The solution to work/life balance: Bagel Bites

Yesterday our department had its annual big named lectureship lecture. We alternate between the Christian Anfinsen Lectures and the Thomas Hunt Morgan Lectures. On Anfinsen years we get a biochemist type, and on Morgan years we get a geneticist type. This was an Anfinsen year. (Actually, I think we've had three Anfinsens in a row, but that's a long story.)

The speaker was Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. She gained fame in the world at large a few years ago when she was dismissed from Pres. Bush's Bioethics Council. As she explained to us at the student luncheon, she just wouldn't sign off on a document she didn't support. She considered it self-evident, as you wouldn't sign off on a research paper you didn't agree with. We all nodded in agreement.

But beyond the political business, she's quite a famous scientist for her work on telomeres and her discovery of telomerase. She received a Lasker for example. I guess at one point Time named her one of the top 100 most influential people in the world.

I thought she was surprisingly personable. I had expected someone a little forbidding, but she was funny and charming. She is from Australia originally, but her accent seemed somewhat washed out, probably due to her many years in the Bay Area. (She works at UCSF.)

At almost every student luncheon with a woman scientist the issue of work/life balance comes up. All the female grad students are eager to hear someone say it can be done--science and family. Dr. Blackburn was no exception. And she was more optimistic than most. In retrospect I imagine this is because she is on the other side of it--her son is grown now. Most female scientists we meet with are younger, and are in the midst of it. Dr. Blackburn pointed out that we'll likely be in science for forty years. Raising kids just doesn't take that long in the great scheme of things. And, she said, there are "devices" that can be utilized. Devices such as, well, were we familiar with Bagel Bites?

Bagel Bites? Yes, we were aware of Bagel Bites.

Well! She went on in her charming, gentle Australian accent. Bagel Bites could be found in the freezer section at the grocery store. They come in a big box, forty of them. And how long do Bagel Bites take? Twelve Minutes! (This she said, triumphantly.) You take a sheet and cover it with foil so it's nice and shiny, an you put the Bagel Bites on it, and the go in the oven for Twelve Minutes! And they come out nice and bubbly on top. And you take them to the event, and the other parents have brought a nice salad or something, and the Bagel Bites are GONE. Big Hit. Seven/eighths of the salad is left, but the Bagel Bites are GONE.

She explained that she made it through preschool this way, and wondered if it would work the same in Kindergarten. It did! And on through school, so that even as her son was a Senior in High School, she was showing up to the events, good involved parent, Bagel Bites in hand. No time for baking fancy cupcakes, but it didn't matter anyway!

The take-away message seemed to be that you can manage if you use your wits, and make some relatively minor trade-offs. I walked out feeling like maybe it can be done.

Why is it ok to say, "I don't like kids"?

OK, lately it seems like I've heard or read a lot of people saying that they don't like kids. It always makes me really uncomfortable. Why is that ok to say? If the person were to say, "I don't like elderly people," everyone would consider him a shallow jerk. It's not like kids are a monolithic group any more than any other group of humans selected on one intrinsic characteristic.

Singing for the dead

In other downer news, I cantored for a memorial mass this past Monday. The deceased was 32 years old, same as I am. I was told he was found floating in the harbor, but foul play was not suspected. No one knew more, so one was left to draw one's own conclusions.

The church was fairly full, but it did not seem that there were many church-goers in the congregation. I usually only sing for weekend masses and the occasional Holy Day. I am used to the congregation participating, even if in a rather desultory fashion. The folks at the memorial mass just sat and stared at me. Most did not even bother with the pretense of holding a hymnal. It was unnerving.

The mass overall gave the impression of a check box being checked. Father Burke gave a nice if somewhat generic homily, and there was one short eulogy. It all made me wonder what this guy's story was. In any case, I hope he is resting peacefully.

I was given $35 for cantoring the mass. It's the first time I have ever been paid to sing.

Black Bean Soup of Optimism

I've been feeling down for a couple of weeks in a non-specific way. I suspect it started with work and hormones, then snowballed with failing to eat properly and not getting enough exercise. If I'm down, I don't feel like cooking, so I don't eat well, so I feel like crap. Vicious cycle, that.

Last Saturday my 97-year-old great-grandma had a major stroke, so I went to go see her in the hospital. Amazingly, she is still hanging in there, though she cannot swallow properly any longer. Pneumonia is a serious danger. I'm glad I got to see her, but the event seemed to just throw me totally out of balance. It was kind of a rough week. It got so bad it was clear I couldn't just muddle through anymore. So I tried to get in some long walks and make a point of more healthy meals.

And it helped. Yesterday I felt better than I have for a while. I started soaking some beans for soup for dinner. For lunch I made pasta with a tomato-spinach-mushroom sauce. (Hardly liquid enough to be called a sauce, really.) I started making the black bean soup I'd planned. I sauteed the onions, carrots and celery in the dutch oven, then added the beans and plenty of water. I cooked it all up for a while before I realized that we weren't going to be hungry for it last night after our big lunch. So I stuck it in the fridge to finish today.

When I tasted it today I realized it was tragically bland. I dumped in some salt, cumin and cayenne, then added a can of diced tomatoes and half a bunch of kale torn into bite-sized pieces. Cooked it down, adjusted the spices. It needed acid, so I threw in the juice of one lemon.

It was great. I was so pleased. It seems rare that something so economical to make turns out to be really satisfying. Now I have a couple of days of healthy lunches in the fridge, and I'm feeling like this week is looking up.

Excellent source of protein!

The Chinese think silkworms would be excellent food for astronauts. What is baffling to me, having raised silkworms once, is how space travellers will come up with the prodigious number of fresh mulberry leaves the little suckers need to thrive. But I think the worst part is the idea of chemically processing the silk and using it in some sort of bastardized "jam" concoction. shudder

We should all become periodontists.

I confess, I didn't go to the dentist for 15 years.

The last time I went before my drought, my parents took me. If I recall correctly it was over my summer vacation when I was at Notre Dame. They gave me a fluoride treatment, because I was still a kid. For many years I didn't even think about going. Then I started thinking I probably ought to go. When I got to JHU I bought the dental insurance, and proceeded not to use it. Finally, for no particular reason I made an appointment.

The guy I went to for my check-up was young and humorless. He poked around for about two minutes, took some x-rays, and referred me directly to a periodontist. A gum guy. I have dental calculus, and recession. He didn't even give me a cleaning.

While the earnest and sober young dentist has a tiny, shabby office, the periodontist has a large one in a chi-chi complex that also contains a Williams-Sonoma. He was older and cheerful, asking me if I knew why I was there, as if my teeth had been caught speeding. He poked around in my mouth for about two minutes, dictating numbers to a polite and well-groomed assistant. (This is the true measure of the well-to-do health-care office--a bevy of polite and well-groomed assistants.) He explained that I was in no real trouble, but I did have build-up to be removed from my 15 years of dental absentia. This build-up would be removed in two visits (tops and bottoms) each of about 1/2 hour duration. I spent maybe 10 minutes with the doctor.

On checking out I learned that the 10 minutes I had spent would be billed at $100. Each 1/2 hour scaling session would be $500. Would I like to put down a 20% deposit and book an appointment now, or wait for insurance pre-approval?

The pre-approval should come in 3-4 weeks.


One morning this week I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was that the bedroom ceiling was dripping water.

"Oh shit."

When we bought the house the inspector warned us that the roof, though newly tarred, was iffy. So we added to the contract a one year warranty on the roof, and happily signed. I guess we should be grateful it's lasted two years, but now, definitely, we have a problem.

I suspected it might also have something to do with the tree as well. Last time I walked the dog I took the route that cuts behind the house, and from a distance I could see that a decent chunk of the tree ended up on the roof. That sort of thing can poke holes in flat tar roofs like ours.

Apparently it did, and also our flashing isn't up to snuff, and also we have the whole initial crumminess going on. Rather to our relief, the low bidder has come in at a price of $1875 to remove the tree, flash everything, and install a new "torch down" roof. I'm not sure how this torch down roof thing works, but I've read enough to know that it does involve a flaming torch, so I'm in favor of that. Oh and we're also getting silver coating, which should help the upstairs not be a sweltering oven in the summer.

So, overall not the complete disaster one might expect from having to replace your roof. And it's always good not to have to worry about rain water dripping on your sleeping head.


A neighbor's tree snapped off in the middle and fell against our house and into the driveway. Hooray for the Sawzall!