Words For My Grandmother and Why Girls Rule the World

TD just showed me this horrendous video about why girls rule the world. I’m trying to explain to her that princesses and sparkles don’t make girls rule the world. It’s the mountains of things that we do, heaped on a pile of historical bullshit, and topped with sparkles (or not), that make girls rule the world.

grandmomThinking about girls who rule the world made me think of my grandmother. My grandmother passed last November and it’s taken me four months to come to terms with the fact that her funeral was really fucking weird.  She died in Texas, where my family had relocated, but was flown home to the town I was born in for her funeral and burial. Her funeral was held in the church I was baptized in, where my mother’s funeral was held, but it all felt very foreign. We had all moved on from this place.  A few days before my aunts asked me to prepared a eulogy, as I had for my mother, grandfather, and uncle. We joked that I had become the family eulogizer.  Before my grandmother died, she and I shared memories of her family. She told me, “You’re going to have to be the matriarch.” I thought she was just having a lapse in her lucidity as the dementia set in deeper. Maybe she was, but it was the last personal thing she would say to me before she died. She may have thought I was my mother. She called me “Patty” a lot in her last years. I’ve never been able to escape the shadow of my mother.

My mother had been the oldest and, when the funeral home director called my aunts and uncle to drape the cloth over my grandmother’s coffin, my oldest aunt beckoned for me. She said to her brother and sister, “She stands in Patty’s (my mother’s) place.” I helped drape the cloth and held my uncle’s arm.  My middle brother was supposed to be there, but at that moment he was being mugged at the train station. I’d continue to look for him during the service.

Then the service started. The men from the funeral home gave us directions and Little I asked me, “Do we belong to a crime family?”

Maybe? We certainly belong to a family with roots and history in this neighborhood. My grandfather had been an alderman and my grandparents were entrenched in the community.

The priest said the words of the mass and I clenched the notebook where I had written the words I wanted to share. I hadn’t written a eulogy since my grandmother made me type out the words I wanted to say for my mother. The others were outlined, but off of the cuff. I knew my grandmother would want me to write words for her. For every word to be deliberate.

And then the mass was over. The priest gave the homily and the Eucharist and then dismissed us all. No one said any personal words for my grandmother. My aunts and uncle looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say. These were different ivory towers than the ones I occupy, but they were ivory towers that were robbing my family of its closure. A family that had just lost its cornerstone. I clutched my book, left the church, and went to the burial site where we stood in the rain and walked through the mud.

I’ve kept the book, tucked away, still in shock from the weirdness of that day until TD tried to explain to me what it means to run the world.

These are the words I wrote for my grandmother, who really truly ran the world.

Seven years ago, I had a little girl and it left me with a dilemma. Even though I knew there was a 50% chance I’d have a girl, I hadn’t settled on a name. I thought about all of the things that I wanted for her. All of the wishes and dreams that mothers have for their daughters. I wanted her to grow up to be kind, but also fiercely loyal. I wanted her to be loving, but also stubborn as a mule. I wanted her to be smart, but also have a sense of humor. I wanted her to be brave, but also to be humble and treat everyone with dignity. I thought about all of these qualities, and about the woman I knew who had them all in spades and had always been my hero, and I knew there was only one name I could give my daughter.

I had the honor of being with my grandmother at the end of her life. In between reading chapters of a biography of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, I wondered about her name and where it comes from. “Marcia” is Latin and means “Dedicated to Mars; warlike.” One of my aunt’s favorite philosophers Bob Marley said, “You never know how strong you are until strong is your only choice. In that sense, there was never a stronger warrior than my grandmother. She raised five children, who eventually gave her 20+ grandchildren, who she always had endless love and energy for. She was married to my grandfather, which was a profile in courage itself. I envy and aspire to a marriage with as much love as they shared, but she showed her true warrior colors caring for him after he became ill. And, she did it with the love and humor that only she had, arranging his daily pills on a dessert plate despite his disdain for them. She dealt with the death of my mother and my uncle with grace, and I am grateful to her for giving me her memories of them, even though I knew it hurt her sometimes to talk about it. I can’t imagine burying my own babies.

I have so many beautiful memories from my childhood. Family reunions, drinking tea at the L-shaped dining room table, watching Murder She Wrote at the house on Wycombe Ave. But, I’m most grateful for the time I had with her once I became a mother. I may have sometimes gotten frustrated when she (or my aunts) would sneak frosting into my babies’ mouths, but she had taught me so much by example that motherhood wasn’t nearly so overwhelming. I am grateful for out weekly phonecalls we shared when she was still able. She gave me generations of wisdom, wrapped in a lifetime of laughter.

After her passing, I shared the news with others in my life. My parents’ contemporaries called her “Mrs. Meara”, but all of my friends referred to her as “Grandmom.” That had never struck me before. I had never noticed. Maybe because she had so many grandchildren, she forgot whose Grandmom she actually was sometimes, but I don’t think so. I think it gave her joy and happiness to have love around her and to be at the center of that universe. Everyone who commented or offered condolences said the same thing:

Grandmom was always so kind to me.

My warrior grandmother waged a relentless campaign of love, family, and courage. She has been and always will be a beacon in my life. My here. It has been the sincerest honor of my life to be able to remember her in this way and I feel blessed to know that she lives in the families we’ve all built because of her.


Things That Make Me Laugh…

I’m a little bit humorless today, mired in editing and scientific tomfoolery. Little I called me from the bus stop, freaking out because he has to wait 16 minutes for the bus and it’s flurrying and OMG, HE MIGHT FREEZE TO DEATH!!!

Strange noted on Twitter that I have been playing American Pie on repeat. In science, it’s easy to feel a little like Kiki Dee some days. You get all excited about what you’re doing and start dancing around and then science (AKA Elton John) is like, “No, no Kiki Dee. You are enjoying this far too much. We’re doing serious stuff here! Stay in your lane! You need to be serious like the rest of us!”

But then I got this email that made me chuckle. I don’t know why, because I get about 100 of these a day, but this one put me over the giggle edge…

Dear Dr. Bates M.L,

I have not heard back from you with regards to my previous email. So I thought, I’d quickly check with you once again  to see if you have given some thoughts on my email and bouncing across few ideas about your decision on submitting an article to the journal, Current Trends in Ophthalmology.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me, if you have any queries.


Best regards,
Jamie Logan

I am so deeply sorry that the wait for a reply will be so long, but I study lungs, and blood vessels, and blood cancer. No eyes as far as the eye can see. I’m happy to email him to bounce a few ideas about my decision to submit, but until lungs grow eyes, I’m not sure how I could contribute…

Which led me to thinking more about eyes…and things with a lot of eyes…which led me to thinking about Lucas the Spider and my very favorite Lucas the Spider cartoon.

I think I am going to send this to Jamie Logan. He loves eyes.

Ending Monday On a High Note…With Bubbly, Dahlings

Today has been a day of intense conversation about the infrastructure issues facing my lab and how it impacts my ability to do my work.  I received a very favorable mid-tenure review, and even a suggestion from some colleagues that I consider going up for tenure early, but that’s been offset by the reality that my lab and office are not really conducive to doing quality research.  I have really felt at about the end of my rope lately. Remember the un-stiff upper lip I wrote about the other day? It is still not stiff. It is still quivering like the tuna mayo lime Jello mold at a 70s dinner party.

Then this morning, I got word that a paper we submitted needs a couple minor revisions, but will then be accepted in a cool journal. The reviewers wrote…

Reviewer #1 (Comments to the Author (Required)):

This is an outstanding paper with one of the best experimental designs I have read for some time (matching time of day of in vivo vs. vitro). They have addressed all of my concerns.

Reviewer #2 (Comments to the Author (Required)):

The authors have satisfactorily addressed my questions.
Nice work!

Reviewer #3 (Comments to the Author (Required)):

Thank you for addressing my comments. Congratulations on developing such a novel area of research that has tremendous biomedical implications.

This work has taken all of the blood, sweat, and tears I had to give. It was a project that Strange described as “high risk, high reward” and it means so much to me to 1) have been able to pull it off and 2) have been able to watch the trainee who executed most of the experiments shine and flourish. He’s going to do tremendous things with his career.

And then in the afternoon, I got this in my email…

Giles Filley Award

Part of me feels so humbled and honored to have gone from being an “inconsequential scientist“,  to being recognized on a national level by my peers. I’ve worked really hard to establish a cool, innovative, independent line of research.

But, part of me feels like shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit….

Can you imagine what I could have done if I had a lab that actually worked all the time? And if I didn’t have to keep cobbling things? I could have already had my dream moment – which is, in case you’re wondering – getting my Nobel prize in a sick ass gown like Mariah wore to the AMAs that year she wore that dress that was so tight she couldn’t even move and had to have some dudes come and carry her.

It’s a very specific fantasy, but it gets me through a lot. I’m going to be carried to my Nobel.

So, right now I feel honored and happy, but I also feel like that lady who just wanted her husband to take her to the lake (on the inside, of course). I just want to be able to do my work without worrying what’s falling down around me.

In the meantime, I am going to drink some champagne and try to stay hopeful that everything will work itself out.

How to Write, And Other Things We’re Supposed to Be Teaching Trainees


Today’s post is inspired by a long-time friend of the blog Drugmonkey, who asked the following on The Twitterz…

There’ s no opportunity like the present to take a break from online shopping and offer my opinion.

Green heels

Which is no small feat because, how adorable are these? Spring needs to be on its way post haste.

Once upon a time, I wrote a now well-referenced blog post on my own approach to scientific paper writing. I, of course, think that this is the absolute best approach to paper writing and that everyone should always do things my way. Still, Drugmonkey’s question about what is best for trainees is not lost on me. When I was a postdoc, I had an outstanding mentor who was willing to be very open about his successes and failures in mentoring. He gave me two outstanding pieces of advice. The first, with regard to writing, was to read broadly and find people who I thought were outstanding writers. Not people who were reporting results that I was interested in, but people who did an excellent job of communicating information. Then, emulate and incorporate their style. This really motivated me to read broadly, which has been beneficial in both my science and writing because there is a lot of outstanding writing in the literature. Clear, direct, awesome writing.

The other broader piece of advice that he gave me was that mentoring is not a one size fits all activity. Different trainees have different needs and barriers. I remember, at the time, naively shrugging that one off. We’re all trying to be scientists, right?

Oh, how I wish I had listened better.

I quickly learned when I started reading student writing that, for some students, bringing a PI their first writing is a terrifying proposition. They have no idea where to start, with the white page of doom staring them in the face. Will their writing be any good? What if their PI thinks they’re an idiot?

And, as a PI, it can be a  mentally daunting task (even if it’s your job) to correct the same n00b writing errors over and over again, just to be able to get to the best part of the writing.

[As an aside, I often hear senior colleagues lamenting about how kids these days aren’t as awesome as when they were PhD students/postdocs/junior faculty. They are. It’s just t seniors’ frames of reference shift as they grow older and (hopefully) wiser.]

So, a couple of years ago I came up with a solution to try to make my trainees more comfortable with writing, and more receptive to feedback. We now have what I call “paper meeting.” The point of paper meeting is that anyone can bring anything that they’re working on and get feedback from anyone that shows up. Paper meeting is totally optional, but my observation is that people who participate write papers quicker and far less painfully.  We still use my basic formula for writing (results first, etc.), but this gives the trainees a chance to get feedback from people that aren’t me, alone, in my office, in the most intimidating way possible. They put their figures and writing on the wall and the feedback begins. I find that I can usually stand in the back, ask the occasional Socratic question, and the trainees do an outstanding job of critiquing their own work. Nearly every initial edit that I would have made is picked up in paper meeting, and by people who aren’t me. This gives the trainees experience editing others’ writing and it saves the most fun part of the paper writing for me.

Now, do my trainees like paper meeting? I will be honest that my sense is tainted by the fact that I’m the boss lady. Are people going to tell me they don’t like it? But, it is regularly attended and the feedback from the trainees to each other is scrappy. I call that success.

The best part of the process is that, by the time the rough draft is done, I get to focus on the fun parts. Wordsmithing.  Refining the perfect phrase.  The skeleton of the story is usually already established and the challenge becomes, how to craft everything else around it. I usually meet with the trainees to review a section together. I edit one section in from of them, let them see how I will edit the rest of the paper, and then give the paper back to them for one last edit. They typically get the kind of stuff that will stop me in my tracks, and edit it out themselves. Then, I edit the final draft.

It sounds like a lot of work, but once the lab got the hang of things, it became extremely efficient. I have more papers on my desk than ever before, and I think some of the fear and anxiety has been eliminated from the writing process. The most important lesson it teaches is that writing a paper/grant/etc. is an iterative process that is best accomplished by a community.

Very few people write outstanding prose in isolation and no one benefits from having a single mentor.


What’s In A Name, Indeed?

Change is hard. Really, really hard. I am in the middle of negotiating my own change with my university after the most recent building flood. As a professor, I feel like I’m always asking the question “Who am I, anyway?”  The path toward tenure is one of achievement and sacrifice and I find my recently deceased grandmothers words still echoing in my ear. “Is this really what you want to be doing?”

Then today I read an outstanding blog post on changing your name after divorce.

It’s funny, I started blogging not long after my marriage to the artist formerly known as Mr. I, and remember my decision to take his last name. I was in graduate school, hadn’t started publishing, and the decision was easy. I wanted to be a family. I wanted to be a wife and a mother. I wrote the first 10 years of my blog under the pseudonym “Isis” because I valued this so much. Mr. I and I had just visited Egypt and that name resonated with me.  Isis was a goddess of wisdom, nature and mysticism and was said to be “more clever than a million gods”.  But, when the evil god Set killed her husband Osiris, she stopped everything else and searched the ends of the earth to put him back together. I wanted to give that level of devotion to someone and, when my marriage fell apart, it was so incredibly painful. There are things that you can’t put back together. When I realized that, it was time to let Isis go as the fairy tale she was.

(Except for the part I omit in the story where my younger brother was pissed off that I abandoned our last name and took a different one)

But, like the original blog writer, I had changed my name and needed to figure out what to do with it.  I was already answering questions from family and friends, including my aunt who still pops up every couple years to comment, “I just don’t understand what happened! He was such a nice guy!”.  She means well, but she’s lived with more dudes than I can remember. I’d like to ask her what happened. They were all nice guys.

mariah wedding dress.gif

I had published a lot with my ex-husband’s name and I’ll admit that the “How will people know you?” question and the “Your name is your reputation” bullshit touched a nerve in the midst of an already painful situation. Also, realizing my kids would have a different last name was, as the original writer also noted, tremendously painful. As it turns out, being referred to “Mrs. Ex-Last Name” was not as painful as my made up delusion that people wouldn’t realize I am their mother. They look just like me. No one would ever doubt they’re mine.

And then I ended up in a whirlwind courtship with my current husband (I call them “current” husbands because the only thing truly forever is divorce and even Liz Taylor proved that’s not so true) and I faced the name conundrum again. This time, my husband works with me and is more senior in his career than I am and the idea was put in my stupid, stupid girl head that I wouldn’t want to be seen as just Strange’s little wife. So, I continued to keep the ex’s last name and we started calling ourselves the Isis-Strange family in our personal lives.

beyonce wedding.gif

And that was cool until Little I started writing his last name as “Isis-Strange” and that made some people very upset.  I found myself managing some grown ass mans’ feelings, when really my heart was just breaking for Little I who was just trying to figure out what his new family was all about and acknowledge the love and support of someone new in his life.

He asked me about my name the other day in the car again. “Do you consider yourself more of an Isis or a Strange?” It was a poignant, direct, piercing question and I could only tell him the truth.  In my work life, I use my old name and it’s the name of my children, so I’ll always feel attached to it. But, Strange is my husband and there is a big part of me that just wants to be Mr. and Mrs. Strange (Dr. and Dr. Strange?). I told him, there’s no easy solution, so I just avoid doing anything all together.

Because, at the end of the day, whose last name you have as a woman isn’t about you at all. You don’t really get your own name and other people have far deeper feels about whose name you use. The ownership in your salutation. Who you’ll piss off this week by deciding what to put on your name plate. I feel far too damned old to make a major change now.  But, If I had it to do all over again, I would have eliminated any last name as soon as I could talk because last names are dumb.

It worked for Madonna.