Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Geography; when universities are spread out

My current university is in a definitively urban area, the kind where the blue light phones are definitely needed and parking is a constant struggle, yet it's very spread out.

The relevant academic buildings, including related departments and research centers, the library, and the gym are no closer than half a mile away, many are 1 1/2 miles from here. Even some buildings associated with the same department are half a mile from each other. I don't even know where the library is, because the 1 1/2 mile excursion is more of a commitment than I've thus far been willing to make, and regular attendance at the Wednesday lunchtime seminar requires a bicycle. Other universities in my city, just a few miles away, have closely-spaced buildings, but whoever laid out this campus decided to put buildings far apart from each other, even related buildings.

I truly do not understand how a university could come to this state: it's like someone decided to build the university one building at a time: set the building far back from the street so it didn't look too urban, put grass around it so no one else can use the land, put a parking lot nearby, and repeat for each building, ensuring a maximum density of 1-3 buildings per block.

My university is not the only one. Last year, I interviewed at a campus where land is very expensive, and yet it was necessary to drive from one part of campus to the other, for no apparent reason: the land between the buildings wasn't being used for much. Presumably, land used to be less expensive when the campus was originally laid out, though it still doesn't make sense they wouldn't put the buildings closer together.

As are many universities, the school is trying to improve itself, and yet I venture to say that it couldn't possibly be successful until they acquire a more standard urban campus layout. The poor layout is one reason I couldn't stay here longer than absolutely necessary.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The future: where we will live the rest of our lives

As I think I've mentioned, I'm currently living in the city where I grew up, and while growing up I was the typical socially awkward nerd. At a party last week, I met "Juliana" a woman who was not very interesting or noteworthy. When Juliana friended me on facebook, I noticed she was 2 years older and her last name "Weathersmithford" sounded slightly familiar, but I didn't think much about it. Gradually the name "Mary Weathersmithford" percolated to my consciousness and I felt my heart skip a beat. Mary was a year younger than I was, possibly her sister, and had mercilessly teased me throughout sixth grade, which I found particularly humiliating since I was older than she was.

When Juliana added friend details, I rejected them since I don't like that level of detail on facebook. When she added them again, I was curious why, so I decided to see if all of her friends had friend details. Indeed, they did, and near the top of her list of friends I noticed Katherine Cromwell. I inhaled sharply.

I'd been in school with Katherine beginning in kindergarten. She had always seemed friendly, and sometimes she really was. Starting in middle school, she and a few friends made an assiduous and ultimately successful effort to separate herself from the hoi polloi while seeming desirable to them. Naturally, Katherine had kept in touch with our classmates. I'd left with my few close friends and never looked back. Looking at her facebook friends, suddenly I felt like I was in middle school, granted access to a magic book of the future: some outcasts were attractive, and I cheered and friended them. Seeing others, I resisted the urge to run away or at least change my privacy settings.

I'm sure most of these people have abandoned their adolescent pettiness, and I may even be friends with people who were once petty adolescents. If I ever met these people, some might be interesting and with others my biggest concern would be politely excusing myself to end a boring conversation. The adolescent angst nonetheless still has surprising immediacy, and living in the city where I grew up, I may be reminded of it more often.

Thankfully, time only goes forward.

(I tried but failed to find the exact quote of the opening line of Plan 9 from outer space, which is about how the future is important because it is where we will live the rest of our lives.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Qualitative thoughts about the potential postdoc abroad

In previous posts, I've tried to stick to general issues about the postdoc, common to many postdoc positions. This post is entirely my attempt to formulate my personal confusion.

The year before I started grad school, I lived in the country where the potential postdoc is. Just now, while visiting for just the few days that I was there, I felt like I still lived there. I was in grad school for many years, so it's surprising that after such a long gap, I would feel like a resident, but I did. Within hours of arriving, I ran into half a dozen people that I knew, and throughout my time there, I ran into others who I knew, or people that I should know. E.g., the woman who found me the postdoc advisors, who I'd never met, turns out to be the country's major expert in the area of my current postdoc. I'm not sure why I didn't notice that before; maybe because it wasn't my area of focus at the time we first emailed. She was really excited to find out the subject of my current postdoc, and said that the field is still wide open in the country, and that I should consider applying for a faculty position at her university.

(A side note: at a conference, I met a woman because I noticed she was one of few people speaking the language of this country, so I introduced myself. She got her PhD in the department where my postdoc is, and told me all about how great the department is, and how she misses it now that she's working in the US. Say her name was Wanda Armadillo-Anteater. While visiting the department, I met Bill Armadillo, who was about her age, and within 10 seconds, I realized why Wanda might have moved to the US. How sad.)

I have a strong emotional attachment to the potential postdoc. I haven't lived abroad since I started grad school, and I really miss that, and want the chance to live abroad once more before my life settles down to be permanent. It's difficult to be in a temporary job before finding a permanent one, but I may as well take advantage of that while I can. The postdoc is located on a remote branch of the campus, making the commute a big pain, but unspeakably beautiful in places. On my way back after my meetings, I looked out on the surroundings and, feeling like there was no way that I could take the postdoc, started crying that this would not be part of my daily life. I was actually crying that I would not have what is undoubtably an annoying commute. Definitely a beautiful annoying commute, but still annoyingly long. A male friend said that I was emotional that day. Perhaps. Still.

One of my worries on going to the country temporarily was that most people there, even (especially?) expats, want to stay; even if they were willing to move, the two-body problem gets more difficult when crossing oceans. While visiting, I stayed with a guy who I met during my year before grad school living there, who I'd always liked as a friend, but not more. I liked him so much as a friend, in fact, that I wanted to set him up with my best friend; she never met him, but didn't like the idea. He and I were never so close, but we saw each other occasionally on vacations because he grew up in the city where I have some relatives.

Oddly, this time when I was staying with him, I felt like we were together. He was having a dinner and I helped him out a bit while preparing for it, and it eerily felt like we were a couple. He was more confident than before, and he looked oddly cute. He emphasized that he didn't want to stay in the country, and was relatively flexible about moving, and while he was very pointed about it, it didn't seem to be anything more than a statement. We went out together a fair amount while I was there, and it felt like dates, sharing some street food, playing pool. Actually, I want to correct that. It didn't feel like dates at all; I was not uncertain and I don't think he was either; it felt like we were already a couple even though we've never been on a date before. While we were waiting for my taxi, he crept his arm up the bench we were sitting so that it was eventually around me: extremely silly, but cute.

On the other hand: half of the postdoc is with someone who will be difficult and frustrating to work with; the resources and office space leave a great deal to be desired. At the foreign postdoc, I was promised a desk, but my current office is far larger and nicer than even the professors' offices. The grinch advisor was sharing a tiny office with 1-2 other people; he said it was a temporary situation while their building is being remodeled. The nice advisor mentioned how important it was to have good funding sources, and that the prestige, and not just the quantity, of funding matters a great deal. Being a foreign institution, getting funding from the US is prestigious and difficult to do. My current postdoc is a great opportunity, well-funded by prestigious sources, and I'm much happier in it than before. I'd been miserable in my current postdoc until we had a conference connected to the project and I started dating someone in the city. Now I'm pretty excited about the project we're working on, and I'm starting to realize that the major reason that I never get to see the person I'm working for is because he's always out speaking and raising money, which is what makes everything possible. I need to learn how to do this, and can probably learn a lot from him, and can also start working on some new projects once the current short-term project ends.

It's not possible to optimize everything. If I decide that for personal reasons, I want to be abroad, the fact that the US has better resources and opportunities should not matter as much because I've chosen to prioritize my personal interests.

The reasons that I've enumerated so far are all very personal and specific to me, but I think the basis of my ambivalence is relatively universal. One side of my mind says that since success in an academic career is not assured even in the best of circumstances, I may as well have fun along the way. Another side of my mind says that if academics work hard, they can end up with freedom and flexibility, and otherwise they have more constraints and more difficult choices. Especially since I slacked off during grad school, the efforts that I put in now may make a huge difference for my future, so it matters a great deal to have good resources.

The mentorship at the postdoc abroad may be somewhat better than here, but if I tried harder here I could probably find a mentor since it's a huge place.

The main issue is whether I want to be responsible and hope that it pays off in future dividends, which is actually something I haven't done a great deal of during my life, or go for personal gratification and hope that the future works out.

If I were the type of person who believed in fate, I would say that I felt like circumstances were pulling me very strongly towards the postdoc abroad: we could have had my current postdoc's conference in literally almost any part of the world and we had it close enough to the potential postdoc that it would be feasible for me to stop in; this guy who I've never been interested in, never looked at romantically, and haven't seen for at least 2 years happened to have a roommate who was traveling whose room I could stay in, and gradually I feel like we have a really compelling connection; in the few days I'm visiting the area, I run into way more people than I'd arranged to see. On the other hand, the situation here is compelling too, not as strongly, but definitely solid.

To be perfectly honest, moving abroad midyear scares the pants off of me. Definitely, moving at mid-year is more difficult: finding subletters, finding a sublet, packing and storing (plus I left a few awkward things back in my old city out of possibly misguided optimism). There's nothing scary in that difficulty, though. It is scary to walk away from the promising beginnings of a research project and the promising beginnings of a romantic relationship, towards a wonderful place with a lot of uncertainty. Leaving (reasonably) certain good for uncertain potentially better is scary.

Brass tacks: Will I stay or will I go?

While I've been running around the world, some assorted US travel, then my postdoc-specific conference abroad, then for visiting my postdoc and some friends, picking up the flu on my 10 hour plane flight back to the US, spending Thanksgiving with my family, and preparing for my dissertation defense (this week!), time has been passing, and the time to decide whether I'm taking the postdoc abroad has crept up.

After so much running around, it's really tempting to decide that I just want to stay in one place because geez I don't want to move around anymore, and be done with it, but being more systematic would be helpful, so the old-fashioned pro-con method:

Advantages of my current position:

1. This project is exciting but not interesting, but other research projects are really interesting: huge range of projects after this short-term one, many points of overlap with my past research; some research topics unique to here, on something I've always wanted to look at and never had the chance.

2. He is well-funded: i.e., (a) can stay as long as I want; (b) continued collaboration after I leave is possible; (c) adequate resources necessary for research; (d) hopefully I'll learn to apply for grants and develop my own relationships with these funders; (e) pay is ~15% higher than other postdocs I've seen; (f) I have my own office with a window for the first time ever; (f) the printers here work well (clearly the most important feature in any postdoc!).

3. Starting to like some parts of the city: I'm close to my parents and some extended family, I like my roommate (also a postdoc, who I've known for awhile before this, with an inspirational work ethic), the guy I've been dating, my apartment, and some of the entertaining things around the city. I admit, the guy is the main thing which turned my attitude around; it's very lonely to be in a new place.


1. Not much connection with others: seminars in the department are only about monthly; there are weekly seminars elsewhere which are geographically far away so hard to attend; haven't met many people, partly my fault for not knocking on random people's doors to say hi, but partly I'm surprised that's necessary to meet people. Rephrasing: I have to work much harder here to connect with others, compared with a place with more frequent seminars and related departments closer together.

2. One of the major parts of being a postdoc is finding a mentor, and I would have to work very hard to find one here.

3. Dislike some parts of the city: weather, culture/community feel, not many other academics around, commute, not sure I'll end up making more friends beyond the people I already know from academic settings and places I've lived before.

Advantages of new position:

1. I'd really like to live there, both for the general opportunity to live abroad, and to specifically live there, before taking a permanent position and feeling tied down to one place. I would not go so far as to say that my life would feel forever empty if I didn't go abroad, but I do sometimes long to be abroad. The more cynical side of me says that if I can't be fantastic in my field, at least I can be personally interesting! But truly it's great to be there, and when I visited I realized how much I missed it.

2. One of the advisors seems like she'd be a fantastic mentor, and she seems really to care about working with me and helping my career. My grad school advisors were always very hands-off, reading drafts on completion, meeting no more frequently than monthly, and I've thought it might be a good idea to have a closer advising relationship before moving on in my career.


1. Research is more uncertain: they have some good projects going, but I don't know a great deal about them and there will definitely need to be some negotiation. Likely, some projects will be helpful for my career and others will require some assertiveness on my part to make sure I only do work which is helpful for my career rather than a general feeling of gratitude to the postdoc advisor.

2. Difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to travel for interviews, on a salary which cannot support a great deal of extra expense. Especially if there's a second body involved by this point. The extra coordination involved could make it hard to get a good permanent job straight-away.

3. It's emotionally difficult to move halfway around the world, and then leave again. My family is afraid I'll move and stay there. I know many people do stay longer than they intend.

As complicated at the decision is, it's reassuring to look at these reasons and conclude that's the sum of it.

No decision yet, but I feel good to have laid out the issues.

Money + Connections = academic success

The title is a bit sarcastic, but I don't mean it to be. Sometimes I'm naive: I took years to realize how important money and connections were since my professors in college and graduate school always had both, so I took their benefits for granted until I started traveling on my job market tour and seeing how estranged people in remote places felt from the places they perceived as being the academic center. I didn't realize that there was an academic center, really. It hardly seemed like much was really happening where I was, or at the other "in" schools, that was any different from most other schools, until I noticed how much benefit came from the networks and funding.

It's hardly a salacious revelation that funding buys useful implements, such as graduate students. To middle class people raised to be slightly disdainful of materialism, the fact that money can be useful is nonetheless sometimes surprising, both in their professional and personal lives. Before I started grad school, I was speaking to a postdoc, and he said that when he was 22 he knew he was not materialistic --- he had no interest in fancy tastes --- but now that he is married and wants to have a child, he wants to live in a house with a yard in a good school district, and for the first time he realized that the financial trade-offs he made by choosing to go to graduate school instead of medical school had a real impact on the life he wanted to live. The lack of clarity is not limited to academics, of course: I know a couple where both are clergy members, and the wife once told me, "There's nothing more materialistic than having to watch every penny." She had been feeling awfully materialistic lately, it seems.

Professionally, I'm starting to see her viewpoint: there is a great deal of freedom to be able to make professional decisions such as going to as many useful meetings as you can, to get supplies that make substantial contributions to the work, and not economize where the work or its dissemination might otherwise be better.

So to say that job decisions should be made on the basis of some kind of pure motives of intellectual curiosity is patently ridiculous, but one of the myths that goes along with academia's disdain for mentions of money. If the choice is to study the most important subjects in the world without the resources to do more than a merely adequate job, versus to study marginally less important subjects with enough resources to do a bang-up job, it seems clear to me that marginally less important wins out. As pragmatic as I am, even this next step makes me feel a little strange: it also seems to follow that jobs should be chosen not just for the intellectual opportunities, but for the funding opportunities that they might open up.

So given the choice between working with someone with fantastic funding so the potential for continued collaboration over the long term, and someone who has not particularly good funding, the less-funded person and their projects would have to be pretty darn amazing to be better than the well-funded one.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Postdocs: training or labor source

I have a potential postdoc abroad, administered by a foundation. The foundation pays half our salaries, and the other half is covered by a faculty sponsor. Two professors are splitting my cost. Earlier this week, I visited the potential postdoc on my way back from a conference abroad, my first conference outside the US.

The justification for postdoc positions is to offer continued training, such as specialization or professional development, prior to a permanent job. Since postdocs are a halfway position between graduate school and a "real" job, they're paid, but usually significantly less than faculty. Despite the intention for postdocs to be engaged in training and professional development, sometimes postdocs turn out just to be a labor source for faculty in ways which do not serve their professional interests.

The official postdoc regulations at Potential Postdoc University say that postdocs are not expected to do any specific work in return for their funding. A philosopher friend of mine took this postdoc several years back, and all he did was work in the library on his own projects. Since I suspect that there's very little research assistance that his sponsoring philosophy professor could ask from him, there was little risk that he would be used as a labor source. In many fields, though, sponsors can get some return on their money by asking their postdoc to contribute to their existing projects. Since the sponsor believes that the projects are useful for their own career, it's easy to justify that any productive work is professional development for their advisee.

I met with my two potential advisors separately, and they illustrated this tension perfectly. The first started the meeting by saying, "Here are the two projects you'll be working on." and then describing the projects, neither of which was clearly related to my past research and were arguably not even in my field, so wouldn't improve my marketability. Since he does do work in my field, it should be possible to find a project that would help both of us, but we didn't get that far in discussion.

The second asked me what I would like to do, what would help me in my career, and whether I'd later be interested in applying for a faculty job there; and she suggested some projects which were definitely in my field, and said others were possible using existing resources.

The two approaches could not be more different. One thinks only about his own needs, and forces the postdoc to start a new advising relationship in an adversarial way by objecting to her marching orders, and if necessary pointing to the university's postdoc regulations. After these negotiations, either everything would work out, or the relationship would be poisoned and the advisor would refuse to renew the funding. The other clearly wants to do her own projects, but also wants to make sure that the postdoc's larger professional development is served by the work.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The club which would have me as a member

The Groucho Marx phenomenon --- wouldn't want to belong to a club which would have me as a member --- is yet another area where dating and academia overlap. I'm sure it's in the social psych literature, though I've not seen it, though the endowment effect is kind-of related.

Every talk that I have ever given and every conference that I have ever spoken at are not a big deal, and their flaws seem glaring. Even journals and institutions, where you can't take for granted your continued affiliation, seem like not such a big deal, though the second it seems like you might not be able to get hired/accepted they resume being a big deal and the flaws seem less prominent. Everyone that I've ever dated is just them, feels very approachable and especially if they seem excessively interested, I notice their flaws, but as soon as the relationship appears in doubt, their flaws become less important.

It's an unfortunate way to see the world, and I wish I didn't, or at least that I understood why I did.

But at least I have the flaw in common with a very funny dead guy. Any ideas?

. . .

Once I saw a blog with the habit of keeping a list of gratitudes. Maybe that helps.

I'm going to start such a list for my university/postdoc.

1. It's not at the top of any field, but they're growing in my area and there's a lot of energy directed towards improving it, and the energy can be contagious (hopefully!)

2. (Relatedly) People are friendly.

3. I have a huge office all to myself with a somewhat entertaining view.

Anvil: postscript

Thanks to Matthew for the idea to frame my talk as a "Newcomer's Take." It is something that happens all the time that people start in new areas, and I appreciate the reassurance. I feel silly for having not paced myself on this material since now I'm playing catch-up with very little time before my talk, and I've maybe spent 3 hours on the literature total, ever. This is a very applied area, but I think you're right that there's room for a few slides of speculation so I'll return my technical semi-bullshit to the talk.

I ended up sending a hopefully not too cranky note to my postdoc advisor telling him for the first time that I hope that in the future we can find a way to use my strengths instead of my undergrad RA skills. That didn't help one bit with the research, but it did make me stop feeling so passive-agressive about the whole issue and like I can continue with my life.

Post-postscript: I brought a literally 8 inch stack of papers with me to the conference abroad, and compiled them into something to say. I found some common ideas, some of my own criticisms and critical thinking to the ideas, tried to apply it to the mission. My postdoc advisor spoke for 2 hours prior to my talk, and during his talk, I made at least half a dozen more slides as I thought of new ideas related to what he was saying. My final talk was definitely passable, and maybe someone somewhere actually learned something. I did make prominent reference to my upcoming defense, so hopefully that excused quite a lot.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

An anvil over my head

I have to give a presentation for my postdoc at a conference that we're hosting, and I'm totally toast.

My postdoc is in a subject area that I'm not at all familiar with, using theories that I'm not at all familiar with. I have some strengths which could be useful to them; I accepted the job because I assumed they would be using my strengths, and I would also get to travel. When I first started working, my postdoc "advisor", in quotes because I've met him exactly twice ever, assigned me five small projects, all of which were the sort for undergraduate RAs: get all the literature on a given topic, summarize it with gross generalizations, ignore the inevitable frustration that the undergrad RA doesn't know how much already exists to summarize, so is undoubtably needlessly duplicating others' efforts. Such work is totally useless for my career, of course. I don't know why he doesn't have an undergraduate do the work, unless the undergradautes here are dumb. Which is possible.

As a result, I've spent the past two months assiduously avoiding this work, and doing work that is actually helpful for my career, such as finishing my dissertation, submitting an article to a journal, giving conference presentations on my own work, and applying to jobs. I've arguably been more productive in the past two months than any other two month period during graduate school, even with moving.

But soon I have to do a presentation on a vague topic that my advisor has assigned to me, and I have nothing. The way that he assigned the topic to me, by the way, was by sending around a meeting agenda on which I was listed under the topic. The guy after me is a man working and presenting on the (more technical) topic which would have been more logical for me to work on were I not assigned to do the work of an undergraduate RA. And we're doing the conference in a very sexist part of the world.

I have a few options:

1. He said that I could just do a "discussion" if I wanted, since he knows that I have been spending all my time on my dissertation. I don't have anything to discuss, though.

2. I've discovered lots of presentations online from his colleagues, which I noticed themselves were mainly taken from other sources, so I could combine all of these into one big presentation and claim it's on the assigned subject.

3. I could think really hard and come up with technical semi-bullshit. This lets me win the technical penis length contest, maybe it will be useful, but maybe I will just make a fool out of myself such as by reinventing the wheel. Because the whole point is that I don't know anything about the field.

With the postdoc as a whole, now that I've been trying to work even just a little bit on his crap, I wonder what I was smoking that I thought I could just go ahead and do it and work on my own research in the rest of my time. Spending 20 hours a week acting like an undergraduate RA is a gigantic waste of my time even if I'm rather fond of a guy who lives here. So far, every minute that I spend on this work instead of my own work feels like such a blatant waste of time that I can't stand to continue and want to go back to my real work.

The conference will be my third time meeting my advisor, and it would be a good idea to use the opportunity to point out that my undergraduate RA literature summary skills have gotten rusty and maybe I could do something that I might be good at.

In either case, my presentation is exactly one slide long. I made 3 slides of technical semi-bullshit and felt bad about it: I don't want to piss off or confuse or snub our international collaborators. Discussion it is!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Decisions under uncertainty

The commenter Tingel and some people that I know in real life have a good point: I have really good choices. I am grateful for them, and regard them as almost magical especially since I was at one point on academic probation and then dismissed from graduate school (literally). I do want to acknowledge how grateful I am.

Less than two weeks ago, I was almost certain I was going abroad. I even found a visiting scholar who is willing to sublet my apartment if I am going. Then I had a date which went really well. We've now gone out three times, and I feel cautiously optimistic. It's not some grand feeling of connectedness --- after all, you hardly know someone after 3 dates. The fantastic relief is simply that I have no doubts.

I truly like almost everyone that I've ever gone on a date with, and feel like I could be friends with them, and sometimes even feel attracted to them, but after a few dates little sarcastic comments go off in the back of my mind when I'm with them. Otherwise, they're fantastic, so it seems strange that I could turn someone down because of niggling thoughts in the back of my head; I feel conflicted for awhile, and then stop dating them. (Assuming, of course, that they haven't stopped dating me first! I've had my share of inexplicably painful rejections after one or two dates, the most painful and funniest of which I can't tell because I would be instantly recognizable to anyone I've ever told the story to.)

So it's great to spend time with someone and simply enjoy it. I have to make some decisions about going abroad in the near future, and it feels strange to let someone who I've had only three dates with influence the process since I hardly know him.

I thought of a good way to make the decision, however: Due to our travel schedules, I'm not going to get to see him much before I have to make the decision, so I'm just going on the three dates. Thinking back to everyone that I've gone on at least three dates with in the past few years, I remember five. I feel better about him than the ones who didn't work out, and as good about him as the ones who turned into good relationships. I have no idea whether this will turn into a good relationship too, but it's reassuring that in the past I knew which would be good relationships after just a few dates.

Going abroad after dating him for just 1-2 more months would really put a lot of pressure on the relationship. Since going abroad isn't a clearly superior career move for me, if I care about the potential relationship, staying here makes more sense than going.

Plus, despite all the ways in which my postdoc is difficult and feels unfair, I've not coincidentally felt more optimistic about it lately. I've mentally disengaged from it a bit, so I will have to reengage and just commit to doing the job of an undergraduate RA and my own research at the same time.

I will undoubtably think about the decision a few more times in the next few days, but I feel pretty solid about it. As much as I hem and haw when things are so-so, when things are good, I do know they're good. I felt that way about a paper that I finished yesterday. I was working at home, without the benefit of a printer, so I edited entirely on the screen, but when I finished the paper was solidly there. I feel good about its chances with a journal, and am thinking of submitting it to an audaciously better journal than originally planned.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Dating and mental reservations

Some sketches of recent dates.

* Stephen is the sort of field where you work six miscellaneous jobs to use your creative skills, in addition to your real job as a creative person. He's medium height, maybe on the short side, and stocky, but stocky rather than fat, grew up in a large urban area and came here for grad school and stayed. He has hair. He's funny, interesting to talk with, smart, fun to spend time with, and seems confident about normal life, but has an undercurrent of insecurity. It was pouring rain and at the end of our second date, he paused awkwardly outside my building. The pause was so awkward and our conversation up until then had been so good that I just invited him up rather than get wet. A few more similarly awkward pauses followed at various points, and finally he asked if he could kiss me. If he had just tried to kiss me with anything resembling confidence I probably would have kissed back, but something about his question was so awkward that I couldn't resist turning it into a conversation about why he wanted to kiss me and what it would really mean to kiss someone you'd known for just a few hours in total. He said that he's the kind of guy who has a lot of female friends, and these are the kind of female friends who are just friends, rather than girlfriends and he'd really like to have a girlfriend, and he's afraid if he doesn't kiss someone early on he'll be doomed to having another "just a friend". It was so sad and sweet. I liked him, and he made a comment or two about his weight that he probably thinks that when people don't want to date him it's because of his weight, but it's really just confidence. I know he'll meet someone and have a great relationship even if his confidence doesn't improve.

* Mike is just a regular guy. Grew up in the area and has never lived anywhere else, tall, well-built, older, looks like a J Crew model, charismatic, went to North-East-West-South State University with a major in nothing in particular, has worked various "just a job" jobs, has lots of street smarts and interest in wide variety of unconventional things, and is really interesting to talk to. He is smart, but was noticably slower to pick up on things than I'm used to. I didn't ask what he was like in high school, but I really have the feeling that he was the sort who would have never talked to me unless we were characters in an ABC Afterschool Special, the sort where the star basketball player gets tutored in math and starts to realize his math tutor could be pretty hot if she took off her clothes. Obviously not a match, but he's so charismatic that it took a few dates for me to realize that. I'm a sucker for charisma.

The really big contrast between Mike and Stephen is that Mike did not make even the slightest effort to do more than shake my hand. The contrast made me wonder: do the less charismatic have to try harder, or are people less charismatic because they do try harder?

As much as each of these guys has concrete things that I can name that bugged me, the bottom line was that I had these doubts and arguments in the back of my mind about whether I was a snob for not wanting to date Mike, or all the great things about Stephen and how it would be great to date him even though I had no real interest. Lately I've been seeing someone who I have no such doubts about. I'm sure that things will come up, and I will be relieved when they do since it's a bit eerie right now. Right now it is such smooth sailing that I forgot there could ever be bumps or lulls.

Just living life

I had some phone interviews this morning, and the attitude of one of my interviewers really captured the ideal existence. When talking about her position, she said, "I don't know if I'll get promoted. I'll just enjoy it while I'm here and see what happens."

For all that we worry about the job search, everyone ends up with some job. The malcontents will grouse and the optimists will be happy, and there will be advantages and disadvantages. Even the best-funded positions sometimes lack resources or support.

Only at the points of transition, do we think about the specifics of life, sometimes getting down (at least in my case) into the nit-picky details that you can never really know. When you start a new job, you fill your life again, quite literally: furniture for oddly-shaped spaces; staple foods to fill the shelves; friends to build a new social world; a routine with commuting routes, supermarkets, laundry, seminars; activities like a gym, running paths, volunteer work. But at some point, the work is done, it's all settled, and you can just live your life.

It can be tempting sometimes to live in the transition points. Starting over brings hope --- filling a new apartment is the adult version of shopping for school supplies as a child or mulling over syllabi to choose classes as a college student. In the transition points, there is all the potential in the world, the tasks are simple, and bad habits aren't important, but there's no life to be lived in transition.

At the moment that life starts again, you can fall behind, procrastinate, sleep late, come late, miss something, get behind, and since I'm a perfectionist sometimes I just want to go back before everything started and try again for perfect. Of course, at the moment that life starts again, you can make progress, make mistakes, learn something, do something, come very close to finishing something and in one last great push finish it, meet people, come early, start earlier than you would have expected, enjoy sleeping late, until at least 7:30 because you deserve it. I want to try to see things in this latter way, but the former feels more natural.

Life has started. Settled is where I am right now. My furniture is settled and I am really actually fond of it, and especially I love the way that the sun comes in the apartment in the morning; my kitchen shelves are full; I am making friends and have more people I'd like to spend time with than time to spend with them; routine is difficult to establish especially with travel and interruptions, but I'm getting there, I have a roommate who is a good pace-setter, and at least I've nearly figured out transportation; and I've started some hobbies and have lists of others to try when I have the chance. What is left for me is simply to live my life, and as scary as it is, I really want to do that: to have a solid 10 hours every day in which to finish the unfinished projects and papers and start the new ideas that have been sitting in the back of my mind, and just be efficient. It's a tricky balance to be settled enough to put in regular hours for long periods to finish projects, yet to feel unsettled enough to push and finish and not let things get more and more leisurely, slowing down into the Doldrums, the place you end up when you don't know where you're going in the words of the Phantom Tollbooth.

I don't know what will happen. I'll just enjoy it while I'm here and see what happens.

A note about comments

I'm new to blogging, but it looks like I can approve all of a comment or none of it, so if a comment has a private portion and a public portion I can't post only part of the comment.