Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A mes compatriotes alsaciens qui votent FN

Je connais une petite fille qui, à cinq ans, a été obligé par sa maitresse de classe maternelles à se tenir dans la cour d'école devant tout le monde. Cette même maîtresse lui a ensuite dis, à elle et ses camarades comme elle, qu'ils étaient responsables d'un massacre commis quelques années auparavant.*
Je connais une petite fille à laquelle on a interdit de parler la langue de sa grand mère et de ses parents avec ses camarades dans la cour d'école. Elle s'en est tiré, mais beaucoup des enfants de sa génération n'en ont jamais pu parler à leurs grands-parents, faute de maîtrise de cette langue.
Je connais une jeune fille qui a appris à effacer le gros accent de son pays, car il lui faisait tord dans sa carrière.
Je connais une jeune femme qui, lorsqu'elle appelait le rectorat à Paris, entendait toujours​ malmener son nom. Jamais d'excuse par ailleurs, car "ce n'était pas français, un nom comme ça".
Je connais une femme qui a été soupçonnée toute sa vie, et toute sa carrière au service de l'état, de ne pas être assez française. À cause d'où elle venait, mais surtout, parce qu'elle refusait de ne pas en venir.
Cette fillette, cette fille, cette femme, c'est mère, née dans le bas Rhin en 1944. Ma mère, qui parle le dialecte, dont le nom de jeune fille est inévitablement germanique, qui aime la musique allemande autant que la littérature française.
L'histoire de ma mère, c'est l'histoire de tout Alsaciens né entre 1918 et 1950. C'est l'histoire de tout une génération qu'on a soupçonné à cause de leur accent, de leur nom, de leur dialecte, de leur religion (trop protestant, trop fier du régime concordataire) de ne pas être assez français. Ça vous dit quelque chose?
Les gens, comme Marine Le Pen et son parti, qui prétendent pouvoir définir ce que sont la France et les Français, ne serons jamais les amis de l'Alsace, avec son gros accent, sa cuisine bizarre, ses noms imprononçable comme Breuschwickersheim ou Hammerschwir. Et j'ose suggéré même que les Alsaciens devraient être solidaire avec tous les Français ou pas encore français que l'on réprouve parce qu'ils​ ne ressemblent pas assez à ceux représentés dans une histoire de France de 1950. Les Français d'origine turques, les Français d'origine algérienne, les Français d'origine malienne, ainsi que les Français gay, lesbiennes, et transgenres, luttent pour ce pour quoi ma mère a luttée, et ce pour quoi moi, franco-alsaco-britannique homosexuel je lutte aussi: le droit d'être reconnu Français à part entière sans abandonner qui je suis, le droit d'être français et de parler "wie der Schnawwel-ne gewochsn isch".
Je pourrais rappeler d'autre faits: qu'un tiers des Alsaciens travaillent outre Rhin. Ou que le petit village où ont habité mon arrière grand mère, ma grand mère et ma tante fut entièrement rasé en 1918 lors de la bataille du col de la Schlucht, et que la génération de mes grands parents se sont toujours attendu à ce que cela se répète. Si ça n'a pas eu lieu, si l'Alsace a cessé être terre de convoitise identitaire, si, enfin, le monde lui a foutu la paix, c'est à cause de l'Europe, que rejette maintenant Marine Le Pen.
La définition étroite de ce que c'est qu'être français a toujours fait tord à l'Alsace, et à la France. Défiez là en renonçant au front national, et en embrassant l'ouverture et l'espoir de quelques chose de nouveau.

*Le massacre, c'est Oradour sur Glane.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Independence and maturity

I didn't get the job.

It wasn't quite the Dream Job, but it had many attributes of it. I thought I did well in the interview. In fact, based on feedback, I'm pretty sure I did do well in the interview. But someone else did better, or had funding, or was a better fit. I'm a postdoc for another year.

I was disappointed not to get the job, but not crushed. Even getting a drink to drown my sorrows felt perfunctory, unnecessary. I was OK. And I realised, that, more and more, when it comes to my career, that equanimity about where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going has come to dominate.

When I finished my PhD, then spent a year unemployed, and then started my postdoc, I was all Sturm und Drang about my career. I oscillated between being terrified I'd never make it, angry I hadn't published more, frustrated at people's failure to recognise my amazing capabilities, irritated at advice that seemed cruel, glib and out of touch. And while I still think there are problems for graduate students and postdocs, that internalization of the problems is gone. The clear, tangible work I have done over the past three and a half years in the wonderful lab I've had the good fortune to do my postdoc in has eliminated much of the bad feelings from the end of my PhD. What has replaced them is a certain degree of confidence I didn't have before, one that is rooted in a certain equanimity about my career and my future. I'm good at what I do, and I've had a blast doing it. I hope I'll get to do it for longer, but if I don't... Well it was a good innings.

Associated with this disappearance of the violent emotions with which I started this postdoc has been a quiet maturation of other skills. We recently had a change of staff in the lab which means I am now the second most senior person here. And, somewhat to my surprise, I found I've stepped up to the plate of managing people with more confidence and willingness then I thought I would. I don't have to remind myself to check in with the new trainees and discuss plans for data collection, I'm just ... doing it.

With my PI, we've reached a stage that is intellectually exciting. She's no longer primarily in the business of training me, we're now collaborators, bouncing ideas off each other about new analyses and projects. The projects are in some ways more collaborative, and yet in others I am more independent then ever: if we decide a certain paper is mine, then she trusts me to carry the project. I'm currently in charge of helping our graduate student write his first paper for publication. It's been a great learning experience, in part because I've discovered how much I now know about the arcana of publication and manuscript preparation.Of course, the independence isn't there in my own grants yet (but maybe, NIH gods permitting, by years end?), but I can feel a shift in how I approach my work, and in how other people in the lab and the university respond to me.  The trick here, one that she and I both acknowledge, is to recognize this dangerously fun dynamic is a sign I should plan to leave, not that I should stay.

Perhaps the word that best describes my mindset about what I do and why I do it now is maturity (yes, you can laugh. I'm 33, i have a lot more maturing to do I'm sure). Part of that is also the recognition that unlike my 20s, I cannot make my career the entire center of my being quite like I did in graduate school (even as I take on more responsibility). I have a husband who is making his own major career decisions. I have a mother who will not be young forever. I will not be young forever.

There will always be choices, there will always be jobs I do not get. But wherever I go from here, there are almost no regrets to be had about what I've done on the way here, either professionally, or personally. And that knowledge is I think the source of my current mindset. And it is a good place to be.

And with that, I am signing off for two weeks. My husband and I are taking our long delayed honeymoon to Spain. Some things should not be put off forever.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Hosting the Moirai

A few weeks ago, my aunt died. She was my mother's elder sister and, owing to my family's complicated history, one of the few members of the extended family to which we were all genuinely close. Like my mother, she was a proud, force of nature of a women. Based, in part, on the fact that like my mother, she was more or less on her own from a young age.
My mother's mother was born in 1900. She died six months after my birth. My mother was the youngest of all her cousins (on her father's side, she had six aunts and uncles, so there were many cousins). And I, born 83 years after my grandmother, am the youngest of her grandchildren. My eldest cousin is more than 20 years older than me. My mother's cousins (those she was still close with) were grandparent aged to me. I saw them once a year, and though our relationship was pleasant, it was never close. They were part of the holidays. And besides, when they got together with their youngest cousin, they talked of family mostly long dead, and memories long past. I learnt a lot from them about how the world had changed, and about my history, but mostly through listening to the stories they told each other.
My aunt was different. She never missed a birthday or Christmas to call us. None of us would consider going to Paris without visiting her. My mother and she did not have the easiest relationship, but they have never waivered in the affection they have shown each other's children. Perhaps sometimes, that was easier than speaking directly.
I miss my aunt dearly. And beyond her, with her passing I have lost the closest thing I ever had to a physical home in France, her holiday house in the Alsatian Vosges mountains, to which my mother always had a key. Now that I will no longer take the train to her little Paris suburb for dinner or lunch when I visit that city, it will become a little less friendly to me. I am thankful my husband got to meet her twice. I am thankful she adored him (despite the language barrier). I am thankful for the beautiful cross stitch sample she made for us, despite cancer and chemo and caring for her husband as dementia and ill health weakened him. She survived him by less than six months.


But as hard as loosing my aunt is for me, for my mother the sense of loneliness is vast. In the past years so many of her old friends have become weak and frail, have started one by one to take their leave of us. When they started weakening, my mother, who has the energy and physical fitness of a woman twenty years younger then she is, was irritated at them for not going on walks with her anymore, for no longer staying up until 2am to talk. Now she understands; she is resigned; and talks with her old friends, though more important, no longer bring levity and joy to her. She returns from trips to France drained, and needs time with her younger friends, her children and grandchildren to regain her energy.
With the loss of my aunt, only one person, a friend from Kindergarten, is left who remembers my mother's childhood. And the first five years (which for my mother were defining to her life story) are now remembered only by her. She has entered a period where, increasingly, more and more of her life can be confirmed by no one. And, as my brother points out, there is now almost no one left with whom she can speak the dialect her own grandmother (born in 1870) taught her. Strands are being cut, and my mother feels it.
Of late, she has begun to speak more of her own passing. Not in a morbid way, but in a pragmatic way. She is counting down. She knows she can no longer count on an endless bounty of more time. She senses both the urgency of doing what can still be done, and the knowledge that less is possible. In part, this is because of what is happening around her. In part, and I know my mother enough to know this, it is because of what she has read. She is preparing herself, training herself for a new phase of life. I know this because the same thought that is animating her has returned to me: the French philosopher Montaigne's famous aphorism:
"que philosopher, c'est apprendre a mourir"
"Doing philosophy, is learning to die"
To which I would add, it is also learning that others die.
With my aunt's passing, and my mother's words and stories, a new presence enters my life: the Moirai, the three sisters of Greek mythology. In the past, they have visited suddenly, and departed. But now I see they are here to stay. They are in my house, and it does not do to deny the Gods. Clotho is spinning thread more slowly, and Lachesis casts a more judicious eye on how much she draws out. And Atropos, having just used her scissors, has put them down. But they hang from her belt, always within hand's reach.

The Moirai are here, and their presence is a warning, but also a gift, in the manner of Greek gods. They are here to tell me I can no longer ignore them, and I must act accordingly in what I do.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

I am not a "good immigrant"

"We will continue to attract the best and brightest" says Prime Minister Teresa May, as she makes limiting migration the centre of her policy plans for the next five years. Her Brexit speech made clear she is willing to sacrifice everything (the economy, international cooperation, the UK's moral standing) in order to prevent those dratted foreigners from entering the country. Then yesterday happened. The American president passed an executive order blocking all entry to the country, regardless of paperwork, for all refugees and nationals from seven countries. They detained even green card holders *. And Mrs May, who'd been in Washington earlier that day to curry favor with the president, has issued only the most tepid of repudiations.
I am an immigrant to the US. For reasons of history and geography and luck of birth, I am a fortunate immigrant. I am not routinely stopped at the border. I have never had extra burdens placed on me to get either my visa or my green card. But I have never once re-entered the US without some trepidation since I first got my F1 student visa. After yesterday, that trepidation is increased.
As the events at airports around the country have reminded people overnight, in the US it is the border agency that has final say about who can and cannot enter the country. The visa you spent money and time obtaining (every time I had to get my visa renewed or issued was a day off work, and I was fortunate that I lived in London) is only part of the evidence. It is the person at the desk at immigration, at the end of the line labelled "aliens", who has final say.
One of the criteria by which a border agent can deny you entry is if they have a suspicion you carry any of a certain number of infectious diseases. When I first moved to America, HIV/AIDS was on that list. Border protection need no proof you have the disease, a suspicion is sufficient. As a gay man, you see where I'm going with this. Yes, guidebooks and immigration manuals warned me that "looking too gay" could, feasibly, get my entry denied.
When I left America at the end of my Ph.D., leaving my then partner of four years behind, I could not return to America based on that relationship. DOMA was still in force. So I found a job. Luckily, as an academic, visas for jobs are easier to come by. But the easiest one (the J1) is a non immigrant visa with a firm requirement you leave the country after two years for at least a further year. It is difficult to get an exemption from that. The H1-B (skilled workers) visa doesn't have that limitation. But some universities will not sponsor postdocs for H1-Bs, and they cost PIs money. I was lucky, I got one. But even the H1-B has catches. It is non transferable, tied to your employment, and unlike the F1 visa has no grace period: as soon as your employment ends, your H1-B expires and you are automatically residing in the country illegally. Yes, that is correct. If you're on a H1-B and you get fired, you can technically be reported for overstaying your visa that evening. This is why H1-B visa holders tend to be quiet about problems at work.
Through good fortune, a progressive presidential administration, and a liberal supreme court, I became eligible for a spousal green card while on my H1-B. None of those things were guaranteed. Under the Bush Administration, they would have been unthinkable. Under a Trump administration? Well, we can guess how likely anything that makes immigration easier will be at this point. But even then, the green card is not guaranteed (unlike what my in laws thought). It costs $1500 to apply, and the process is complex, opaque, and open ended. I was hugely fortunate in that we had extensive documentation of our relationship, and a very friendly interviewer for the final interview in Cleveland. Will that still be likely in the coming years? Will be guidance be issued? If the so called "first amendment defense act" passes, same sex couples may end up in limbo when faced with unhelpful UCSIS employees. And it may not even take that much to suddenly make spousal green cards much harder to obtain. And mine must be renewed in two years. In the UK, for example, Teresa May now only allows  British citizen to bring a non EU foreign born spouse into the country if they are earning above a certain threshold. Nothing is safe in the pursuit of reducing immigration.
So, no. I don't feel safe or OK after yesterday, despite being from the "right" sort of country, having the "right" skin colour, and being among "the best and brightest". Regardless of claims to the contrary, I know my supposed usefulness to people like May and Trump is secondary to the political capital they get from being "tough on immigration". If you doubt it, watch May's willingness to bargain with the life of my mother, who has lived in the UK legally for 40 years, but has the misfortune of being a French citizen after Brexit.
To be an immigrant, even a fortunate immigrant, is, if you keep your eyes even slightly open, to know you live at the good will of your host nation. And when that good will appears to be running short, no one, not even "good immigrants", is safe. It was not so long ago that the very permanent resident status I have now was explicitly denied to me by federal law. It is not so long ago my sexuality would make me suspect at the border. And, as a former H1-B holder paid out of a federal grant, "American Jobs for American People" is a chilling phrase. Permanent residency is usually treated much like citizenship for job eligibility purposes. Now, with this administration, I begin to wonder how safe that is.
People's lives were ruined yesterday, make no mistake. Some people will die as a direct consequence of that decision. But every green card or visa holder in the country woke up this morning, and wondered just how much the little bits of card we carry in our wallets are worth, and what might have them become as worthless as those held by Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Sudanese, Yemeni, and Somali citizens who called America home.
I am an immigrant, I am angry, and I am more afraid than I was before.

* I'm aware that as of today, Priebus has claimed to walk that back. But I'll believe it when I see it.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

And Whither then? I cannot say

I started writing this blog over two and a half years ago. I'd been toying with the idea of starting a blog for a long time. It was a response to a growing frustration at my lack of engagement with the world, my lack, for want of a better word, of production. I had felt that throughout my twenties I had read, watched, listened to so much. I had consumed voraciously. And I pondered and digested my consumption. Yet nothing came of it. I left no mark.
So, eventually, restless, I resolved to start writing about something, anything. It is a small outlet. I am not so presumptuous as to think any of these private thoughts are actually unique or insightful. Yet I wished to return something. And I needed an outlet for those disquisitions and diatribes I would compose in my head at two in the morning, distilling a day's worth of information overload.
In many ways, this blog surprised me. It lasted longer than I thought. It wandered more then I thought. One constant was remains that I cannot predict which posts will resonate and which won't. I guess I still don't know my audience. Some posts I considered very niche have gone far. Some of the posts of which I remain proudest linger unloved.
From the beginning, this blog has been tied to my twitter presence. And in light of what has happened with the world lately, my twitter presence has dwindled. I have had to preserve myself, control my engagement. Initially, I felt guilty, like I was abandoning the fight. But I've made my peace now. I can fight better if I can control my energy. And leaving twitter lets me do that.
I had learnt that lesson earlier with this blog. I realised reasonably soon that posts that were reactions to what was going on on twitter were not always my best. And so I started deliberately not writing blog posts in response to twitter issues. Or entwining them with thoughts I had for a long time. So my blog remained slightly esoteric, detached, the results, I hope, of my idiosyncratic observation of world. After all, I'd staked a claim in the lineage of Montaigne, and I decided to stay there.
But now that I have withdrawn from twitter, can the blog exist separately? In one sense, no. Traffic to my blog is almost entirely from twitter. Without my twitter presence, my readership will dwindle. But in another sense, yes. I am proud of this blog. I find I am attached to some of this writing. That I want to be associated with it. It has been suggested to me more than once that I should take it down as a junior academic, and I have found I cannot, no, I do not want to do it. There are things here that I feel are of value.
On the other hand, no one can deny I've been writing less here of lately. Why? In part, because when it comes to our current unpleasantness, I don't know that anything I have to say is of any value. I've become self conscious in the sea of verbiage of broadly varying quality that has accompanied the turbulence of these months. Does my writing help? Does my voice improve? Or is it yet more half baked, superficially convincing ramblings of an over educated person with an exaggerated sense of his own intellect and importance?
All this to say, I have not written much of late. But the more I think of it, the more I want to write here again. Perhaps write less, perhaps write better, but I cannot leave this place, not yet.
So, if you still know it exists, watch this space. Because here, still, my voice will be heard.



Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thankfulness

I am thankful for my health, mental and physical.
I am thankful for my husband, his unwavering love, his patience, his endless zest for adventure.
I am thankful for my mother, her wisdom, her strength, her clear eyed intelligence, the model she sets for me to remain excited and optmistic and engaged with the world throughout your life.
I am thankful for my brother, his support for all I do, his sense of joy, his commitment to the small pleasures of life.
I am thankful for my sister, her energy, her love, her willingness to challenge me.
I am thankful for my in laws, their generosity, the fact they give me a home away from home.
I am thankful for all my friends, old and new, near and far, for all I learn from them, for all they give me.
I am thankful for my mentor, her commitment to my training as a researcher, her respect for my experience as a scientist, her friendship.
I am thankful for the career successes of the past year, and for people's recognition of them.
I am thankful that a decade of progress on gay civil rights means I can look at the next four years with some confidence our life will withstand them.
I am thankful to have been able, regardless of what happens next, to do what I wanted with my career for ten years. That's not a bad innings.
I am thankful for my dual citizenship, and my three languages.
I am thankful to have grown up in a city of 8 million people, to have gone to a school where students came from seventy countries, to have grown up immersed in two cultures.
I am thankful to have lived five years in Baltimore, to have learnt that America was both like and unlike what I knew from the movies.
I am thankful for three years in Ohio, and summers in Michigan, and all that has taught me about a life other than that I grew up to enjoy and expect.
I am thankful for the beautiful autumn we have had.
I am thankful for dinner surrounded by loved ones.

My thoughts have been dark of late, but I still have much to be thankful for. More than many, less than others, but by any standard, enough. Tomorrow I will be frightened, and angry again. But not all the time, and not today.

Happy Thanksgiving

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On not falling over

Once, when I was on a skiing holiday with a friend, we got to talking about our week so far. I said that I was glad I hadn't fallen over yet. My friend responded "If you haven't fallen over, it means you're not trying hard enough". I was surprised by this. I'd just done the hardest run in the resort that day. To my mind, not falling over meant, simply, that I was good at skiing.
I have a feeling similar to this every time people discuss grades at school and university, and, more specifically, the importance of failure as a learning tool. I don't doubt that recovering from failure shows determination (though when we praise those who overcome failure, we should be careful of survivor bias). And I don't doubt that evaluating someone solely based on grades, without looking at grade progression, background, research experience and so on is foolish. But the description of straight A students, therefore of me, that tends to accompany these debates, sticks in my craw somewhat. Because, like my friend's assessment of my skiing ability, the fact that I'm good at what I do is taken as prima facie evidence that it's all effortless and, somehow, a scam.
Being a straight A student is not effortless. It takes work. In my case, it took discipline, a lot of it. Furthermore, the idea that just because the grades don't show a progression, there is no wrestling with concepts, ideas, no struggles, is erroneous. Those things happen. It's just that, for some reason, with the straight A student, the breakthrough happens before the test, so there is never any evidence of it. The illusion of effortlessness is just that: the straight A student is the swan, gliding gracefully across the mirror like lake, legs paddling furiously underneath.
The other idea that attaches to straight A students, which characterizes me even less, is that somehow, we do not learn the material, we merely learn to take tests. I won't deny that good grades can act as a motivator (and, more tellingly, that bad grades act as a discouragement). But the relationship is more subtle. For me in particular, the good grades worked in combination with my genuine interest in the subjects to create a virtuous circle, one where the external rewards of effort combined with the internal drive of interest to make working for school fun. Yes, fun. As much as exams stressed me, there were times when being given 3 hours to write essays on topics I loved (looking at you general paper from part II zoology) was actually almost a pleasure. 
There are limitations to being a straight A student. Most obviously with me, the fact that I started out good and became excellent in most academic subjects meant that it took me a long time to learn how to deal with those things I wasn't good at from the start (sports comes to mind, but also the violin).  But that doesn't mean that I wasn't good at the things I was good at. It just means that I didn't devote much energy to things I wasn't good at. Then again, many not straight A students do this too (we all do, in fact). The other issue is that straight A students have trouble differentiating adequate performance from actually bad performance. It also took me a long time to recognise that, when hard work yields a reward (a good grade), it is easier to do then when it doesn't. I have immense respect for the C and B students of this world who work their arses off consistently, despite never seeing a consistent A.
As for the question of failure, I have mixed feelings on this. I never failed academically by any measure. Perhaps my first true failure was failing to secure employment straight after my PhD. I overcame that failure, but I'm not sure what I learnt from it. That I was tenacious? I think I learnt that from teaching myself linear algebra in grad school just as much. And besides, my failure would have been impossible to overcome without the successes that came before it. When we focus on failure, we deny people the joy of success that comes from practiced skill.
When we overly lionise the educational importance of failure, and fail to recognise the effort that goes into sustained success, we undermine a lot of hard work. And when we suggest that all straight A students are intellectual frauds, we deny them the joy of their achievement, and the value of their work. These messages reach straight A students early: I think I was nine or ten when my teachers first started telling me to expect to start failing at some point, some as a warning, others, somewhat more gleefully. No one likes a tall poppy. I can understand teachers not focusing on straight A students. I have more trouble with teachers undermining them. It happens more often than you might think.
It is possible to critique the narrowness of our systems of evaluation, and the flaws inherent in our educational systems, without casting aspersions on the efforts and joys of those individuals who do well in them. There is pleasure in racing down skillfully from mountaintop to village, carving into the snow with practiced ease knowing that this, you are good at.