Nerd expressed

A job application that I am down to the wire on in making the deadline wants me to write, in addition to the usual suspects–cover letter, research and teaching statements–a “statement of contributions to diversity.” And because I am having trouble getting started I thought it might help to free-think some ideas here (and get my weekly quota of blog writing up as well).

The main reason for my troubles with the statement is that I am not sure how to write something that won’t come off as whiny or strident, self-glorifying, trite or any number of other pejorative adjectives that I can think of in the context of the issue of writing about diversity. First there is a Duh! factor: which is that I contribute to diversity on any number of fronts just by being–I am a woman, a “mature” candidate (would I count as “post-mature” in the jargon of my social scientist colleagues I wonder) and ethnically an Indian. Even as I’m listing these features it occurs to me to create a new acronym, OBG–for “Old Brown Gal”–which just happens to bring to mind the “woman’s” doctor in medical science, the ObGyn (As I’ve said, equally sincerely in other blog posts, this pun or whatever wasn’t planned…it just happened, I swear). I also happen to be diabetic and while it does not affect my workplace activities or needs, it is still one of the featured conditions in the disabilities section of any Equal Opportunity/Demographic questionnaire.

Of course I can’t simply make that statement- “I contribute to diversity just by being” because not only is it trite, it is also simply not enough. Just being a minority does not do much, if anything, for the betterment of the community, and to be frank, I have never been much for identifying with a community based on one aspect of who/what I am. Furthermore the categories represented in the label don’t even begin to cover the gamut of issues on which we need diversity–which label is usually used for talking about women, Ethnic/racial minorities, people with disabilities, the LGBT cluster and increasingly religion. Age, which I included in the OBG category, is asked about for demographic purposes, but seems to…


Well I petered off at that point two days ago, but did manage to get the formal statement, and hence, the application completed. In the end I began by “outing” myself as an OBG, though I did not use that term. And the diversity I focused on for the bulk of the paper was linguistic diversity. Addressing the issues of ESL/EFL student support for one, and that of linguistic impoverishment (again, though I didn’t use that word) within academia and ways to address it. I also managed to sneak in some pop culture–outdated as it might be to most–with a reference to that old Adam West Batman movies. Holy Tower of Babble Batman! you might say à la Robin.  I thought it apropos, and hope the readers get a kick out of it. (#33)


I was so delighted to read this morning (well okay, it’s now two mornings ago) that Kazuo Ishiguro is the winner of the 2017 Nobel in Literature. I’m stoked because I’ve been an admirer of his for a while now (check out this long ago post about his books). I won’t say fan because I don’t unreservedly love everything he writes, but I do whole-heartedly love the way he writes it. It reminded me too that I have a unread treat in my Kindle in the guise of the first of his books that I heard about, The Remains of the Day.

But this is not the only Nobel that I have ties of connection or affection to. There is the Physiology or Medicine award, one of the three recipients this year of which was Michael Young. The award brought back memories of my time in the information office at Rockefeller University (and which is now headed by a former colleague from another place and time) where the annual task in September was to draft out announcements in anticipation of certain  winners. Might that be taken as a conceit? Yes, but not an idle one, for that small university does have a formidable number of winners in its roster of employees past and present (and even some future). True there were not winner in the two years that I was there (1996 & 97), but then there were consecutive awards in 1999 and 2000 to Rockefeller faculty, and then in 2001 Sir Paul Nurse got it, and he later became Director at the Rock for several years. Then again in 2011. Not too shabby.

I also have a connection to this year’s prize in chemistry. It was for a technique called cryo-electron microscopy and I’ve already managed to mention it in a paper that I’m working on (my co-author was also pleased).

Three out of five ain’t half bad, to mangle a quote by Jack Nicholson in a dreadful (so bad it was good) film. Five I say, because I don’t necessarily count the Peace Prize.. but while we’re counting, this post brings me up (down?) to #34.

So, I just added a page to my food blog, titled by the neologism that’s in the title of this post as well. It is a recipe, but since it counts as a legit entry, I figured I’d claim it as my #37, which is slightly overdue. But is also an entry point into these plays on words that I delight in concocting, almost as much as I do in concocting the foods in question. More often than not, the concoctions are created in spur of the moment, rather than with any planning or forethought, the word plays even less so than the foods.

Both guac-un-mole and squashamole are derived from guacamole, that delicious avocado dip that is now quite common-place the world over or at least in North America. Guac-un-mole (named so because it’s not a mole–which is sort of a word for sauce) but has all or most ingredients that go into it, and the squashamole because it was basically a dip made of squash that vaguely resembled guac in texture. It then occured to me, given that I used nuts as well that it might just easily be compared to homous, which lead to its other name squashomous.

Then there was the whole bit about salsifying and falsifying which brought in Popper in a most satisfying way and suggested a whole new way to enjoy poppers as well.

Okay.. enough.. like I said, this post is a short way to link to a real post on another site, which gives it some free advertising and helps me fulfill a quota too. Double and triple whammies abound! (#s 37 & 36)

The thought occurred, while answering an email about my current book project, that in  that I should write about the various strategies I have adopted in the years since I conceived of this book, in order to tackle a large project  more manageable. That my title is alliterative is just a happy co-incidence.

Stepping stones: Every project has its stepping stones and they come in many forms. I am reminded as I am typing this that a formal proposal is a natural stepping stone, but the one that I was thinking of particularly when I started to write this is what I call a stepping-stone publication. Undertaking such a project eases one into the larger task so by the time one actually officially “begins” the latter, there are already bits and pieces ready and available to be patched-in, expanded or otherwise modified. Two papers that I published, in 2014 and last year, are two stepping stones of slightly different types. The first was a “preview” of sorts–call it testing ground–where I first floated the central idea that eventually became the basis for the book. The inception of this this paper goes back a few years earlier actually–but at time the “book” was yet a dim possibility. It still serves as the outline for my larger project–10 pages to the roughly 200 that my book is supposed to be. The second paper, is a far more specific, and details a specific argument based on a specific archival find. It was an actual stepping stone, the first official paper that I wrote before picking up the courage to tackle the larger, more intimidating book itself. Funny thing is that I didn’t actually get to the content of the paper until recently, almost two thirds of the way into the book. But having it there helped. A third project currently underway, is a segue from the book–a way to suss out some ideas and get into material that is less familiar to me.

Spin-offs: Such articles are exactly what the label implies. Home in on a particular aspect–one idea or something–that has already been written into the book and spin a slightly different angle or go into greater depth about it. I recently submitted my first spin-off effort (which I actually began as a stepping stone) but didn’t really get into until recently by which time the chapter had been written. But as I wrote the paper I found myself revisiting the chapter and changing details (of course I do that at almost every reread in any case, but this time the changes were more substantive as opposed to merely cosmetic. I have more spin-offs from my dissertation (but no stepping-stones, although paradoxically, the first paper has that phrase in the title). And while it may seem repetitive, I think spin-offs are hugely useful exercises because they keep you in the game.

So that’s my two bits worth on my writing life (#38)

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 8.32.10 PMDescribe the tone of a loved one who is deceased. Or about the inability to hear it.

I’d completely forgotten that I’d noted this prompt down from my book Writing from the Senses, and came about it sort of accidentally today. I really cannot remember whose voice I wanted to write about at the time the prompt caught my eye, but encountering it today made me think of my two grandmothers and their voices and speech mannerisms and thought perhaps I should try and record those memories.

First, my paternal grandmother Kamakshi Patti, who died a long time ago in 1982. The first thing that comes to mind with her is a visual, but I do have some vivid memories of her habits or speech and her sayings, and since this post is about the memory of sounds, tones and voices, I’ll stick with that. The thing I remember most of all is her whisper. The adjective “sibilant’ might have been coined with hers in mind, so onomatopoeically perfectly does it suit. Her whisper was not the type one associated with secrets, far from it. It was a carrying sound in which every syllable could be heard with crystal clarity. Probably because, oddly enough it was guttural too, in tone. I remember how my cousin Kappu once fondly said that while she often strained her ears in vain to hear gossipy conversations between her Mom and Patti (after the lights went out at night and everyone including the women were in bed) when they spoke in normal voices, she could relax and hear everything once my grandmom resorted to whispering. And since Patti saved that voice for the juiciest bits, my cousin never missed an important detail — can’t say I remember any details myself, but yes, I too share fond memories of listening to those whispers.

Two more specific sound related memories: My grandmother never spoke English but she would always talk about a song that she learned during her brief years of school, and sing (sort of) the opening line to us. “Welcome welcome, hearty welcome” it went in a Tamil accent, whose tune I couldn’t for the life of me reproduce. But I always remember (and hope I always will) the pride and joy with which she told us about the song. Then there was the way she said the words “beans”–always mispronouncing it as “beems.” For some reason this infuriated, or at least irritated, my obnoxiously snobbish brought-up-on-English self at 7 or so and equally all-of-those-things younger brother. We would try and try to make her say it right and she would patiently repeat it after us but get it wrong every time. Poor thing–she never got upset with us kids despite our atrocious rudeness.

One last memory of her that I’d like to record in this post is not exactly about her voice, but related, which is her remarkable facility for communication with all and sundry, despite not sharing a common language. As far as know Kamakshi Patti never spoke anything but Tamil, but she was the quintessential intrepid soul who could with gestures and a lot of hand waving, she could make herself understood when needed. I particularly remember the way she got a visiting American boy called Raji Thron (who may or may not be the same person who has a yoga website) to perform all sorts of chores like grinding dosa batter on the old fashioned stone or  fetching water to clean said stone, which she certainly could not get myself or my brother too. She was widowed relatively young and still made her way to on her own by trains and buses (and changing them) all the way to the Hindi-dominated North India where we lived, on her own several times. Like I said, intrepid soul.

Intrepid is not the first characteristic, I associate with my other–ie .maternal–grandmother, Chuppu Patti, who might have been the kindest person I can think of in many ways. I would have said gentle, but while her soul was gentle–perhaps the gentlest of anyone I’ve ever encountered–her voice was not. It was strong, slightly hoarse (as was my K Patti’s too). She had a great facility for various Indian languages and could speak some half a dozen of them to my knowledge. I particularly remember visiting her in Sringeri in the state of Karnatka, just a few months after they’d moved there, and being amazed at how easily she seemed to speaking to all the local shopkeepers in their language. Not so my grand-dad who’d moved there the same time, although he being of a more scholarly bent of mind (more on that below), when he got around to it also learned to read and write the language.

I have many more memories of this grandmother since she was with us until 2013, but I don’t have the kind of specific anecdotes about her voice  as I do about my K Patti. This last is just a tiny bit ironic because this grandmother actually shared her name–Subalakshmi–with one of the most famous Carnatic music singers ever, down to the initials M.S. that preface the given name. What I remember most about C Patti is her gentle but consistent nagging of my grandfather to do whatever he was supposed to rather than read whichever book he happened to get his hands on on any given day. Actually come to think of it I just remembered something after all–an exasperated remark, in Tamil naturally, to the effect of “As if he’s going to do a PhD with all that reading!”

On that note this sleepy person who did go on to get a PhD by reading (and writing other things besides blogs), during said Patti’s lifetime–though regrettably not until after Thatha, the non-PhD avid reader passed away–will end this post, which may have actually caught me up on my blog-once-a-week resolution made on June 10 (#40).

Now that I think about it, there are many ways that this prompt might be taken–in my colleague/co-author, Ton van Helvoort’s words, it has a lot of “interpretive flexibility.” And sometimes, that flexibility is not necessarily a good thing. Because not all interpretations are benign or even innocuous, even though many are.

Let me explain… Musical instruments have always fascinated me, in part because I can’t play any with any degree of facility. That may be the reason this prompt caught my eye. Well, that and the fact that it reminded me of a scene in an episode of the T.V. show Sex and the City, where the protagonist Carrie Bradshaw (SJP) in pursuit of the eponymous goal, is “played” like a cello–by a cellist (I think) or in any rate, a musician. The way it was played, the scene was mostly amusing, in a smile- rather than laugh-inducing way, not particularly romantic or erotic, but (or perhaps thus?) memorable for all that. There was another, genuinely romantic scene in one of the later seasons, where the Mikhail Baryshnikov character plays her a song he’s written for her on the piano (another another piano-related romantic moment suddenly popped to mind: the fabulous Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges “makin whoopie” on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys… but I digress). The point I guess I’m trying to make is illustrated in the difference between what happened to Carrie in the two episodes–whereas she was played in the one, she was played to (or for) in the other–and that makes all the difference.

Being played has another far more negative connotation, which is what came to mind when I looked at the prompt today. It means being taken for a fool or being conned. And for me, personally, that is the worst thing someone can do to me. I can remember virtually every time I’ve been played (which is not the same as being played a joke on or teased etc etc) and I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven the folks who’ve played me either at a personal or professional level. I think it’s because more than them, it’s myself I can’t forgive for having been so gullible, to have been taken in and being played. And so there is transference of the anger. Which is not to say that I sit around plotting dastardly revenge (although I will admit to some fantasies of me fabulously snubbing these people) but I do gradually distance myself from those who played me. Eventually,  in the first case, I think indifference is the best revenge. And living well is always a good revenge as well, in any circumstance…

Gosh, this turned into a weird and sort of cathartic, self psycho-analysis rather than a fun write up about how I would like to be a violin or Cello or piano or something. But that’s the thing about writing to these prompts– they really unlock unexpected memories, feeling etc. And the write-up emerges quite different. Oh well,  until next time. For now the answer is still… (42).

The title of my post is actually the title of a book by Pat Conroy (of the Prince of Tides fame) which I happen to be reading write now and enjoying very much…Plagiarism? one might ask, to which I’ll offer a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s famous line about immature poets imitating vs. mature poets stealing. Actually he goes on to talk about bad poets defacing what they imitate and the good ones taking something and making it better “or at least different” but that part is not germane to this post. So I’ll defer a discussion of the American Schoolteacher to another day and post (perhaps) and get to the the subject at hand, which as the titles proclaim, is about my writing life.

What triggered this post is a description by Conroy of his writing habits. To him, “the writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine. The writing of books does not permit much familiarity with chaos.” Funny I should encounter that statement today of all days, when earlier in the morning (many hours before Pat Conroy was in my psyche) I was thinking about what makes me tick as a writer. And the conclusion I came to, in an impassioned monologue in my head that I delivered to no-one (and would never have done so but for the inspiration) was quite the opposite of Conroy’s description: that routine for me is anathema.

I thrive, or at least my writing self does, on chaos. I mean, I can’t even sit at the same spot 3 days in a row without getting restless and losing productivity. I need to mix something up–go to a cafe (if I’ve been working at home); a different cafe if I’ve visited the same one more than once; or change the hours I work or what I’m working on. Consider my inability to keep to my once-a-week resolution on this blog. I tried I really did, but it hasn’t really worked has it. I often go several days without writing and then suddenly have a succession of entries. As a PhD student I indulged myself in what I called “productive procrastination” with at least one other major project–what became The Human Genome Sourcebook, a reference book about the human genome, which I wrote over a period of 4 years all told, with a co-author. And this wasn’t even the first book to come out of my years as a grad student–the first, another reference book on microbes, was a solo effort that I had embarked on even before I had begun my Ph.D. Of course the first year of grad school brought the progress on that book (which bears the long and boring title of Microbes and People: An A to Z of the Important Micro-organisms in Our Lives. My father wanted me to call it The World of Small Things–another Eliot follower even if unknowingly so–but the title was not up to me) to a screeching halt. But then came my first summer, which I spent with Dad as my roomie at the oddly organized, I. M. Pei designed, East West Center at the University of Hawaii, where over a period of two-and-a-half months I wrote most of the book. Again–or I should say setting the pattern for the future–following a gloriously chaotic non-schedule that entailed some midnight visits to my Dad’s office and some dawn time walks from the Math Dept. to the EWC!

My current book–about 5 sevenths (or 5 eighths) of the way in since I began writing for real and in earnest last (2016) February or March–has been yet another exercise in discipline through chaos, written in bits and pieces in cafes and friends and cousins homes  all over the world–Melbourne in Australia, London, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Savannah (Georgia), the Bay Area, Bangalore… so far. (The proposal was written up entirely in Seoul I think). Fair enough since its geographic reach is similarly worldwide, though not quite as peripatetic. Most of the individual scientists that I am writing about–the eccentric Felix d’Herelle being the notable exception that proves the rule–were remarkably stable in their careers spending decades if not their entire careers in one place.  But there is method to my madness as the saying goes, or a consistency to my chaos. And once again I’ve found a way (actually multiple ways) to procrastinate productively with other projects, as yet too undefined, some even embryonic this.  (#43)

Next Page »