Monday, October 31, 2005

Here she goes again, like she´ll manage it this time, eh?

Well the end of October signals several things, but one of the most important in my little world is the start of Nanowrimo. I did actually sign myself up last year, but only managed about 2000 of the 50 000 words, what with seminars and sick dogs and going to Australia.

Dare I try again?

I´ve got a few hours to think about it, I`ll let you know.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Trailing spouses and bitterness by the bucketfull

The past 2 years have been particularly difficult for me in terms of my career. I have tried to explain it to DrH, and I think he sees it, but at the same time it doesn´t directly affect him, so it´s a bit of a theoretical. This article sums up a lot of what I´ve been feeling, that I´ve become a trailing spouse.
I´ve fought against that in many ways, not the least by taking jobs in 3 different cities which has required my moving, the two of us commuting, and untold stress on our relationship, just to prove my independence and own abilities. But I still gave up an opportunity in Berkeley for our relationship, for his job, for his career.

And none of it has changed the fact that I was still always going to come out second best to someone who is in my scientific field but several years ahead, and male. Sorry, but woman just cannot compete. Forget the equal opportunity bullshit that everyone spouts these days. It still doesn´t happen. I know of only 2 female professors in my field in Germany and neither have families. A few years ago an internal study from one of the big research organisations here, which shall not be named but may have something to do with a famous physicist or a piece of wood, looked into the ratio of women in the higher levels. Of the around 120 professor level positions 11 were held by women and 10 of those were in relationships with the head of the institute. That sound like equality to you?

So I´m sorry, but all of those open minded men that I´ve had this discussion with, who all insist that "it´s easy for women to get ahead in science", while they work 14 hour days and have the little woman at home looking after their babies and washing their underwear can just bite me.

Am I bitter and pissed off? Damn fucking right.

But I still may have tried to fight my way ahead through this. To try and be one of the few who make it. Until I married another scientist and I knew that this would never work. He woud always get the better job, he always had the better prospects. He is a damn good scientist, don´t get me wrong. In some ways he is better than me. In others though, I am.

So it was pointless trying to compete. It was better that I throw in the towel, look for a new career path where we aren´t competing directly. Which I´ve done. I´m enjoying my new job, don´t get me wrong. But would I have enjoyed my old job more if I hadn´t had this threat, this knowledge that it was pointless, hanging over my head? You know, I think so. But now I´ll never know.

And yet, I´m still the trailing spouse. When this position finishes in a few months, I´m back to looking for a new job. And I´m going to have to base it around his job. And that pisses me off. What if I get a good job offer around here? Or better yet, and extension where I am? It´s great here, I´m enjoying it, I don´t want to leave. Yet he doesn´t want to leave his job either.

So who´s going to win? Can we resolve this without one of us feeling bitter? I´m already carrying around enough bitterness and regret, that I´m starting to wish that I could pass it on to him. Tit for tat. I gave up my career for our relationship. It´s about time you did too.

I know it´s not fair. I know it may be considered by some to be selfish. But I almost don´t care anymore. Why should I be the trailing spouse? I didn´t sign that in the marriage contract. I agreed to love him, which I do. I didn´t agree to sacrifice my future for him. He tries to be supportive, he tries to offer up suggestions, but I´m still waiting for those magic words. The ones which say "I will follow you, anywhere, anytime". No caveats, no "wait and see if you like it", no "maybe we can work a few days a week/month at home so this distance thing works". For once, I want someone to give everything up for me. Show me I´m worthy of equal respect, not just muttered platitudes.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Because occasionally, just occasionally, scientists need to have a good hard look at themselves

We had a meeting here yesterday of a bunch of Very Big Wigs doing Very Important Things and having Very Important Opinions. When we finally awoke from the general daze this caused for the next 16 hours, we realised that one of the VBW´s had left his jacket in our meeting room and was now, presumably jacketless, wandering the British Isles. Luckily he realised this himself (probably when the rain started to seep through to his underwear) and called us to ask if it was here, with the comment:

“Muggins seems to have left his jacket there.”

Which of course necessitated the question “Who´s Muggin´s?”

“Oh it´s just a nickname I have for myself.”

Sometimes I feel that VBW doing VIT and having VIO occasionally have Very Big Problems.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sometimes you just get it, that whole cute Europe thing

Heidelberg is a damn cute town. One that´s very famous for it´s damn cuteness judging by the number of Japanese tourist buses that go screaming through it, pour out camera clicking tourists for 10 minutes of "been there, done that, got the photo" before shoehorning them back in to continue the 15 countries in 10 days tour. Talk about an economical use of time. The Swiss ain´t got nothing on them.

So far I haven´t been able to see much of the city as I´m working and living up on the hill beside Heidelberg in an outer suburb. But even this, a tiny suburb with a somewhat lower average income and large amount of old people with small dogs has an unexpected beauty. My flat is on the upper floor of a building and overlooks the Rhein valley, a vast, flat plain dotted with towns and roads and rimmed in the distance with the hills that mark the border to France. Every morning I get to look at this view as I´m getting dressed. On my way to work I pause after buying my raisin bread roll for breakfast and stare out across the valley. It´s not a beautiful suburb here. The architecture is 1960´s and reasonably rundown. But the view transcends all of that. I would live here just for that view.

And then there are the towns themselves. The night before last I had to get off at an earlier tram stop than usual on my way to Aikido (don´t ask me why, tram and bus drivers here seem to decide quite randomly what route their going to follow and when they´ll decide to call it a break). The class is in a small town on the other side of the river, which can be reasonably called a suburb of Heidelberg now. So the tram let me off on the edge of this suburb. I´d been travelling through the gorgeous city centre of Heidelberg, moved through the larger villa area on the other side of the river, gone through the outskirts (1960´s again) and was starting into the villa area of this next town.

It´s amazing to watch the change in architecture representing the growth of the town. I was walking down a road lined with villas and large houses 100-200 years old. Within about 300m this changed to smaller houses, arranged in that hapahazard fashion that usually means they were parts of farmhouses (large gates to an inner courtyard, converted barns and outhouses now apartments) and probably over 400 years old. 200m further on and I was in the centre of the old town, with two story buildings with low ceilings. Tiny windows, front doorsteps that go directly onto the cobbbled road. The wooden frames visible in the walls (think Tudor houses etc). The fortress in the centre of the town. The oldest written evidence of this town´s existence was July 765.

1240 years old.

Is that not just completely insane?

In Hamburg the area I lived in celebrated it´s 800th birthday this year. I´ve stayed in houses that are 400 years old. Raised in Australia on American entertainment, the first time I visited Marburg at Christmas with the snow, the lights, the old old old houses and castle, it felt like Disneyland. That it was all painted cardboard on struts. That if I went through a door the fairytale would disappear and I´d find myself in a shop selling t-shirts, baseball caps and minatures of the town square in a glassball.

No matter how Disneyland or Hollywood try to portray it, recent countries like Australia and America just cannot do justice to places with history like this.

Do yourself a favour. Next time you visit Europe, forget the big cities and the famous statues. Visit the small towns and cities. Go to the local church which is still in use after 800 years. Walk down the tiny, winding streets of these places. Stay in a tiny pension in a building that´s older than America. Have tea with the landlady who´ll tell you the history, the stories. Live it, breathe it. Don´t just photograph it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The one where she manages to keep her butt in her pants

The second Aikido training went a lot smoother than the first. It´s truely amazing what a difference a new piece of elastic can make to the quality of one´s experiences. Today I barely hurt at all, but tonight...ahh yes, tonight. Tonight is weapons training.

Where I shall talk very softly but carry a big, big stick.

She´s armed, she´s dangerous. Her pants are staying up.
So who wants to take me now? Huh? HUH?!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

When you know that this person is no longer safe to allow unchaperoned at parties

In my undergraduate years we had lab practicals in the afternoons, where 40 or so of us second years would gather together in some big old labs and perform the basic but new to us experiments that would start us down the path to noble prizes and professordom. Well, I guess they can´t win them all.
These practicals were run by a staff member, a lovely bearded man in his mid-40´s, who would stand up the front with a microphone and small speaker so that those at the distant back of the lab could hear him. I came to the conclusion that these moments were for him the most joyful part of the job. He´d appear out of the preparation room and smack the speaker down on the bench, twiddling with the knobs until it was tweaked to his satisfaction. He´d then grab the microphone, hoisting it in his hand and rearranging his grip while briefly clearing his throat.
Every time I expected him to leap on the bench in front of him, legs braced, arms outstretched, face lifted to the sky as he belted out the first lyrics to “New York, New York”.

Every time I was disappointed.

But I am still a firm believer that, hidden not far beneath the surface, this man was a lounge singer at heart.

Last Saturday I found my inner lounge singer.


Eat your heart out Lisa Stansfield. I WAS around the world.

And I will be there again. Oh yes. I will. There´s no holding me back now. The only way is up. Baby.

The next german Popstar is coming.

Does anyone else find this as disturbing as I do?

"Chips that store music could one day be built into breast implants. One breast could hold the MP3 player and the other the music collection. BT futurology, who developed the idea, say it could be available within 15 years. "

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

They call me the Couch Ninja

Last night I got my arse kicked.

Based on a severe lack of any exercise in my life, combined with the fact that the only friends I have in this city are sports nuts, I succumbed and joined MissC and the Frenchman in the noble Japanese art of Aikido.

I was already off to a bad start in my old blue tracksuit pants and baggy grey t-shirt. Feeling shy in my inappropiate clothing, I slid out of my thongs backwards onto the tatami and bowed in the same general direction as everyone else. I´m not entirely sure what it was I was bowing at – the instructor, the small indiscernible picture on the wall, the second door which led to a small broom cupboard or perhaps the stage where school children perform their end of year concerts in this community hall. Sticking out like an over-coloured bad thumb I snuck to the end of the row, knelt with the rest, bowed when they did and mumbled under my breath anything that sounded vaguely like the European accented Japanese phrases they were saying.

The last time I experienced anything like this was my Grandmother dragging me along to Church with her when I was 14. Fingers like steel were clamped around my wrist as she jerked me up and down with her at seemingly random places during the service. Kneeling, sitting, standing, sitting, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitti…no, standing again. An endless progression of religious choreography spiced with musical interludes and speaking in tongues. Bollywood, eat your heart out.

But I digress.

The warm up already proved my wardrobe mistake. Thick white pajamas may not be the talk of this years Milan and Paris catwalks, but their practicality on an Aikido tatami cannot be denied. Trying to do shoulder rolls without looking like a turtle stuck on its back was difficult enough. Combined with the failing elastic on my tracksuit pants it was a recipe for disaster. Never before has so much plumbers crack been seen in polite martial arts society.

Then, the training which involved an amazing amount of time spent with your face pressed to the ground staring at the hairy feet of the pair practicing next to you. Or if you were them, at my baggy trousers, who´s unstoppable journey southwards had by this time convinced my underwear to come along for the ride.

Wrists were grabbed, elbows and shoulders twisted, bodies tossed across the floor. As part of some as-yet-not-understood nuance to the technique, resounding slaps were made with arms and hands in particular moments. Was it a sign of respect for the person´s skill in throwing you? A mark of your failure in being thrown? Used only for particular moves or at any time? Or was it just the childish delight one gets from making loud noises, especially in a situation where you are NOT allowed to talk? I´m not sure.

By the end of the 90 minutes my wrists were red from the continuous Chinese burns. My knees chaffed raw by crawling across the mat, the already damaged cartilage behind my kneecaps were pounding with pain from landing heavily time and time again. My shoulders ached, my legs were shaking. I was out of breath, sweating and baring large amounts of cheek to the world. Today I feel every muscle and some things I sure aren´t muscle but can´t put a name too as I´ve never used them before. Getting up and down from my chair is difficult and I´m waddling in a strangely pregnant woman like manner.

I can´t wait for next week.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Would the winners PLEASE COME DOWN!!

Yes, its that time of year again. When the science geek in me rejoices and I revel in the pathetic sense of humour we posses.

It´s Ignoble time!

And this year the winners are:

AGRICULTURAL HISTORY: James Watson of Massey University, New Zealand, for his scholarly study, "The Significance of Mr. Richard Buckley’s Exploding Trousers."

PHYSICS: John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland, Australia, for patiently conducting an experiment that began in the year 1927 -- in which a glob of congealed black tar has been slowly, slowly dripping through a funnel, at a rate of approximately one drop every nine years.

MEDICINE: Gregg A. Miller of Oak Grove, Missouri, for inventing Neuticles -- artificial replacement testicles for dogs, which are available in three sizes, and three degrees of firmness.

LITERATURE: The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.

PEACE: Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, in the U.K., for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie "Star Wars."

ECONOMICS: Gauri Nanda of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for inventing an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people DO get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

CHEMISTRY: Edward Cussler of the University of Minnesota and Brian Gettelfinger of the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin, for conducting a careful experiment to settle the longstanding scientific question: can people swim faster in syrup or in water?

BIOLOGY: Benjamin Smith of the University of Adelaide, Australia and the University of Toronto, Canada and the Firmenich perfume company, Geneva, Switzerland, and ChemComm Enterprises, Archamps, France; Craig Williams of James Cook University and the University of South Australia; Michael Tyler of the University of Adelaide; Brian Williams of the University of Adelaide; and Yoji Hayasaka of the Australian Wine Research Institute; for painstakingly smelling and cataloging the peculiar odors produced by 131 different species of frogs when the frogs were feeling stressed.

NUTRITION: Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats of Tokyo, Japan, for photographing and retrospectively analyzing every meal he has consumed during a period of 34 years (and counting).

FLUID DYNAMICS: Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of International University Bremen, Germany and the University of Oulu , Finland; and Jozsef Gal of Loránd Eötvös University, Hungary, for using basic principles of physics to calculate the pressure that builds up inside a penguin, as detailed in their report "Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh -- Calculations on Avian Defaecation."

As you can see a fine example of modern research at its best. Once again Australia has received an Ignoble, to go along with previous wins on patenting the wheel and analysing the forces required to drag sheep. I´m not sure who made it into my favourites this year, a bit of a competiion between the penguin poo and the locust. I´m afraid I have to go away and read up on Mr Buckley´s exploding trousers to find out EXACTLY what that has to do with New
Zealand agriculture in the early 20th century, but I´ll get back to you on it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

On trains with military precision

Man, I had forgotten how long this commute could be. I mean, it´s actually even LONGER than the Frankfurt to Berlin commute I did two years ago. I left work Friday night at 4.45pm, arrived in Berlin at 11.23 pm and this morning I was up at 5.30 am to get a 6.30 train, to arrive here at 12.30 (later than it was meant to be due to some train delays and missed connections).

I´m just plain ol´ tuckered out.

An extremely surreal moment happened this morning while waiting for the next connection in Mannheim. Standing on the platform, shivering in the fresh autumn chill that has appeared in the last week, I glanced up from my book (The Algebraist from Ian Banks – VERY good) and watched a strangely silent cargo train pull in to a halt in front of me. The thing was….I mean, the thing WAS that this entire train was laden with army tanks. Lacking their turrets, and apparently personal and heavy ammunition, but still 30 or more LARGE army tanks sitting on the back of a train in front of me. Apparently they were American - well they had names such as Sgt Powell and SSR Roberts painted onto the sides, not your typical German names. It´s probably not that odd a sight here in an area that has had American military occupation for 50 years, but for me it was extremely strange. It did seem to bring a hush over the whole platform and as the train started moving slowly off again there wasn´t a single person talking.

It was a bit like watching a funeral procession. In our everyday, mundane, commuter lives it reminded us of war and death. And that both were happening now, and not that far away.