Sunday, September 23, 2007

Students update

It seems to get slowly better. I have now read four of five pages of S#7 and it is all pretty reasonable. She is a bit creative with conventions for my taste, but I have to admit that the meaning is at all points totally clear. That's really good.
Unfortunately, tomorrow I will have only half a day for mathematics, since the afternoon I'll be busy with the birthday party, and the rest of the week I will attend a conference with the aim of improving my cv, not my mathematical culture. At least I should meet an old college friend, who chose a different side of mathematics and whom, as a consequence, I see rarely indeed.
I am also optimistic that S#3 and S#4 will finish their dissertations and get a postdoc; in the moment S#3 has a postod and S#4 a dissertation, but improvement is in the air. S#2 got a new postdoc, and a long well-paid one. Since S#1 chose to be a teacher, and S#5 has chosen to leave mathematics, I don't feel as bad as I did. And in a few weeks the number of students that I am responsible for will go down to four, two of them shared... I feel so excited, if I'm not careful I might as well accept another one!

Season change, or lack thereof

I have finally finished selecting, washing, drying, folding and sorting the children's old stuff. Since I haven't done this basically since the birth of the twins, it was not only a herculean job but emotionally draining as well. As I dug deeper into the layer, smaller and smaller outfits came to the light, many of them still looking pretty new. I kept wondering where my lovely babies had gone, and who the big boys infesting my flat could possibly be.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to arrange immediate dispatching, so many boxes and bags are now lying around all over my bedroom and livingroom. A few of them contain also clothes of mine, including the elegant (and, you guess it, good-as-new) outfit I wore for my graduation - in my country we just wear nice clothes, nothing specifically academic. Hopefully all the boxes etc will be gone by tuesday: I can't help being a bit envious of Twice and every other mother of twins enjoying being part of such a group.
After all the work, the children started insisting that we go to the beach. Normally it's way too cold so late in the year, but the sun was shining, and I was exhausted... I decided, why not? The children bathed in very low, very warm water due to extremely low tide. I went with them, water until my knees, clean as it never is during summer, and basically all for us. We spotted crabs and fishes of various dimensions, and a large selection of shells. We stayed until the sun started setting.
On the way home, the twins fell asleep; after a quick dinner, all three are now peacefully sleeping.
It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to the summer, enjoying the calm sea and perfect limpidity of water and air, with dozens of sailing boats and behind them, in a bluish haze, the hills (and the factories, but maybe one needn't be too precise).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Intense week

I didn't do any research this week. I spent several hours doing support to the students. I should be happy that they are getting productive, but this means a growing pile of mostly badly written and occasionally wrong theorems accumulating on my desk.
I wasted an outrageous amount of time doing university politics. I may or may not have an official administrative duty in the future (I hope not), but I will have to invest a lot of time doing brown-nosing, which is the officially certified method to get poitions in one's own field in my university. It is very sad, but I'd rather submit to the indegnity that have my student suffer from me being overworked; plus, one deserving young person will get a good job, if I play my cards right. Still, part of me hopes to move eventually to a better and more honest place, if one exists.
I dedicated some time to maternal activities: I went to a meeting with the schoolteachers, planned a birthday party, and (drumroll) finished sorting and packing the enormous backlog of no longer needed clothes in our flat. Plus, I managed a trip to Ikea and bought a large amount of no frills storage funiture; when it will be delivered (by Ikea) and mounted (by WS, with some paid assistance) I expect a much neater household. I already reorganized C#1's clothes cupboard, and the twins' is due tomorrow. Mine will have to wait for a new, unbroken cupboard. I am still overdue in organizing the children's extracurricular activities: C#1 wants to try a new sport, for which she needs a medical certificate, C#3 will do violin, or swimming, or both, and C#2 will most likely sit on a chair and suck his index finger.
Next week I'm off to a conference, and after that courses start. I am wondering when I'll start to do research again, and hoping that it won't be too long.

Parents undressed

Slate has an article with the fascinating title "Are children harmed by seeing their parents naked?". The article itself is even more fascinating, since it completely avoids the question in the title. It starts by declaring that no studies exist, so in a sense the answer is "we don't know".
It then proceeds to say that younger children may not notice and in any case will not remember, so they should be no problem.
Mercifully, it also mentions that breastfeeding doesn't cause trouble, at least at age 12 months. I can't say anything about later ages since my kids decided to stop breastfeeding not much later than that.
It then goes on to discuss possible problem mentioned by adolescent psychiatrists. However, no evidence is given for such problems. It finishes by explaining at what age children want to stop using the other sex's bathroom, and what age girls don't want to be bathed by father any longer.
There are a few points I would like to raise. First of all, it should be very easy to study children of nudists, and see whether they have any specific sexual trouble. After all, there are plenty of people who go vacationing in nudist beaches with children.
Then, it should be possible to compare americans with northern europeans, who are used to seeing grownup nudity (e.g., when people change bathing suits on the beach they don't cover up).
Finally, a few remarks about my own kids. We are raising them as I was raised: going to the bathrrom for solid reasons demands a closed door, since concentration is required; any other activity does not prevent the use of the bathroom by the rest of the family. If you think this is crazy, try to grow up in a household with only one bathroom and see where this leads you.
My children know how they differ from each other, and from us. We have explained that grown ups have hair under their armpits and between their legs, that men have a larger didi then boys, and that girls and women have a didi so small that it's hard to see. We also explained that women need a diaper on a regular babies, since they loose blood; this is the blood which forms a nest for a baby inside the mother, and when it has been there too long and no baby needs it, it gets thrown out before it goes rotten.
My kids are squeamish about using the "wrong" public toilet, and they insist that their clothing and haircut corresponds to societal standard for their gender. They also prefer to pee privately, I suspect (but have only circumstantial evidence) so as not to use toilet paper.
I always saw my parents naked, and I grew up more or less normal. Or maybe I didn't, and haven't noticed yet.
However, one question about this article is really, really important to me now: is there a way to make sure boys do not want to be bathed by mommy anymore? I certainly wouldn't mind sharing the bathing duties along gender lines: C#1 showers on her own, needing only a look to check that all the shampoo has been rinsed from the head, while the twins resist and C#2 has still a strong opposition to having his hair washed. Had I known for sure that less nudity in the household would have led to me avoiding bathing duties for the twins, I would bought a burqa years ago.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Growing old and liking it

As their hair slowly turns grey, or red as the case may be, most women encounter a series of physical changes. However, many of them, my own mother among them, maintain a fully feminine body despite the advancing years; others, like my children's nanny, surpass their own already considerable achievements in matters of softness of the chest area.
It is pleasant to know that I am not alone in belonging to neither of these categories.

Good mothers

With my usual delay I noticed a very good post at Tertia's So Close with an awesome list of comments.
Many mothers (fathers are mysteriously, or maybe not so mysteriously, absent) argue repeatedly the same point: that as a mother you do your best, and have to work with the child/children you have. No a priori method works in all cases, and different children have different time schedules for reaching benchmarks like sleeping through the night or stopping diapers/pacifiers/bottles.
Mothers of twins have an even clearer understanding of that, since they often behave in totally different ways: even same sex twins do that, and I understand even identical ones.
I think the post above should be mandatory reading for every first-time pregnant woman, and for any of the many people who are always ready to criticize other people's educative methods.

Friday, September 14, 2007


In the past two days I spent a nontrivial part of my time and most of my energy discussing hiring policies in our insitution with a number of people, including all the colleagues in my research group and the head of the whole institute. The result is that important information has not been forwarded, and other has been "lost". As a result, a position which we had planned on advertising soon also got "lost", and someone who is in his late forties, married and with a child on the way might or might not be given the tenure track position that was informally promised to him years ago. The same position that prevented him from getting an offer anywehere else "because we know you're going to be hired at XXX".
In particular, I am faced with the following two alternatives:
1) ether the head of the institution, or the head of my research group
2) either a liar or imbecile.
I am trying to decide which alternative I like less. Or more.

As a side remark, the head of the institution said several times that I am "cute" and referred to me by a diminutive form of my first name (say Venny instead of Estraven) which in our language would only be appropriate for a child.

I got too many invitations to conferences. When am I ever going to write a paper again?

Friday, September 7, 2007

The usual double standards

Newspapers everywhere have been full of sadness and lament over the death of Luciano Pavarotti. The world-famous tenor, who died at 72 of cancer, is survived by his three grownup daughters from the first marriage and his 4-year old daughter from the second marriage. A twin brother of the latter died in childbirth.
I am of course sorry for any loss, and the fact that I cannot tell the difference between a good and a bad singer doesn't prevent me to realize that he had exceptional gifts; he was also, as far as one can tell from the outside, a generous person who tried to raise money for the less fortunate.
But I can't help noticing that nobody is interviewing philosophers or priests as to the morality of having a child when you're 68, just as nobody started discussing whether the death of the twin was related to receiving a 68-year old's faulty gametes.
I wish I could say that he gets special treatment because he was such a great artist. But I am concerned that he only gets it because he's a man. The same newspapers and magazines were full of contempt for a woman who had twins in her sixties not long ago.
Addendum: In fact, despit the catholic doctrine not admitting divorce (and therefore not recognizing second marriages), Pavarotti is going to have a church funeral.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Half and half

I spent this morning being a mother. Or maybe a √úbermother, considering that I had three guest kids visiting: one girl the age of C#1 and two boys the age of C#2 and C#3. I managed to do two washing machines, hang one and a half, clean up the kitchen, and prepare enough lasagna for everybody: all this in my spare time from the main activity, i.e., preventing the kids from killing each other and destroying the flat.
I am pretty proud of myself, and view this as an investment in the future (at some later day, the parents of the guests will be taking care of my kids). I only regret that I didn't get to eat any of the lasagna, so I had to grab a sandwich and a coffee before facing the afternoon as scientist.

  • 2-3pm: discussion with the consultant for european grants. I did learn something, in particular that I just missed a deadline, but also that there is a very interesting call coming up in January 2008 and one in May. I just can't believe I can produce a decent proposal in time.
  • 3-4pm: student S#6 tells me about the new reference he has found, and the progress he expects to make about that. We discuss some projects about how to organize his work in the next months.
  • 4-5pm: S#4 and I go through the Nth version (for N>100 - she has at least one a day) of her thesis. Some of the major problems have been solved, but she still has a writing style too close to physics. Improvement is evident and I try to be optimistic.
  • 5-6pm: S#3 and I go through his proof of something which I thought should be obvious but ended up not being so. It seems this time he has really fixed it, but some further adjustments are needed (especially "easy" details). I hope for best and we plan to meet again on friday.
  • 6-6.50pm: S#9 tells me he has finished working out the details of the proposition we discussed last time. The result is pretty much of the kind I hoped it would be. I outline what the next steps are supposed to be, and we start discussing the table of contents of his thesis. He might have proven everything he needs to prove before Christmas. Then we discuss which techniques he should use to prove the remaining steps. At 6.50pm his alarm goes off and he tells me I should go home. He is that considerate.
  • 6.50pm: I call WS and ask him to go home. I also tell him what edibles our refrigerator and our deepfreezer contain.
  • 6.50-7.30pm: continue discussion with S#9, including which school/conferences he should attend and when precisely he needs to have a readable, preliminary version of the thesis ready - and why.
  • 7.30-8pm: wasted time on the internet in a desperate attempt to unwind. I feel like I don't have a brain any more.
Many thanks to Sciencewoman for having this idea of charting down how to use your time.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Home improvement, and other weekend employment

I spent a lot of the weekend planning changes in the way our flat is organized. It is reasonably large, at least for the standards of the country I live in, but it's totally messy. Some of the cupboards don't open and close properly, and a few drawers are really in bad repair.
I don't have the time to go looking in different shops, plus WS and I like Ikea furniture anyway. So I spent several hours over the weekend searching the Ikea catalog and checking online whether the stuff was actually in the store. As usual, the store nearest to where I live has only about a third of the stuff listed on the catalog, so I will have to face a really long drive.
WS does most of the mounting, but he hates choosing. So I just took all the measures, made plans, ad showed him a list with the final result. He then suggested a few changes, but basically approved: we have known each other for almost two decades and can estimate pretty well what each other likes.
The main aim I have is that the children learn to keep their own stuff in order: to do that, they have to know where things should be put, and everything has to be easily accessible. Some signs of slow improvement are already visible: they did put away some toys, after being asked and being told which box they should use. I also did some tidying up so that now all the Duplos are together (I should buy Legos soon, I know - but I first need a good box!).
And I can't very well complain that they don't keep the books in order when there's entirely too little shelf space for their books to fit in. I wonder how other parents face this problem; C#1 laments that she doesn't have enough books, that she has read them all and is totally bored.
I spent a couple of hours supporting WS's mood, too. This involved listening at length to the precise symptoms of his latest ailment (he hurt his own shoulder doing sports) and hearing all the details of his latest research project, which is very far from the overlap of our scientific interest and required really a lot of focussing on my part.
I also spent two hours helping a visiting colleague who is going to be here for a month: I picked him up at the station and showed him around, politely explaining that yes, some people here might speak english, but he shouldn't count on it. Maybe I shouldn't have done that, since he's not visiting me at all, but I felt kind of sorry for him; the person who invited him will not be back for a few more days.
Finally, I am proud to say that with ten days still to go, the list of stuff to buy for the new school year of C#1 (which has been stuck on the fridge since June) has now been completely ticked off. Everything is ready. Fall may come now.
Still, I hope I will manage to go the seaside next weekend.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

How much housework should children do?

I just read an article on the Guardian about a topic I have recently given a lots of thought to: children and housework. As a totally spoilt only child, I never did much. I helped preparing the table (at 7-8), filling and emptying the dishwasher (at 10-12), and keeping my stuff in order whenever I was yelled at.
I didn't make my bed since my grandmother found I couldn't do it right anyway. I never cooked anything or used the washing machine; only halfway through my teenager years I discovered how the vacuum cleaner works.
As a result, or maybe not, I am a total slob. My dream is to live in a room-and-board situation when someone else cooks for me, washes, irons and folds my clothes, and cleans up my room. Funnily enough, this is precisely how I lived in my years as a student, and I loved it.
So I feel kind of awkward asking my children to do anything. Still, I think I will soon start having C#1 prepare the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher, maybe introducing symultaneously a weekly pay. That's what my parents did: the money I received was supposed to be payment for my household work. Is 7 old enough? Should I wait until she turns 8?
As for C#2 and C#3, I have started yelling at them to put away their toys, with as good as no success. I am also meditating a "from now on you wipe your own ass" official declaration when they turn 5, but maybe I should wait a bit longer. I'm just so fed up with it.
Anybody has thoughts or suggestions on this? WS is not able to give competent advice, since he never helped much in the house either, and his mother is the only woman I know who's even more of a slob than I am (thankfully, or he would find it very hard to live with me).