Monday, May 28, 2012

Open Letter to Fat-Haters

Dear Insecure Assholes,

Some fat people are fat because they eat too much. Others (usually the ones who are so fat that you make fun of them) have genetic make-ups that cause them to balloon in weight because of our modern, sedentary lifestyle.

What we call a genetic disorder was actually an advantage in the not-so-distant past. You see, if food was scarce, then being able to efficiently store as many calories as possible would be a huge bonus. And so would having a huge appetite, especially for sweet and fatty foods. But with today's plentiful food (including foods that are full of empty calories), this is no longer an advantage. So these people end up with more calories coming in than they are expending. Making fun of somebody who is genetically prone to obesity is like making fun of a woman who comes from a long line of ancestors with breast cancer.

Next let's talk about the people who are fat because they eat too much. People eat too much for a variety of reasons. Some people just don't make it a priority to watch their weight. There's nothing wrong with that choice, despite what our society preaches. Being moderately overweight has been shown to be beneficial in a lot of medical outcomes. Others have been sexually abused, and become obese so that they are "unattractive" in a dysfunctional attempt to ward off future abusers. And still others use food as a form of comfort to survive abuse or tough times. (This is what I did when I was going through a tough time.) In other words, at best you are making fun of people who have made a morally neutral choice, but more than likely you're piling further pain upon already-hurting people.

Next let's talk about your misconceptions about fat people. They are not inherently lazy. They do not all shovel doughnuts into their mouths by the dozen at all times. And, just because you see someone eating a Big Mac, for all you know that could be a special treat for the person and not a regular occurence! They often eat balanced diets. They often exercise. They are not dirty and gross. They are just normal people trying to make it through the journey of life.

If you are making fun of fat people, you must be feeling really hurt and insecure yourself. Well, just remember that we all have our ways of accommodating for our insecurities. Some people overeat, and others make fun of other people. Your behavior is no less dysfunctional than theirs.

Oh, and making fun of people because their body deviates from the ideal is so junior-high. Please grow the heck up already!

No love,

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Adventures in Australiana

Adding to the riskiness of taking this job, I have never actually been to Australia. The interview was over the internet. They sent me documents via email, and I returned scans of the signed documents. I've never seen my future boss in person (although I did meet a few of his colleagues when they visited my workplace to learn strategies from the top supercomputing centers as they were starting up their project). But I did not jump into this sight-unseen.

I did a lot of homework ahead of time. A colleague has a friend who lives in Perth and works in the same building I will work in -- an American woman, with whom I spoke extensively. And thanks to Google Maps street view, we've driven around Perth (admittedly very slowly and in a fishbowl!). I've been reading the local news as well, getting a feel for what's going on.

I also read all about Australia and Western Australia (WA) as a whole. I've learned about the way their government is set up, and the fact that they have a childless, unmarried, female, atheist prime minister (a combination that would be political suicide in this country!). I learned about their history and holidays (for one thing, Easter is a four-day weekend). I learned about their income tax system, their retirement system, and their public medical insurance scheme (alas, with a temporary work visa, we don't qualify and must pay for our own private insurance). I learned about how to get a driver's license in Western Australia. I read the Western Australian police department's website, the WA department of education's website, and examined some of the primary schools in the area that Vinny could potentially attend. I checked out the online shopping for two of the biggest grocery stores in the area, as well as the Australian Kmart and Target chains (they licensed the names and logos from the US, but that is the extent of the similarity). Yes, they do sell peanut butter.

A friend of mine let me borrow Bill Bryson's book In a Sunburned Country, a book that really did make me laugh out loud. (I only wish it would have had more about Perth.) We watched a number of documentaries on Australia as well.

I've also been in contact with some of my future colleagues, one in particular who has kids similar in age to Vinny. From that colleague, I've learned more about how the schools work and about Australian culture. I think it's all going to be just fine (although that is not to say that there will be no surprises!).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Adventures in Resignation

Eventually, I was going to have to tell the powers-that-be that I was leaving. Technically, I only had to give two weeks notice, but that would have been kind of rude. I might want to come back someday, and I don't want to burn any bridges. I asked my boss what to do, and he recommended that I tell them in May, to give them two months to adjust to the situation, and also, enough time to at least have a chance to counter offer.

But, when I talked to another person at work whose opinion I greatly respect, he told me I should tell the powers-that-be as soon as I was emotionally ready to do so. When I told this colleague, I ended up crying, because it is a very emotionally charged thing for me.* So I needed to practice, he told me, practice until I could say it without crying and in a way that would convey the excitement I was feeling -- to help them understand why I had made this decision.

In a way, this situation reminded me of when I was a postdoc and had to tell my boss that I was pregnant. I remember telling him that I had some "exciting" news -- not good news, not bad news. He received it very well. So I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of practice.

I decided that I needed to do it before a major conference that was approaching. I also thought it would be best to do it on a Friday afternoon. So almost two weeks ago, I told my boss' boss that I had decided to take the other job offer, because it was such an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

He was disappointed, but he took it well. I told him I would definitely like for our two centers to collaborate, and he readily agreed. I said I might want to come back someday, and he didn't disagree. The last thing I wanted to do was burn any bridges, and I don't believe I have.

* Also, I was really sick, and if I had a reasonable number of sick days per year, I would have been at home trying to recover from the flu instead of at work sharing it with my colleagues. So I wasn't really in the best state physically or emotionally that day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adventures in Difficult Decisions

I felt really guilty about it, but I wanted to take this other position, even though it meant leaving my family and friends, and my boss (who may as well be family) behind.  I felt that by staying, I could prolong my boss's life by keeping that pressure off of him.

At the same time, I was so angry at my current workplace that it was hard to retain my composure sometimes.  The fact that I had a good offer elsewhere helped to lower my inhibitions.  I became fearless -- asking nine questions of the head of my institution at a managerial meeting (more than twice as many questions as everyone else combined!), sending a letter of complaint to the head of HR about the HR person whose remarks had so angered me, and generally being more outspoken than usual, as I dared them all to fire me.

But still I felt so guilty and so ashamed to even think of leaving.  My in-laws would be devastated; my friends were begging me not to go; and I could not bear to think of abandoning my boss.

I had lunch with him, still away from work, and I sobbed nearly the whole time.  He reassured me that he would not think less of me for leaving, that he understood why I would want to pursue this opportunity.*  I saw a gleam in his eye when he talked about coming to our current workplace when it was a brand-new center.

I wanted that gleam in my eye, not the flash of fire that inevitably appears these days.  I wanted to love the way I earn a living.  So the solution seemed obvious.  But one stumbling block remained: relocation.  The offer did not include sufficient relocation funds to move our household without paying out of pocket, and I did not want to do that.  So I asked for what I wanted: full moving expenses and one month of short-term housing.**  And they agreed! (Maybe I should have asked for more!)

So I signed the papers, scanned them, and sent them over email, following up with the originals via priority mail.  Ten days later, I applied for the visa, and within six hours of turning in the final paperwork, the visa was approved.***

*See what I mean about how awesome he is?  Best. Boss. Ever!!!

** Template for others facing this situation:

Thank you very much for this exciting opportunity. I am very excited about the possibility and I would really like to accept your offer. There is one final concern that I have, but assuming that it can be resolved to our mutual satisfaction, I will sign the contract. 

 My concern has to do with relocation. I’ve been trying to find out how much it would cost to move our belongings from A to B, and from what I understand it may cost much more than $X. One quote I received was $Y, and based on Z’s experience (she forwarded me her moving info) this seems like a good approximation. Someone is coming to perform an in-home moving estimate on Monday, but unfortunately I won’t get a quote until after the deadline for accepting. 

What I would really like is for the cost of relocation and one month of short-term housing to be covered. It would ease my family’s anxiety about moving, and my anxiety about trying to find a place to live while trying to do well at my job and adjusting to a brand-new place. If we could agree to something like that, then I would definitely sign the contract.

*** I am really impressed with the efficiency of the Australian government (or at least their immigration department).  From my experience with hiring foreign nationals, this process would have dragged out another six months if I'd been dealing with the United States government.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Adventures in Job Satisfaction

From my perspective, my life at work had taken a turn for the worse in recent months.

My boss, who is truly made entirely of elemental awesome, has a serious chronic health condition, which took a turn for the worse at the end of last year.  Unfortunately, even Awesomonium can't protect you from your own body degenerating.  Over the past two years, I had taken on more of his load to help protect his fragile health, something that I willingly did, because I want to someday go into management and this was an opportunity to gain experience -- but most importantly, because I love that man!*  I've mentioned that I became the hiring manager for postdocs last summer -- that was one of his tasks.  I was able to hire the rest of the postdocs and write all the boring reports that went with this task.  I also served as his substitute when his health kept him from work, and as the main point of contact for a number of other tasks.  All this while still doing my own job.

When the higher-ups decided to open up a new task lead position (reporting to my boss), I jumped at the opportunity and applied for it.  My boss wanted me to have that position (since I was already doing the work), but the folks above him weren't so sure.  After several months had passed and I hadn't heard anything good about my chances of getting that job, I decided to be a little more proactive about my career.  I saw a position advertised at another supercomputing center, one for which the requirements and qualifications were basically "everything Rebecca has been doing over the years."  I applied almost 3 weeks after the application deadline, yet I still landed the interview, and within a half-hour I was asked when I could start.

It seemed like a cool opportunity, one that I would be willing to take, despite one major downside: it involved moving far away.  We've always lived within a one-state radius of Kentucky, and we are very close to our families, so this would be a big adjustment.  But I was nevertheless delighted when I learned that I would be getting an offer from this institution.

Adding to my interest in this other opportunity were some recent developments related to our benefits at my current workplace.  Our retirement matching was temporarily suspended, and our paid absences heavily restricted to a ridiculous level, all to deal with the consequences of the poor economy and government austerity.  More plans were being developed to cut costs on our pension plan and health insurance, as well.  My boss was now on medical leave, so I got the opportunity to attend meetings on these issues in his stead.

Attending these meetings opened my eyes to just how out of touch with regular people the leadership at my institution really is.  Nobody thought to consult with groups representing the types of people who would be most adversely impacted by the new restrictions on paid time away (e.g., women, single parents, and people with chronic illnesses) when these policies were being developed, for example.  And one representative of human resources actually conflated the case of an irresponsible person using up all their paid time off on a wild drunken vacation and the case of someone like my boss using up all his paid time off to cover the days he was too sick to work!**  It took all the strength I had not to leap across the table.  Instead my inner mom took over, and I scolded this insensitive HR person into silence.

I also did not feel particularly certain about my future in a leadership role at my current workplace.  While my boss seems to understand my accomplishments and abilities, his boss was unaware and fairly indifferent.  When told that I was considering this other option, he was not particularly motivated to try and keep me.  I spoke with him about it, and he did not see the same future for me here that I wanted.  It was nothing personal -- just a matter of opinion about the direction the center should go for the task lead position.  So it seemed the writing was on the wall.

The offer came in from the other institution.  It was a little low -- a 20% pay cut.  I emailed back and politely asked for more, based on what I currently make.***  They met me in the middle, which was about what I had expected.  Despite the 10% pay cut, the higher cost of living, and the necessity of saving additional money to pay for annual trips home to Kentucky, it was looking better and better.

The guy who manages the day-to-day operations of our center -- a guy who works for my boss's boss, and wields some power -- caught wind of my other offer.  In a panic, he called me in for a meeting, and asked what he could do to keep me from leaving.  All I ever wanted, I told him, was to be task lead.  I'm already doing the work and I'm doing a good job.  (He agreed.)  But, the bigger boss is apparently looking for someone with different qualifications than mine.  I understand, and I'm disappointed, but I'm not taking it personally.  If he could persuade the bigger boss to give me the title, however, I would probably stay.  He said he'd work on it.  I thanked him, and told him my deadline was mid-January.

I continued to negotiate with the other center.  There were a lot of really good things about this opportunity.  It's a brand-new supercomputing center.  The science problems they are solving overlap somewhat with what I currently work on, but there is also room for growth by working on another of their major focuses.  The new (to me) problems boil down to inverse and ill-posed problems, which is what I cut my teeth on (or, got my Ph.D. working on!) but have never solved at such a large scale.  Since it's a new center and I would be one of the first staff members, there would be lots of opportunities to apply my experience and step into new roles.

My updated offer arrived, and I informed the powers that be of my deadline.  The operations guy came through, and I learned that I would be getting the position I wanted.

But I wasn't as happy about it as I had hoped.  I was glad to finally get the recognition I deserved, but at the same time I felt under-appreciated and resentful of the great lengths I had to go to in order to get it.  The director of my potential new workplace, however, was making me feel a lot more wanted -- all my emails with complex questions were quickly answered, and he even offered to chat via the internet, something I did take him up on.

In our chat, he told me of all the exciting new opportunities I would have there -- the opportunity to mentor and supervise students, the opportunity to develop as a leader, and the opportunity to really shape how the center would operate.  We talked about the location, the nice weather, the real possibility of me being able to walk to work every day...

But... did I mention that it is in Australia?  Perth, Western Australia -- almost antipodal -- or certainly as far away as you can get from Kentucky without landing in the ocean.

* He is the best boss I will probably ever have.  He's a person who engenders strong emotions in everyone -- I don't think I've ever met anyone who is neutral about him.  But here are a few ways that he is the best boss ever: 1, He trusts us to do our work and get the job done however we decide to do it.  2, He thinks of us as human beings, not "work-production machines," and strives to have a positive personal relationship with each person in our group.  3, He is extremely family-friendly, and understands that family obligations are actually more important than work.  4, He never does anything to remind me that I'm different than the majority of the group, e.g., he curses just as much in front of me as he does everyone else, and he never makes sexist jokes.  5, The way people treat my child and the way my child reacts to them is a reasonably accurate first-order approximation of their character -- and he loves my son, and my son adores him too.  

**  Obviously this HR person is a Tea Party member, because their point was "personal responsibility!!!!" Yeah, my boss should have totally picked a better body for his soul to enter into (if you believe in that kind of thing), or at a minimum directed the development of his body more carefully in utero.  How irresponsible of him to have a genetic predisposition for his chronic illness!  He should have picked different parents.

** A template for anyone facing this situation:
"Right now, looking at the offer, I have a few concerns with the salary rate.  Currently, I make $X annually, and I live in one of the least expensive parts of the United States.  I am the sole breadwinner in my family (my husband stays home and cares for our young son), but we live very comfortably.  I recognized, when applying, that even the highest end of the salary range quoted would be a pay cut, and I was prepared for a moderate amount of belt tightening to accommodate for that, combined with moving to a more expensive part of the world and the necessity of spending $Y/year on plane tickets to visit family who are currently only a short drive away.  I was prepared to do that because [insert reasons this is a cool opportunity here], but this is a little more belt-tightening than I feel comfortable doing.  Is there any way that the salary could come any closer to what I make now?"