why would we we're trying to look almost identical, and more like men?

I found myself wanting to try on fancy dresses I have no need for. I don't really understand why I wanted to do that. Does it mean I want the kind of job where I wear dresses all the time? No way. Do I want a job where I can wear what I want to work? You bet. Does that exist? Not for us mere mortals. But I definitely resent feeling like I can't even wear a skirt if I feel like it.

Okay, we're back to the original topic.

So what is my why for the faculty position?

1. I'd be really good at it. I'd be better than any of my advisors have been. I'd like to do something I'm really good at it, because I think I would enjoy making use of all this gosh darn adversity I've been putting up with. It would feel like a big payoff.

2. I like teaching. And I'd be more of a role model for YFSs, something that's very important and fulfilling for me.

3. I'd contribute to the progress of science, to helping solve human disease and aid our understanding, and I think I could do more of that running my own academic lab than anywhere else.

Some days that last one is really a burning desire, to figure stuff out and fix our healthcare system. Maybe the problem is that the older I get, and the more I learn, the more idealistic and impossible that sounds. It's hard to hold onto that Candide, can-do feeling.

I think what scares me most about burnout is this feeling, like you get sometimes when you've had the flu for a long time, that you might never really recover.

Is there some formula for sufficient vacation, like there is after a breakup? For dating we always used to say it would take about 1.5-2x as long as you were together. I'm just not sure if time off is going to help anything.... But if it were going to, would I need 2 weeks for every year I haven't had a vacation?

That would be a lot of time.

It feels silly to be having a mid-career crisis of faith like this. But I was just reading over on profgrrrrl about how it's often not until they're about to get tenure that young faculty-level folks really have these questions about how badly they want to be in academia.

I plan ahead like that. I always have my crisis of faith long before the actual catastrophe.

The thing I don't get about adversity is this: if it makes you stronger in the long run, doesn't it slow you down in the meantime?

I'm tired of being the tortoise, waiting for the rabbits to be caught in the act and disqualified. And the book, so far as I've gotten anyway, doesn't seem to give much in the way of tips for how to get out of survival mode and recover from it. My feeling is that neither taking a bubble bath, nor taking on even more challenge, will help. I guess I'd be willing to do a major overhaul on my life if I had some guarantee that it would help quickly and dramatically, but it's not clear to me what that major overhaul would be. But according to these guys and the Chinese zodiac, it's natural for me to instinctively want to run away. I'm just not clear on whether that would actually be good for me.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oh, irony.

I respond to rejections of papers and grants much as I do to the death of friends or family. I'm in shock at first, it takes a little while to sink in. Then I'm angry only briefly before I fall into absolute despair.

I wasn't always like this. I used to have a lot of fighter in me. But the fighter is tired. The fighter is like that little robot guy on the car commercial who fights too hard and blows a fuse.

So why is it that the day after a paper or grant gets rejected, I always get an email asking me to review someone else's paper or grant?

ALWAYS. The day AFTER. Seems to me that if it came earlier, I'd be compelled to spread good karma, with the vain hope that some of it would come back to me. I'd be flattered, even, because I haven't been asked to officially review very many things, so it's still kind of a novelty to be asked.

No, it comes the day AFTER. When I am feeling that I can't get past this setback, much less face the reality that if I choose to stay in this profession, I have nothing but a lifetime of more rejections ahead of me.

I know all too well that turning every rejection into an acceptance and funding is going to be a battle. And I'm feeling like the armless, legless knight in Monty Python. It's comical to even talk about trying.

These requests for reviews are always addressed to Dr. MsPhD, which I never get tired of seeing. They are sent to me because someone is finally, somewhere, following up on something I did before, which I thought nobody cared about.

And I love reviewing. I really do. I think it has to do with wanting my opinion to count for something. So I am happy to be a reviewer.

It's just the timing that makes no sense.

So I'm thinking geez, it's a stupid reason to stay in science, just to get to review stuff occasionally.

Then I wonder, if I went and started a turkey egg farm somewhere in middle America, would they still ask me to be a reviewer? Probably not, eh?

So it's really fucking with my head.

Is it a conspiracy? I'm picturing a huge database in the sky where they keep all the author information, and there is some little bald man in a suit, cackling as he assigns the paper/grant to me. The dialogue bubble above his head says:


Right now I am fighting, really hard, the burning desire to take my guitar and a styrofoam cup and go play on a steaming sidewalk grate. Jury is still out on whether I will continue to show up in lab, or make a really dramatic exit announcing why I quit. I keep fantasizing about this.

For a while I was thinking I would pretend not to mind this kind of setback. Just take it as a job and keep working, take my lumps as it were and keep going. I know I wrote in the past about hoping to become what I pretended to be. But lately it feels like a lot of work to keep up appearances.

Where was I with that bridge? Oh yeah, jumping off.


In other news, I am catching up on reading Augusten Burroughs. I read Sellevision a while back and found it amusing in a guilty fun kind of way. Yesterday, in an attempt to remember why I should not throw myself off a bridge, I read Magical Thinking.

To me magical thinking is the best explanation for this attitude of fake optimism everyone says one should have. You know what they say: Think positive, and good things will happen for you. Turns out that optimism of this degree is actually pathological!

For me, the best thing about Augusten Burroughs is his confessional, sarcastic style that typifies our generation. These are my peeps! I read his stuff, and I want to write books like that.

My next goal is to see Running with Scissors, although it's another case where I'm not sure if I should read the book +/- seeing the movie, and if both, then in which order. Perhaps it will convince me that, while potentially interesting to some, my life story, written as a series of short stories strung together, would not bring blockbuster sales.

Ahh, delusions of a career with a drop of grandeur. Where are you, fleeting hope and speck of inspiration?

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Did NIH get a clue, or is this just lipservice?

I think it's a sad commentary on our times that

a) this committee needs to exist (and should have, a long time ago)


b) the announcement reads as if it's NEWS that women have untapped potential.


Monday, February 12, 2007


Apparently I'm not ready to go home yet. So I did this:

You Are An INFP

The Idealist

You are creative with a great imagination, living in your own inner world.

Open minded and accepting, you strive for harmony in your important relationships.

It takes a long time for people to get to know you. You are hesitant to let people get close.

But once you care for someone, you do everything you can to help them grow and develop.

You would make an excellent writer, psychologist, or artist.


Destination Not Reachable

This was the error I got today while trying to figure out why my internet connection suddenly died.

Not to belabor the obvious point, but it's such an existential commentary on my career right now.


It's not news.

When I catch up on email, I go through the tables of contents for several major journals.

Something I never did as a grad student (but now wish I had) was read the editorials and science budget news. But it's all right there, in the front of Nature, Science, EMBO, not to mention journals like The Scientist.

The recent issues included various sagas about how the Republican Congress never finished the budget, and how biomedical funding has flatlined for now, and how stem cell research probably still won't be funded because the Dems didn't get enough votes to override a Presidential veto.

It's not a secret, and it's not news. Science funding is tough, it has been getting worse for a while, and although we have a new Congress, improvements won't be immediate. And it may be too late for some of us.

This week I had a run-in with yet another person who subscribes to the theory of always encouraging students to pursue careers in science. I really don't know what to do besides try to force them to face facts, and say to everyone I meet that it's all there, they can look it up, look at the numbers. It's not news that science is a tough career.

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Followup regarding earlier post

So a while back I posted about how someone at my place of work was talking about me to another coworker, and I wasn't sure whether or not to confront the issue (and the person).

Everyone said to keep it under my hat, so I kept it under my hat.

Fast-forward to now, and this person made a couple of comments directly to me that confirm and extend my previous suspicion that there is something more at stake here.

So again, I am wondering whether I should confront the issue- especially since this was something said directly to me- and if so, what's the best way to go about it.

I'm not sure I care so much what this person thinks about me, except that I can't avoid regular interaction. I'm more worried about what their opinion might mean to others, who have more influence and would be more useful to have on my side.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Was doing okay, until...

Yes, it was a typical day.

I was groggy in the morning, so the annoying stuff kind of went past me in my haze.

That was fine.

Then the coffee kicked in and I was busy.

Got some bad news regarding grants I'm not eligible for from someone who wasn't very nice about it. Got a sad call from a collaborator who sounds frustrated, but who lives in a different time zone so we keep missing each other. Not that I'm sure it's anything I can or want to help with directly, but I should probably say so if that's the case.

That was all taken in stride. Yay, stride. (aka, I am too busy to care much right now what happens in the long run. )

Then I got to work on something I care about with people I like. And that was wonderful. And I was in a great mood. For a few hours.

Then I came back to my lab, where things are disorganized and I have no control and get no credit for anything, and not a day goes by that I'm not reminded of how little appreciation I can expect to get here.

There is one person, bless her heart, who thanks me almost every day and sounds almost desperate at the thought of me leaving. She is wonderful.

But today was the first day this week - pretty good, eh? 3.5 days? - when I thought again about walking away just to make their lives miserable.

You know who the 'they' is. All those people who take it for granted that you aliquot the stock solutions for the lab when they come in because you're the one doing so many experiments that you actually need stuff to come in before you run out. And all the other little things you do.

(aside: By the way, YOU out there, please pat yourselves on the back for me. You deserve it.)

Not that they would beg me to stay, ask what it would take to keep me here, or ask me to come back if I left.

To the commenter who asked if I'm a Barbie doll, that made me laugh.

I resent the commenter who thinks s/he knows me, saying that I should take a job running a core facility. I think that's pretty insulting, although I'm sure it wasn't meant that way. First of all, it would be a royal waste of all the time I've put in getting this far. I could have run a core facility without a PhD, without a postdoc. I know people who do it with no degrees. It has its perks, of course. But I want more autonomy. I want more power. I think women are too often railroaded into support services, instead of being in charge. For shame! I realize they take these jobs because of the regular hours and higher stability. But if I wanted to be in a service industry job, I would have gone a completely different route with my life. I never wanted to work at McDonald's in the summer, though I could have, and I would have made more money than I did working in labs.

I think I've come too far now to take a side road. I have to get off this highway altogether, or follow it to the last lemonade stand. I'm just not good at the in-between. I'm not an in-between person, hard as I try to come up with compromises to reconcile the extremes.

I have much higher aspirations for a reason: I'm pretty sure I'd never be happy running a core facility. Even if I liked it in the short-term (and I always say I could be happy driving a bus, in the short-term), the problem is that it's a dead end job. You can never go back (and correct me if I'm wrong here) to tenure-track once you go that way. Unlike, I think, if I went to industry, for example.

And I resent the commenter who said that complaining about our environment or wanting to change it is 'immature.' I think it's important to hold onto your ideals, your unique point of view, your high expectations. If you lose that, you're just a bitter old burnout who goes along with the crowd.

Are you going to change the world, or aren't you? Are you just going to troll people's blogs and lecture them anonymously?

I published the comment because I think it's a valid opinion, even if I don't exactly agree with it. Perhaps 'immature' is the wrong way to look at it. I agree that it's smart to know what you can and can't change, and when you can and can't change it.

I realize there are things I can't change now, and some of them bug me a little and some bug me a LOT. But I have a blog for a lot of reasons. One of them is to come to terms with what's fixable now and what isn't. One is to alert people - faceless readers, whoever you are - who might not know what it's like in academic science.

You might be considering it as a career. You might be in a position to fix the system, even though I'm not. But maybe people aren't honest with you about what to expect, or what needs fixing. I know I couldn't tell people where I work what I really think. They don't want to hear it from me. But maybe they'll want to hear it from faceless, nameless MsPhD.

So it's fine to say I'll join the system and then fix it, but the problem is that 99.9% of people who make it far enough to change the system don't want to bother anymore by the time they get to the top. And then we're just maintaining the status quo.

Along those lines, I was disgusted to read this article in the New Scientist about how, the higher up you are, the less stressed you'll supposedly be.

Ain't that the truth?

Not that I would know.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Too Feminine.

Yup. That's me. Or so I'm told.

I was surprised by my reaction.

Basically, I can't process this information. I do know that I'm furious.

First of all, I don't think I'm very feminine. I don't often wear skirts or heels. My voice is naturally high pitched, but my Science Voice is noticeably lower.

I don't think of myself as someone who laughs a lot, but I was told that I giggle too much.

This I find hilarious, since I've also been told, repeatedly, that I'm too negative! Lately I'm so depressed that the only genuine laugh you'll hear out of me is one of black humor.

I was also told that search committees want to see that you are Authentic, but that the most important impression you make is all the superficial stuff: appearance, body language.

I'm sure this is all true, but my overly literal and logical brain can't process why the world, people, scientists... would be like this.

The options, as I see them presented to me, are:

a) Change drastically to fit the system, expectations, whatever.

b) Be a Proud Female who is somehow magically successful AND feminine.

I suspect this is the hardest road, though I know there are some (rare) women who manage to pull it off. My fear is the usual- that I'm not Good Enough to be one of those.

c) Quit, so I can live with myself as I am instead of trying to change to please oe impress people I'm not even sure I like or want to work with for the rest of my life.

Now, I know that it's one thing to have a Work Persona who is Not You, but since we work so much, I find it hard to believe one can pretend to be something without becoming it.

Despite all my efforts to appear more Grown Up and Professional, apparently one of the things that is hurting me most is somethingthing I'm not at all sure I can or want to change.

Sure, it would have been easier- a LOT easier- if I were born a boy. But at this point? I don't like this job THAT much. Maybe I should buy a strap-on and wear that for a while.