Monday, May 13, 2013

Compromises

One of wife's colleagues, who is also a parent, had this to say about the challenge of being both a scientist and a parent: it's not about whether you will drop balls, but about choosing which balls to drop at which times, and making sure that you don't keep dropping the same ball.

I just spent the last hour in a steam-filled bathroom, singing a terribly unhappy, snuffling and coughing baby back to sleep, steaming the congestion from her sinuses and rocking her in her chair.  "Swing Low, Sweet Harriet" was about the right speed, with lots of low, resonant, sleep-inducing notes; "Harriet the Eukaryote" is a bit too upbeat.  It's hard to watch a baby who really, really just wants to be asleep and cannot get there, but with warmth and song and rocking, she finally at least has made it.  Tonight, I have to get a full night's sleep, because of a critical presentation I'm going to be giving tomorrow, and I'm singing to my baby and writing to you, dear readers.

Career and life inevitably come into conflict for a scientist.  I didn't have a weekend this past weekend, because there was a major workshop on Mammalian Synthetic Biology (fortunately right here in Cambridge), and I needed to be there to present my work, talk and make plans with my colleagues, and also to run a workshop of our own on metrology (more on that one later).  But I didn't get to see Harriet much, and so I've been snatching every bit of time I can at the moment.  Tonight, I met Harriet and Ananya in the library, and we played together there for a little bit before I had to go off to my photo critique group.  Why didn't I skip photo group?  Because it will be the last one that I can attend before we move to Iowa, and it's been my one really consistently peaceable and pleasurable hobby for the last few years.

And so my life grinds finely, sometimes.  I pick which balls to drop, and which to catch, and try to remember that one of those balls is my own ability to find time to rest and recover.  I plan to take a day off later this week, to catch up on weekend.  I'll probably be able to write back to the friends whose letters I'm neglecting now as well, and deal with the pile of mail sitting on the kitchen counter.

But also, unstructured time is precious.  I have a form of meditation that I do for myself at times, where I simply get moving---on foot, on bike, in a car, or even the Paris Metro---and simply see which way I turn as I move forward.  It's an exercise in letting go of planning, just getting in touch with my basic preferences and impulses.  It's not even so much about understanding them as simply giving them a free rein to move me and help to separate out "should" and "need" from "want" and "like."  There are times when I go in circles, and times when I go in straight lines, go out on familiar streets or proceed down random side-roads where I've never set foot before.  I haven't done that for a little while, maybe not even since Newcastle, when I had a day two weeks ago to wander the afternoon around the edge of the North Sea.  I promise myself these times every so often, and have to preserve them even in the face of possible guilt that I could be spending the time on a paper or with my daughter or wife.

This blog too is a promise to myself, which is why I'm making sure that I don't drop it.  It's not a duty, exactly, but a promise to remember to step back and stop doing and just think about the things I'm doing every once in a while.  But that promise now is done, and the promise of sleep is beckoning.
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