quote of the day: wisdom of the ancients

(by potnia theron) Mar 22 2017

The avaricious man is like the barren sandy ground of the desert which sucks in all the rain and dew with greediness, but yields no fruitful herbs or plants for the benefit of others. --Zeno

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Change is good, mostly, I think

(by potnia theron) Mar 22 2017

Change is good. It's been one of my guiding stars. I've written about it here.

Sometimes I've initiated the changes. I've moved several times. I've changed spouses/partners. And sometimes the changes initiate me: I've buried people I love, both older and younger. The finality of losing a person is an ache that is like nothing else.

Change, and all the good things that come from change are accompanied by loss and sadness. They have to be. Change means leaving something behind. Here is something I wrote about the sadness (which is a paraphrased quote from a book I love):

 But as I watch things in my life recede in time, I too wish that the psychic umbilicus would snap and whip my sadness down the long corridor to the void of oblivion.

Right now, things are changing in my life, in my science, in the people I work with. That's the nature of what we do. We nurture, we mentor, we help, and when we get to be close or even just friendly, the people with whom we work leave. Or they die. My oldest, bestest, longest collaborator is turning 90.

I started to write that I am better at the sadness now than I was. But its not better. Its just different. I too change.


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Why I write (elderly support edition)

(by potnia theron) Mar 15 2017

I've written a lot about my Mom, her dementia, my caregiving during the process. I've gotten lots of support here, for doing so. I thank you all for that. I feel like this community understood what I meant, and to a large extent what I felt.

Of course, not everyone. I've gotten some good & well meaning suggestions about how to deal with dementia. I've also gotten some stronger, and I suppose equally well meaning if I could get past the instructions on what to do, suggestions.

Here is from a comment I wrote to one of the obviously well-meaning bits on taking care of the elderly:

As for this post, it is about the feelings I have had while taking care of my mother, while watching her die . None of us [who do what I did] is looking for, expecting, or hoping for things to be different. We are telling our stories because that is how we cope.

We are telling our stories because that is how we cope. We read each other's stories so we can learn each other's coping strategies. Please, I don't need instructions on how to be a daughter. I've had plenty of experience.

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Marriage and divorce and women (scientists & otherwise)

(by potnia theron) Mar 14 2017

I started a post this morning about generations and anger and the world at large. As I thought back on what it felt like to me, when I was a sprout, a particularly strong memory came to me.

About this time four men I knew, professionally, at work, were getting divorces. One was my dept chair, one was a person with whom I wanted to collaborate, and the other two were co-teachers in then large and topically integrated first year med school class that was my teaching assignment. White privileged men, but all took some interest in mentoring me, and helping me. The dept chair had been very much responsible for me getting the job I did (when most of the other candidates were significantly senior, and already had tenure track jobs, I was just a postdoc at the time). But, in today's climate, let me be clear, there was no inappropriate behavior or pressure. It could be that they were honorable. It could be that I have always given off bristly signals, and have not, am not, and do not give off traditional female signals. No body has ever accused me of being sexy, let alone attractive.

I did not really know any of the wives, having met each once or twice at social things. I was kinda used to this by now. I had been the only women in several programs I had been part of it, and was used to the awkwardness of work related social situations. But mostly these were wives and mothers and women who had given up careers for being wives and mothers (most were Silent Generation, and some early boomer generation women). When I was younger I was more dismissive of women who were not professionals. I'm older than that now. I knew two of them and they struck me as being not very nice to me, but this is through my memory and thirty years of growing up.  The other two were just frosty the figures, no one I would want to marry (not that same sex marriage was remotely on the horizon even then).

But the memory that is strongest is something along the lines of: while I wouldn't want to be married to any of the women, I certainly wouldn't want to be involved with any of their husbands. It made me glad to be where I was (at the time) in terms of my life. Of course, in retrospect, there was not a lot of "work/life balance" in my world at that time. You did science/research/medicine or you did not.  But looking at these men & their lives, set up some major cognitive dissonance, as these were men I (sorta kinda) admired in the professional arena. Yet, they were pretty much schmucks in their private lives.

It was one of my early lessons that people can seem different in different contexts. People *are* different in different contexts. These men tried, a little, to protect me from the only other woman in the department, a toxic senior woman (to whom, in memory, I try to be more generous, her road was likely harder than mine, but really, she was evil).  They helped me to get funded, to start my career, to help me a success. I'm still glad I wasn't married to any of them.



But the


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NIH and IC Assignment

(by potnia theron) Mar 13 2017

It's doesn't really matter who funds you, as long as you have money.

Some people care passionately about this. I think its a waste of energy.


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Taking care of our elderly

(by potnia theron) Mar 10 2017

Last weekend I had breakfast with one friend, and dinner with another. They both are caregivers for their Moms. Both, however, have recently moved their Moms from home to assisted living/Alzheimer's units. The medical conditions are different in these Moms, and the personalities were different before the disease.

Yet, dementia brings on changes in personality that are as tough as they are predictable. Some is a loss of executive function, and the ability, nay desire, to say whatever enters your head. I remember "You can't be my child, because I don't have so many horrible genes". Some is anger at loss of function, or bluster for covering up mental lapses. One parent of a different friend became sweet and kind and charming. But that's the only one I can recall that the changes were perceived as an improvement.

My friends are women I've known for a while, the three years since I moved to almost-MRU. They've listened to me go through the pain, yes the pain, of watching my mother slip away. We've talked about this over the years. One friends mother is just in the beginning stages, and the other about a year behind my mother. The emotion burden is huge. And I will admit to feeling some relief when listening to them that these particular stages were over, for me.

One of the moms is angry. All the time. Painfully angry. Demanding people who are gone. Demanding the presence of my friend, all the time. It is hard to leave your crying mother, whether she is angry or emotionally bereft. I know this feeling. The only thing worse is when they forget to ask you to stay, just a minute more. Or when they can no longer scream at you, demand, plead.

The other mom has lost language. At first, language loss, albeit with speech, still, seems a relief. No more harangues, no more ridiculous requests, no more crying for people who have been dead for 20 or 50 years. But quickly,  for children caring for parents, this becomes a new loss. One of the things about AD is that you lose your parent or spouse or friend over and over and over again.

Each stage, each change is a knife in the heart. Some days, leaving my mom, coming home, I would look down at my chest and expect to see blood seeping through my clothes. I would think: this is the worst it can get. My mother was no longer crying for specific people, but tears and tears and tears for unknown sadness beyond words. There is often no way to comfort people with AD. They are angry, and then worse, they do not know you want to comfort them.


My friend, whose mother no longer has language, who is drifting into that twilight where neither mother nor daughter can see anything, showed me a picture of her mom. Here it is, with my friends permission. I took one look, and knew that it was the same picture I had of my mother. Our mothers, who remembering nothing else in their lives, remember being a mother.


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Ways to Run The Lab

(by potnia theron) Mar 08 2017

Some of the best insights about how labs work come from people who are trainees with me. I do my best to encourage a "flat lab", with as little hierarchy as possible. Someone (carpet people, from the part of the university where there are carpets on the floor, as opposed to us linoleum/tile people) recently was shocked that I encourage the medical students to call me by first name in my lab. What the heck. That is  a very little thing. There are much bigger things: like actually listening to these students in lab meeting, when planning and treating their ideas and thoughts with respect or criticizing a particular idea or strategy and not the person who said it. My thesis advisor once told me (something like): I can't believe you brought this piece of trash to me and are wasting my time. That was over 35 years ago, and I still remember it. But he's dead.

One of the insights, directly from trainees that I have seen over the years is how uncomfortable "business operation" labs make them. If they wanted to train with a postdoc instead of a PI they would pick the postdoc, not the particular lab. This is likely a reflection of the people who are attracted to my particular brand of lab-chaos or people who care less about being in a shiny lab or doing "cutting edge science" and more about learning something.

I am a fan of "meta-rules", over-arching guidelines that pre-empt having lots of little rules to think about. For grant writing, the meta-criterion is "make the reviewer your advocate", or more aptly "do not piss off the reviewer".

For running a lab and mentoring, one meta-criterion is treat your people like human beings, the way you would want to be treated. You'll make mistakes, we all do and have and will continue to do. But seeing people as people will go a long way to making things work.

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I am exhausted, but other people are more tired

(by potnia theron) Mar 07 2017

Read this: What I Told My White Friend When He Asked For My Black Opinion On White Privilege.

Thank you, Lori Lakin Hutcherson (Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Good Black News).


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Things that exhaust me

(by potnia theron) Mar 02 2017

First, a word about exhaustion. I am finding that at my age (and believe me, 40 is the new 20) that I am far more easily exhausted than I was at, say 40. Let alone 20.

I find two kinds of exhaustion. There is the kind that is a whoosh. Good job. Done. Hard work, but damn those results, they are worth every minute and every speck of energy. Thank you lab group for that. Thank you animal unit staff. Thank you postdoc and grad student and visiting med student and everyone else. Thank you tech who has moved on to different things. The experiments were a success. A grand, exhausting success.

The second kind of things have no upside.

I am tired of not being taken seriously. Young women are not taken seriously, but old women are not taken seriously in new and different ways. I've seen a lot of life. I've reviewed more grants than you have. I have reviewed more papers and seen more good people lose it and evil, ugly people triumph. Occasionally, I've even seen the game come out right and even more occasionally seen the idiots get their comeuppance. I've buried children and parents and more than one best friend. I don't know everything. Hell, I don't know a lot. But there is Stuff that I know. Stuff that only comes from walking this earth for 60 years (assuming mobility at 18 months of age). I am tired of not being taken seriously.

I am tired of the young idiots on Twitter judging me because they've got a Death Grip On Truth and how dare I judge them. I wasn't judging you, darling. You're a bit sensitive there. I was talking about stuff I know.

I am tired of the fat, old, bald white men at my university being condescending to me, and then turning to flirt with the young female faculty. Sociobiologists would say, well, they're still reproductive and you're not. I do not exist to some of these men anymore. I'm not saying that not being seen is worse than only being seen as a sex object, I'm saying there are men who do not see other human beings, as human beings.

I am tired of other men, well-meaning men, men who do see women,  men who say "I am a feminist" and yet interrupt me every third sentence, or tell me to wait "while I finish this thought".  I'm back to "Potnia is really smart, but she's a bit aggressive and a pain in the ass".

I was not at the time, and am not right now, interested in making political statements to any of these people. I am interested in getting a job done, sharing my knowledge, helping others. I'd like to say I'm tired of fighting these battles. I am tired of fighting these battles. But. You. Cannot. Stop.

Yet, yet...

To my friends of color, my Muslim brothers and sisters and non-gendered sibs, my immigrant-from-wherever colleagues, my LBGT family: I see this for me, but I know there are things that are worse for you. I know for every ounce of exhaustion I have in fighting these fights, you have one more fight than me, you have that much less energy than me.  I do not know your battle, but I have some insight from fighting mine. I will not stop fighting for you. I promise.

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How hard you work and the Red Queen: repost

(by potnia theron) Feb 20 2017

I wrote two things, one two years ago, and one about a year ago about working hard, hours and balance. There's been lots of talk on the tweets about how hard people should work. As if should was a real thing. Here are the valuable bits (much more in each of these posts):

Firstest thing:


It's a worthwhile exercise to sit down and actually track the hours you really work. When I was in grad school a friend of a friend was a French woman (she impossibly old and chic and beautiful to me at the time), call her Martine, who had two little children, and was single by choice. Martine was doing a visiting postdoc in the US for 9 months to learn techniques. She absolutely worked only from 8 to 4. Everyone was aghast, and predicted doom and failure. But, I watched some, and talked to my friend some, and it was very clear that when Martine worked, she worked. She did had one cup of coffee at 10:30 or so in the morning. That was it. Lunch was at her desk reading. Martine did not avoid the social relationships that are part of what make a lab work, and the discussions about science. But she didn't go to the gym in the middle of the day, she didn't hang out on the lawn or play volleyball or talk about fashion or movies. She didn't surf the web, which was largely impossible as there was no web at the time.

What struck me at the time, and stayed with me these many years, was that this woman had made decisions about what was important to her, and what she was going to do, large and small scale.

A final thought, from my blogmom (hi Mom!), she of untold and sometimes told wisdom:

Work and children and families are funny little fuckers though. If you let them, they will expand and fill every crevasse of your day and leave you with nothing.  Nothing, I tell you.

We all deserve more than nothing.


Secondest thing:

..where that line between "obscene" demands and "strong" demands can be and often is drawn in many places.

Leigh Van ValenThe Red Queen from Alice became an acceptable model/trope in evolutionary biology visa vi Leigh Van Valen, a character if there ever was one (the link to the original publication for The Red Queen Hypothesis). The Red Queen is simply that one must run as hard one can to stay in place, as the RQ tells Alice:

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that. -- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

In evolutionary biology, this came to imply that if a species did not evolve, but stayed in place, it would go extinct, given that it was existing in an ever changing environment and competing with other species that were evolving.

In the cultural context of academic survival, it means that if there are fewer places (jobs or grants) than people who want them, one must run as hard as the others who also desire those ends. I am not saying this is A Good Thing, or that it is A Bad Thing. It is merely A  Thing, and to a large extent, A True Thing. One's emotional response to this is, to a large extent, irrelevant. We can all commit to changing the system. We can work towards being different.

But, when you are a postdoc, or an untenured faculty, railing against this, tweeting furiously will not change the fact that if you want to succeed, you need to achieve standards. And those standards are often made in comparison to other people who are also running as hard as they can.

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