Sunday, 28 October 2012

Essentials to pack for a field expedition

Regardless of what kind of science you do, fieldwork tends to involve broken equipment. It’s close to impossible to anticipate what will break, and bringing duplicates of everything is expensive. Here are therefore some essential tools to bring along for the best chance of getting your work back on track. 

  • Duct tape – the universal fix-it tool
  • Electrical tape – did you know that electrical tape sticks to itself underwater?!
  • Zip ties in a wide range of sizes – shove a few up the sleeve of your wetsuit if diving
  • Rope and string of various diameters
  • WD-40
  • Metal file – one application: cutting an extra tooth in your expandable wrench so it opens wider
  • Sandpaper – good for removing rust
  • Rags – so you don’t have to cannibalize your clothing to clean up
  • Instruction manuals – maybe
  • Leatherman or other multi-functional tool
  • Vice grips
  • Chocolate
  •  Zip-top bags and Sharpies – you can thus organize remnants of broken equipment for later identification/salvaging. Also, you can store melty chocolate in these
  • Extra batteries
  • Containers to keep things dry that are supposed to stay dry (like laptops)
  • Electrical plug adaptor and/or voltage converter
  • Money
  • Someone more clever than you

Though, sometimes you need to break out the big guns
What items have you found yourself grateful for, or wishing you had brought along?

Monday, 22 October 2012

How to teach yourself the obvious

Warning: rare serious—and long—post!

My son turned one last week. I did my best to fulfill my vision of motherly love by putting on my apron and baking him a cake, elaborately shaped and frosted to look like a duck. I did this while half-playing a game of Anno 1503 with our friends, Vanessa, Brett and 18-month-old Skylar, visiting on their way home to Victoria, 6 hours’ drive south. I also intermittently suggested new toys or activities (“why don’t you scrunch up this piece of paper?”) to discourage the birthday boy from trying to scale my legs while I hand-whipped the cream cheese frosting.

When my masterpiece was complete, I lit the “1” candle that Vanessa had bought, Ryder was placed in his highchair, and we all sang while I presented the cake. Ryder was delighted by the singing, and mesmerized by the candle. He grabbed the edge of the cake and I instinctively caught his hand away so he didn’t damage it. Then I blew the candle out for him.

I realized before the cake was finished how silly I was being. I even mentioned it to Vanessa—this was exactly the kind of thing I hadn’t wanted to do as a mother: use my energy up showing my son how much I love him in an abstract way that he doesn’t care about (while ignoring my friends as well). Surely he would have had a better time had I just chased him around the couch on my knees for 30 minutes instead. Or at least I could have let him go to town destroying the finished cake. But no, I followed through trying to become the domestic-goddess-earth-mother of my dreams and served up tiny bites of cake to the boys.
But really, isn't this cake just totally amazing?
I should listen to my husband more often. He told me months ago that I can’t do it all—that it’s not possible to be a perfect mother and a perfect scientist and maintain a social life and marital happiness, and everything else a person is supposed to do, like laundry. But I just thought he was being chauvinistic. “Of course I can do it all,” I said to myself. Just watch. I’ll show you.

They say there is never a perfect time to have a child; so we just went ahead and had one. It turns out that having a child in a foreign country far from your support system, while doing a postdoctoral stint (read: trying to publish like mad and be competitive so I can get a “real” job next), may be one of the worst times. Sure, if I had a baby in graduate school it would have been stressful, with pressures to graduate and pressures to get a good postdoc, and waiting until I had secured that “real” job would have come with its own set of stresses. But the sudden realization that I am now competing for jobs with men and women who have gotten a full night’s sleep, are not covered in spit-up, and aren’t typing out a coverletter while breastfeeding, is rather terrifying. I feel like I’m at a distinct disadvantage, and it boils down to time.

When I told my colleagues at work that I was pregnant, they all expressed their congratulations, as well as condolences: the good daycares had waiting lists at least 18 months long, and the ones I could get a space in wouldn’t be suitable for a tiny baby. Neither Adam nor I knew what having a baby would be like (my goodness how little we knew, in hindsight!), but in addition to the negative endorsements for the local childcare options, we felt nervous at the idea of leaving our tiny defenseless child in the care of a person we didn’t know. I reflected back on a terrible nanny I had for a short time, who forced me to eat more than I could stomach so I would be ill, and would lock me in the backyard when my baby brother was sleeping to keep me from disturbing him. I couldn’t bear the thought of my child ignored, crying in a crib somewhere while I was at work, oblivious.

Without family to turn to, we decided not to bother waitlisting our son (he’d be a year old before we made the top of the list. At the time that seemed so distant). Instead, we made the decision that we would share his care, each working and taking care of Ryder for equal amounts of time each day. I am incredibly lucky that I have a wonderful partner willing to do this. Not only does he share childcare equally with me, but he also shares the housework.

But all up, there are just not enough hours in the day to both work full time, yet also have some time together as a family. Instead of sacrificing our time together, we each have fewer “on the clock” hours free from baby distractions; but the work still has to be done, so we sneak in emails when Ryder is engrossed with a toy, or run some statistical tests while he naps. This is really not a good solution. It’s hard to be the present and caring mother I want to be when I’m constantly waiting to see when Ryder might be ready for a nap so I can get some more work done. I also spend much of the time I should be doing interesting activities with Ryder instead maintaining our lives: “now watch mommy hang the laundry…”
This time is important.
I became exhausted and not just from interrupted sleep. I set myself unrealistic goals and then doggedly tried to achieve them, feeling like a failure when my self-imposed deadlines passed and my to-do list trailed ever longer. There isn’t a very good metric for success as an academic, so it’s hard to say if I’m doing a good enough job. I do suspect that my colleagues without children, or with ample care for those children, work a greater number of uninterrupted hours a week than me. Maybe they aren’t as focused (I’ve significantly cut down on the time I take responding to emails, for instance), but just having the extra time to ruminate about science is important. Until recently I’ve just felt like I’m putting out fires when working; I haven’t had enough time or energy to just sit and think about the big picture scientific questions I am working towards. And it’s hard to think critically and form thoughtful scientific ideas while shopping for groceries or trying to change a dirty nappy.

While worrying the other day about whether Ryder’s speech was developing at a normal pace (he hasn’t said any obvious words yet), I remembered that my mom told me I said my first word, “dog,” when my mom took me to choose cookies at the bakery for my first birthday party. But at first I missed the important point of this memory—that my mom decided to spend her preciously small graduate student income to buy cookies and save time. I’m sure that I enjoyed the trip to the bakery immensely more than being propped in the corner with a toy so my mom could bake cookies from scratch.

So in the end, though I first got angry with Adam for suggesting I couldn’t be a full time scientist and a full time mom, he’s right. And lately there have been a number of articles discussing just this conundrum: why—after women’s liberation and a growing awareness at remaining inequities in the workplace—women still can’t have it all. More recently, Debora Spar wrote an article I needed to read, which echoed Adam’s statement—it’s not possible to do it all perfectly, so stop driving yourself mad: “Almost by definition, a woman cannot work a 60-hour-per-week job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without the 60-hour-per-week job. No man can do this; no human can do this. Yet women are repeatedly berating themselves for failing at this kind of balancing act…”

After reaching a critical breaking point several months ago, we’ve made some changes. For one thing, we are getting help taking care of Ryder. We’ve found some part-time daycare: I realized when Ryder turned about 6 months old that he was more than capable of communicating to us whether he was happy in an environment or not; thus my fear of leaving him with well-trained and qualified strangers was misplaced. With the help of friends, we found first a nice family daycare, and then a perfectly lovely larger daycare center where Ryder has had some fun and enriching days. Another mother friend has also agreed to watch Ryder along with her son some afternoons. These arrangements mean that we have more time for dedicated work, where we are both guaranteed time to focus. More importantly, we have breathing room to tend to the rest of our lives and reduce overall stress levels.

I’ve also decided it’s time to take some shortcuts. I’ll save my goal of becoming an amazing baker for when Ryder is old enough to help mix the cookie dough with his hands (and not smear it all over the walls, preferably). I will concede to take-out more often. I will buy more cloth nappies so I can do laundry less frequently.

But I will stop taking shortcuts where it counts. Each day I will think of at least one baby-centric activity to do with Ryder that is different from the previous few days. I will tap other moms for ideas and dredge up my inner childish creativity (did you know that building forts is still fun as an adult and entertaining to 12 month olds?). I will consciously remember that each day with my babe is a gift, and that soon he will be in school and have friends to build forts with and may not want to spend all afternoon playing with me.

I do think we can be good scientists/lawyers/whatever as well as great and present mothers, as long as we define those things with reasonable metrics and get some help along the way. This includes emotional support from other momma friends who are happy to discuss the intricacies of naps, breastfeeding, weaning, and bowel movements, and feed you cakes when you most need it!
More of this.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How to discourage houseguests

We’ve been staying with a lot of friends and family members lately, which has made me realize what a crap hostess I am in comparison. Some of these tips may come in handy if you feel obligated to host people, but don’t particularly like it. [Note: I do like houseguests, and do like being one; my adherence to these tips is not actually purposeful.]

1. Offer a range of pillow sizes, all of which are uncomfortable.

2. Provide too few blankets for the internal temperature. Also be sure that the thermostat is set either to “Arctic” or “Saharan Desert in summer,” regardless of the weather outside.

3. Don’t bother buying a new, actual bed for guests. Instead, chose from one of the following:
(a) get a new mattress for yourself, and use your old one for guests. Best if the mattress is so worn that it acts more like a hammock or taco. It’s more snuggly/back-breaking that way.
(b) get an air mattress. These typically come pre-punctured, guaranteeing that your guests will be lying on the hard floor by morning, but you could always stick it with a pin just to be sure.
(c) construct a “bed” out of various semi-soft items in the house, such as surfboard bags, packing foam, and/or an extra comforter.
(d) purchase a fold-out couch which is neither comfortable as a couch, nor as a bed.
Try to get your cat to infuse all guest bedding with fluffy hairs and dander.

4. If you don’t have a guestroom, you can create a private space for your guests by placing a blanket over a table, and installing their “bed” (see option “d” above) underneath it.

5. Live on a street that appears safe, but from which your guest’s vehicle will be stolen in the middle of the night.

6. In the bathroom, do not provide any horizontal surface for your guests to store toiletries, aside from the back of the toilet or the floor.  Best if the back of the toilet is slightly curved so that things are more likely to fall in the bowl.
This looks like a great spot for the guestroom.

7. To discourage long showers, be sure yours either (a) has pathetic water pressure, (b) doesn’t actually get hot enough or (c) fluctuates wildly between freezing and scalding.

8. You can also hide the towels or provide only very small, non-absorbent ones.

9. Be sure you have very little food or drink on hand. Few things encourage repeat visits more than a delicious plate of cheese or a glass of wine.

I hope this post helps you get rid of the pesky friends who keep hanging around, wishing to spend time with you.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

How to fly in comfort

--> This blog post is not for those people who are rich or clever enough to fly in first or business class—you’re already comfortable in flight. This post is for the rest of us. Is it possible to fly in economy class without losing feeling in your limbs? Read on.

1. Fly cross-country, or better, cross-Pacific, with a small child on your lap. If you do not have your own, try to borrow a friend’s child. I guarantee that all subsequent flights—without trying to entertain/restrain a kicking, wiggling, grabbing, whining creature—will be blissful and relaxing in comparison.

2. Check before you chose a seat. This way you can avoid being in the window seat on the very last 3-seater row in a 747. This row is hemmed in by the curvature of the airplane, thus providing just 73% of the space a normal human needs for comfort, as opposed to the 86% provided by every other economy seat.

3. Ambien. Perhaps with a little red wine to sweeten the deal. That is, if you don’t need to be alert to look after a child. Actually, the rest of this post can just be completely ignored if you have a lap child. Come back in a few years.
Go to your happy place. Envision yourself as a wee babe sleeping on a lovely tropical beach...which could help you drift off to sleep, or just increase your irritation at reality.

4. Bring a thin, but soft, full-sized pillow. Placing this under your butt will significantly reducing numb-ass syndrome brought on by stupidly-firm chairs.

5. Use the airline-supplied pillow (or one you have stolen from a previous flight) to provide some lumbar support. Unless you like being forcibly hunched over.

6. Bring a neck pillow, placed mostly toward the front but partly sideways around your neck. Placing a neck pillow behind your head just reinforces the hunching/spine-braking tendency of the curved seats. Alternatively, check out some of the interesting inventions available through skymall to help you fall asleep upright.

Yes. I totally approve.

7. Raise your feet a bit. For some people, comfort can be attained by using a small cardboard box as a footrest. The box can double as storage for some of your in-flight essentials. You could use your bag, instead, but the unevenness may lead to mid-flight waking as your foot slumps off to one side, your leg flops into the aisle, and is then run over by the drink cart.

8. Other people need more lift to prevent massive airline cankles. There is literally no good way to get your feet to stay propped at seat height, but here are a few ideas:
(a) Knit a sling to hang on the back of the seat in front of you, in which you can rest your feet. Unfortunately this might just stretch to the floor and/or annoy the person whose seat your feet are pulling down.
(b) Use the seat pocket. You can try shoving your feet inside directly, but this will probably lead to circulation arrest as the metal bar presses against your ankles. Instead, try to prop the pocket open to act as a footrest using a rolled-up magazine, and/or your sweater.
(c) Get fancy. Construct a folding shelf that you can shove into the pocket and provide yourself a nice stable platform. Apply skateboard grip-tape to the top to prevent foot slippage.

9. Corral your flopping limbs. Once you get situated with your feet propped up and your neck pillow at just the correct jaunty angle, the ambien helps you slip off to sleep. Just then, your knees flop outwards, waking you up and startling the stranger next to you. How do you avoid this? One option is to use several bungee cords to first tie your knees together, and then act as guy-lines to steady the legs between either arm rest. You probably will not be able to sufficiently tie your arms in without help, so try just jamming them into your lap and hope they behave themselves.

10. You might try the bungee-cord technique to keep your head from sliding over onto your neighbor’s shoulder, as well. I recommend wearing a soft cap if you are going to try this one, to reduce forehead-denting.

Now that you are sufficiently doped up and comfortably wedged into your pillow fortress/seat, nod off and sleep away the remainder of your flight. Just try to avoid having to pee.
If you miss the discomfort of your airline sleep at home, skymall has got you covered.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Handy travel tips

--> Let me start with an apology for the extended quiet since my last blog post—I know you have been sobbingly whiling away the hours waiting for this next one. 

I’ve just completed my first official circumnavigation of the planet, and after this marathon, I thought it was high time that I share my most important tips for successful travel. You might print this one out to keep in your wallet for important tips on-the-go!

1. Double-check the dates before you book your tickets. It’s highly irritating when you show up to the airport to fly to Hawaii to meet an oceanographic vessel on which you have plans to ensnare your future husband, only to be told that your ticket is one month outdated.

2. Double-check the routing before you book your tickets. It sure sucks to present yourself for check-in at the Aer Lingus counter in London to be informed that, since you are already in London, it appears you won’t need to used the Dublin à London ticket you had mistakenly purchased for that afternoon. Note also that most airlines charge a premium for booking same-day flights.

3. While you’re at it, double-check that you’ve spelled your name correctly, and that you’ve used the same name as on your passport.
If you eventually get where you are going, it'll probably be worth it. [Wat Chalong, Phuket, Thailand.]

4. Look into details on baggage restrictions. Some airlines put embargoes on excess or oversized baggage during certain times of year to certain destinations. Being told you are not allowed to bring your surfboards on your honeymoon surf trip may cause last-minute cancellation of your honeymoon, which is mildly frustrating.

5. Peruse the baggage allowances and charges for excess. There’s a vast difference between paying $25 for an extra bag vs. $100 for a single overweight bag. Similarly, if you see that your chosen airline is one that charges $200 for an extra suitcase, you may pack differently before leaving the house.

6. Make sure you go to the correct airport.

7. Bring a credit card, and ask the issuing company not to block weird charges (like last-minute tickets to Dublin) while you are away.

8. Consider travel insurance. I hear it’s pretty handy.

9. Bring enough change to call your mom.

10. Taking advantage of a 14-hour layover by exploring the city is an awesome idea unless you have food poisoning and simply feel like dying. Instead, paying a little extra to fly directly is probably worth it.
(a) Are we there yet? Or possibly (b) I wonder if I could fit onto that chair for a nap?                                                                                        
11. Check the entry requirements for each country you plan to visit. Americans can get pretty lax on this, assuming we need only to show up. Some countries (gasp!) actually do require visas, and some require that your passport expire over 6 months in the future. (Note, however, that you can get a new passport in just a few days in a last-minute, didn’t-realize-this-rule, impending-travel type situation).

Now, go forth and travel, preferably without acting like a bumbling Jessica.