Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Maybe four years was not long enough

In addition to the fainting woman, there was another faculty candidate whom I vividly remember. Several of us from the lab went to her seminar even though she was applying for a job in the physics department because her graduate research had been on block copolymers which was a primary focus of our lab as well. Once again, I don’t really remember her talk much. What I do remember, however, is that she got her Ph.D. in four years.

Impressed? Don’t be. First of all, having a Ph.D. is far, far less impressive than people who don’t have Ph.D.’s think. The first thing to go in grad school is your respect for the degree. And second of all, it’s fairly obnoxious to mention an accomplishment, any accomplishment, every five minutes. As I said, I forget what her talk was about, but it went something like this: “Hello, my name is Only Four Years. I got my Ph.D. in four years. In the lab, I studied block copolymers, but only for four years, because that’s all the time I needed to get my Ph.D. Just the four years. So, block copolymers, which I studied for four years before earning my Ph.D., are really cool and useful. Much like a Ph.D. which I got in four years.”

But here’s the thing. After her talk, I would say that her answers to at least half of the questions posed by the audience were, “I did not have time to examine that.” Sure, she usually elaborated a bit and theorized as to what would have happened had she examined whatever the question was about, but the point remains that she didn’t actually examine it. At this point, The Doktah nudged me, rudely awakening me I expect, and whispered, “Maybe she should have taken more than four years and looked at a few of these questions!” Because, I don’t know if I mentioned this, but this particular speaker earned a Ph.D. in only four years.

She did not get the job.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

I'm a little bit country, he's a little bit out of the loop

The Husband has no grasp of pop culture. He has some sort of brain shield that protects him from all the pop culture related information that somehow permeates the brain of every person in America. For example: We recently started watching the Lost Season 1 DVD’s. The first shot of the first episode is a close up of Matthew Fox, lying in the jungle. The Husband’s comment: “Why is he lying in the middle of the jungle?”

“He fell out of a plane,” I said. Now, I had never seen the show either. But I was of course aware of the general premise that it was about a bunch of people whose plane crashed on a deserted island. How could you not be aware of that? And yet, he didn’t seem to know.

But I’ve been long accustomed to his knowledge gap. Whenever there is a conversational reference to a person who was famous before 1985 and who has nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy, I have to check that The Husband knows who that person is. It’s a little like being married to someone from another country. Last night, for example, we were at the In-Laws’ house, and I asked my mother-in-law the name of the man married to one of her cousins. “Danny Thomas,” she said.

“Oh, that should be easy to remember,” I said, and she agreed. Then I said, “But not for The Husband, because he has no idea who Danny Thomas is.” Mother-in-law expressed surprise, and asked The Husband if this were true.

“Yes, I know who Danny Thomas is,” he said scornfully, rolling his eyes.

“Really?” I said, surprised, and there were a few minutes of conversation about Danny Thomas during which The Husband slowly realized something.

“Wait, I know who Danny Thomas your cousin’s husband is. If there is another Danny Thomas, then I don’t know him,” he said.

“Ah ha!” I said. “That’s what I thought. Well, he was a comedian in the 50’s. He was on Make Room for Daddy, and he started St. Jude’s Hospital. He’s also Marlo Thomas’s father, but, of course, you don’t know who she is.” He had to admit that he did not. To his credit, he did turn out to know who Jack Benny was.

When I explained to Mother-in-law that The Husband doesn’t know pop culture, she said it must be because he was always reading when he was growing up. “Even if we were all watching TV, he had a book in front of him at the same time,” she said. But, you see, that does not explain it. Because I, too, read a lot when I was growing up. But I have determined that one of the differences between my and The Husband’s pop cultural education is that, while we both read a lot of books as children, I read books from many genres and he read fantasy. Sometimes he would branch out into science fiction, but not often. And there are not a lot of references to Donnie and Marie in The Sword of Shaara. We have also decided that the other factor must be The Husband’s tendency to completely dismiss information that he deems unimportant. If he doesn’t already know who or what people are talking about, he just casts it from his mind.

He must do this, because until about four years ago when I brought them up in conversation, The Husband had never heard of Donnie and Marie. I admit that most people my age probably would not recognize Donnie and Marie if they saw them, and I bet a lot of my friends probably think they are married instead of brother and sister, and most are probably unsure of the reason for their fame, but when I say The Husband had never heard of them, I mean he had never heard of them. He did not know that the names “Donnie and Marie” are forever linked in the minds of most Americans. He had never heard of the Osmonds at all.

“Oh, come on!” I said. “Purple jumpsuits? Variety show? Mormons?” Nothing rang a bell.

The whole Donnie and Marie incident marked a turning point in our relationship. When I discovered the gap in his knowledge, I was amazed and made endless fun of him. At first, he was defensive about his pop-culture disability, and insisted that I only knew about Donnie and Marie because of my older siblings. “My younger brother probably never heard of them either,” he said. So we asked him.

“Of course I’ve heard of Donnie and Marie!” came the reply.

“But how does he know about them?” The Husband cried. “He’s younger than me!”

“Because,” I told him, “everyone has heard of Donnie and Marie. The real mystery is how come you haven’t.”

So now, when cultural references are made, I check to make sure he understands. Sometimes he does, I’ll admit, but he is no longer offended that I assumed he didn’t get it.

And I guarantee you that he does not get the title of this entry.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Neither did she mine and smelt the metal for her needles

Early in our grad school career, a college friend of mine and I were visiting The Doktah at her apartment. College friend complimented her on her sweater, and The Doktah said, “Thanks. It’s handmade. I made it myself, actually.” College friend and I were both impressed, as knitting in my opinion is a mysterious skill wherein sweaters and blankets are created out of string, seemingly by magic. But The Doktah is not one to take credit where credit is not due, and had to admit, completely seriously, “Well, I bought the yarn,” as though that negated the claim of “handmade.”

Friday, May 19, 2006

Somebody help her!

Speaking of nightmares, somewhere around my fourth year I witnessed someone hoping to get a job at my school experience one in real life. The process of getting a faculty position at a university is long and arduous, and culminates in the faculty candidate’s coming to the university for a two-day interview that involves endless meetings with individual faculty members, a presentation of proposed research projects for the faculty, and a seminar of completed research for the entire department. It was at this seminar that the nightmare unfolded.

The candidate gave her talk at our weekly departmental seminar. Her presentation was fine I guess; I have to admit that I don’t really remember it. I usually dozed off during the seminars. I couldn’t help it. In college, I learned some kind of behavioral association wherein I fell asleep the instant anyone started to lecture me on aspects of chemical engineering. One time, I fell asleep in an honors class of only six students, during which the professor had taken us to his lab to show us something. I was standing up, but I still managed to nod off. One among six students, standing up, and I fell asleep. No, it wasn’t embarrassing at all.

But I digress. Back in grad school, the faculty candidate had finished her talk and was taking questions from the audience. While she was answering the questions, she started walking over to the desk in the front row of the audience. She leaned heavily on the desk and listened to a question, and then she pitched over onto the floor.

Yes, this poor woman actually fainted during her job talk.

The department head shouted, “Somebody HELP her!” and another faculty member rushed out to get her something to drink. He returned with a Coke, by which time she had been helped back up and was sitting weakly in one of the front-row chairs. Although she accepted the soda, she vehemently turned down offers to cut the questions short, and insisted on finishing the seminar. She seemed to want everyone to just forget about her little fainting incident and pretend like it didn’t happen. Or possibly she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her whole. Because can you imagine?

No, she didn’t get the job, but I can’t swear that it was solely because of the fainting. Still, it couldn’t have helped.

Monday, May 08, 2006


The other night I had a the spookiest dream I’ve ever had. It was very vivid, very lucid, and I when I woke up I had to turn the light on and read for a while before I could go back to sleep. In the dream, I was one of a group of about four people trying to rid a house of evil spirits. In an effort to get more information, we summoned the spirit of what turned out to be a young woman. Her spirit was trapped in the bricks of the fireplace, and when we summoned her, the shadows on the bricks swirled around and formed themselves into the silhouette of a woman in a chair. The spirit told us she had been trapped in the bricks by the evil spirits haunting the house, and that she knew how to help us, but she would only speak to one person from our group, alone. We weren’t sure we trusted her, and said forget it. Instead, we decided to free her. There was some sort of dream-logic to this plan that I no longer understand.

So we all chanted something scary, and it freed her and a male spirit, who seemed to be her boyfriend. She and her boyfriend stood before us, thanked us for freeing them, and told us that there were two other spirits in the house that were evil. They told us we had to trap the other two spirits in the fireplace bricks in order to save ourselves. At that point, the other two spirits appeared before us and told us that no, the ones we just freed were the evil ones.

We had about thirty seconds to decide whom to believe, and we ended up chanting some other scary thing which trapped the second set of spirits in the fireplace bricks. And then woman we had freed laughed, grinned an evil grin, and said, “You picked a beautiful way to die.” And then I woke up.

As I said, I had to turn the light on and read for awhile in order to shake off the dream, because it really freaked me out, and I was afraid to go back to sleep, afraid that I’d fall back into that dream and get killed by the evil woman. When I finally did go back to sleep, my subconscious apparently decided to cut me a little slack, because my next dream was about buying mops.

That was it. That was the whole dream. I was at Target, buying a mop. I spent some time picking out the mop. I noticed that a similar mop had a broken head, so I brought both mops to the cashier. I waited in line. When it was my turn, I had an extended conversation with the cashier about the broken mop, and how I didn’t want to buy it, I was just bringing it to the store’s attention. I believe I woke up before I actually managed to buy the mop, but this dream was just about the most mundane, boring dream I’ve ever had in my life. There was nothing surreal about it, unless you count the fact that the Target in my dream was laid out differently than the real Target. The mops were where the handbags are. Also, the mop I bought was made of Mr. Clean Magic EraserTM, and I don’t believe such a mop exists (although it should).

My analysis of the dreams: I’ve been watching too much Supernatural, and I have a latent yearning for a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Mop.

Friday, May 05, 2006

German theory

In response to Banalities comment on this post, I am inspired to tell a story about when I worked in Germany for a summer. See, I don't speak German (although I did learn to say "Excuse me," "I'm sorry," "I don't understand," "I don't speak German," and "Where is the bathroom," among other key phrases), but there was a sign in the lab where I worked that I was able to translate. I glance at it, and then chuckled to myself. The Germans, surprised, said, "You understand that?"

"Sure," I said. And I read, "In this lab we have both theory and practice. Nothing works, and no one knows why!"

It wasn't really that amazing of a feat, though, because I had learned the words for "know," and "work," and the German words for "theory" and "practice" are something like "theorin" and "praktica." (I'm just making those up, so don't jump down my throat if they are wrong, which they are.) But the point is, I could guess from context at the meaning.

Being in Germany was interesting. I found out what it was like to be illiterate. It's not fun. Sure, I could tell that the box in the grocery store was soap, but was it bath soap? Dish soap? Laundry soap? Who knew? And I knew the sign with a picture of a bike on it was telling me that something was verboten, but I couldn't tell if I was not allowed to walk on the bike path or if I was forbidden from riding my bike on the pedestrian path. Critical distinction, there.

It was a fun experience, all in all. And by spending three weeks in Germany made me much less afraid to try speaking French when I went to Paris for a long weekend. Sure, my accent was horrible and my grammar was faulty, but at least I had a shot.

Questionable residency

Most people, upon reaching grad school, tend to leave their permanent residency in their home state, often at their parents’ address. I think this is more for convenience than anything else, as students tend to move a lot, and changing the address on your license every 6 months can become tedious. I, however, had to become a resident of my new city and state pretty much as soon as I got there, because I am one of the lucky people who gets called for jury duty every 3 years like clockwork. And often more frequently than that.

I was first called to jury duty while a sophomore in college. I know I was a sophomore, because the only thing I brought with me to read was my thermodynamics textbook as a sort of ploy to force myself to study. You don’t know boredom until you’re stuck in a tiny room full of strangers and plastic chairs with nothing to do but study thermodynamics for eight hours. I think I probably shaved a couple of days off of my purgatory sentence with that gig. But I didn’t have to serve on a jury because the judge felt bad for me when I pled chemistry lab. I was called again two years after that, but that time I got to check the “served less than 3 years ago” box and go merrily on my way.

Unfortunately, I was called again about a month after arriving at grad school. It had been just over three years since the first time, so I was out of luck on that front. And while it is true that students are allowed to postpone jury duty, they only get to postpone until the summer, because most students go home for the summer. Grad students, however, do not. Grad students are chained to the lab for the summer. So I checked the “permanently moved out of state” box and mailed it back. And then I figured I’d better get a new license, or the jury duty police would come get me. Also I wanted to be able to vote.

Getting the new license was actually surprisingly simple. I didn’t have to take any tests other than an eye test, and the whole process, including walking down to the DMV, only took about 2 hours or so. The DMV was remarkably efficient. And, as an added bonus, I got to register to vote at the same time! So everything was great until I got called to jury duty a month later.

A few years later, I was talking to a woman in my church choir. She mentioned some difficulty she was having because her permanent residency was still in Illinois, where her parents lived, and that was the address on her driver’s license. “Oh, it’s really easy to just get a license here,” I told her.

“Oh, but I don’t want to have to take a driving test,” she said.

“No, you don’t have to,” I replied. “You just take an eye test, fill out some paperwork, and exchange your license.”

“Oh, but it’s such a hassle because the lines at the DMV are so long,” she started to complain.

But I had an answer for her there as well. “No, it was actually quite easy when I went,” I said. “I made sure I was there right when they opened, and I was only there for about a half hour.”

She was unconvinced. “But I don’t really want to get a license here because I’m really only here temporarily. I plan to move back to Chicago.”

“Oh, how long have you been here then?” I asked her.

“Twenty-five years,” came the reply.

I let it drop after that.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

That's why theories are no good

How come I love The Amazing Race? In theory, I should hate it. If you were to describe the show to me, I would scoff and wonder why anyone would watch it. It sounds really dull. But in practice, it is awesome. It is awesome even though I dislike all of the contestants currently still in the race. I don't understand it at all.

LeahLar has pointed out in the past that this same idea is true of Star Wars. If someone outlined the plot of Star Wars for you, you would roll your eyes because it sounds so ridiculous. It's a space opera! And yet.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Driving is a dangerous activity

On one of our many hundreds of trips from the mid-Atlantic to the Northeast, The Husband missed our exit off the Mass Pike. This was not like the time we thought we missed the exit. This time, we really missed it. We were rolling along in the middle lane chatting, singing, excited that our five-hour ordeal in the car was almost at an end, when I saw our exit, Exit 11, approaching on the right. I waited for The Husband to pull into the right lane, put on his blinker, do something, anything, to indicate that he was planning to get off the highway at our exit, Exit 11, thus bringing our five-hour ordeal in the car to an end. By the time I realized he wasn’t going to pull over and had shouted, “That’s our exit!” it was too late, and we had rolled right on by.

A deadly silence fell over the car.

You have to keep in mind that at the time, The Husband lived further north than I, so my five-hour ordeal in the car had been preceded by a two-hour ordeal on the train, which was itself preceded by a half-hour ordeal of getting to the train. By the time we reached our exit, Exit 11, I had usually reached my travel breaking point.

In addition to this, the next exit was ten miles down the road and was a junction with another major highway, so it was difficult to get right off and right back on. Ten minutes later, when we finally arrived at the next exit, I expected The Husband to just do a U-turn in the toll plaza, but instead he got on the other highway went up a few miles and used the next exit to turn around. I did not find this endearing.

By time we finally reached the bottom of his parents’ street at least a half hour after we initially passed it, an extra half hour of time needlessly spent in the car, I had to get out of the car to walk up the hill because I was about to have a nervous breakdown. Or possibly kill The Husband. Either way, it was in his best interest to let me walk up the hill.

Now, any time we are driving on the Mass Pike, I start warning him that our exit, Exit 11, is coming up about five miles early.