How to learn from your supervisor

When you are in a PhD program like mine, in which virtually no course work is involved and you are supposed to spend 40 hours a week in your little room with your stack of papers and a computer, you might really feel the need to be nourished with some fresh ideas.

Your supervisor could play an important role here. The Dutch PhD system is inspired by the medieval practice of the master and the apprentice. However, nowadays supervisors are really busy people that only every now and then can transfer knowledge to their student. I, for example, feel that most of the interaction I have with my supervisor is based on him approving my progress, adding some ideas and putting me back on track whenever I need.

But how can I be a better apprentice, how can I benefit more from the knowledge of my supervisors?

During my time as a PhD student I have found a few ways to learn from my advisors. My preliminary answers to this question are:

1. Coffee breaks
Some of the most interesting talks (not related to my research topic) I have had with my supervisors occurred at the coffee machine or during the coffee break. Hearing their random stories about conferences, other people's research and approach to research feel very valuable to me. I get the broader scope, I get some insider information from my advisors who have been in the academic world for decades. What I learn at those moments appears to be lessons for my -hopefully- future academic life.

2. Field trips
Last Friday, my advisor and I went to inspect a real case of my research. I learned more in those two hours on the site than I have learned in a few weeks in my office. Since my advisor had scheduled this time to go there, he also had enough time to give me and my fellows a little lecture there. It was absolutely great. Seeing this case and getting all this interesting information made me feel that bit by bit I am growing to an expert in my field and that I get the opportunity through my PhD to learn what is not being taught in courses.

3. Writing papers
When I give a draft paper to my supervisor, he can quickly see where I have not been clear enough, where I should add an extra figure and where I should expand a little more on the topic. This teaches me to be more critical and find the flaws in my writing.

Unfortunately, these occasions have been very scarce and I would like to benefit more from the knowledge and experience of my advisors. How do you learn from your advisors?

Reminder of frailty

When you are old and your bones are frail, a rainstorm can become the enemy.  The pavement becomes slick, like an ice skating rink.  There are no skates, though, only the chance to fall, and falling is the last thing you want to do if your bones are vulnerable. Falling can be the beginning of the end.

Saturday my mother was that frail woman. She disappeared inside her black coat, trying to get warm, feeling the cold despite the layers. Her knuckles gripped the shopping cart until they were white with effort, and the fear of falling eclipsed her characteristic joy. When I looked over my shoulder,
I saw a stranger.  A stranger and yet she was my mother.

What about this was so unsettling for me?  Is it still a surprise to me that my mother is eighty-three and not the younger mother who raised me?  Do I expect her to tromp across a parking lot with no concern for oncoming traffic or the slickness of the road?  No, it is something deeper than that, something more personal.

I found a window into my thoughts this morning at Lynn's blog.  Reflecting on the idea of being a "feather on the breath of God" she says, 
Surely it's in our nature to want to presume in our existence some measure of personal gravitas-- something akin to that mysterious austerity of presence which the Hudson River School artists sought to capture in the word sublimity.  We want our lives, our legacies, to have weight.  Wouldn't we all rather be likened unto a foothill in God's mountains, or an anchor in His ocean... even just an arrow in His quiver?
If we are weightless as feathers, it is because Christ bears our weight... It's not about feathers at all.  It's about how we apprehend the wind. 

God is breathing.
(you can read the whole post here.)

Somehow being gripped by Mom's frailty has translated into a reminder of my own.   But that is not a bad thing.  I am frail, but I have the breath of God.  I can fly. 

On Saturday we made it through the rain and fell into the car, happy to have the heater vents to warm our hands, grateful to be dry.  Now the rainstorm has ended, the parking lots have dried out, and the Thanksgiving weekend traffic has cleared.  But that vision of my dear, frail mother remains.  Once again, my mother is my teacher, and I love her for it.  And thank you, Lynn, for being the connecting piece that I needed to put my anxiety to rest.
Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God. 
~Hildegard of Bingen~

Nana is here

And look who is taller now? Sorry, Nana!

~ Three generations ~

New read aloud

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

in preparation for:

Opens December 10th

WLV Crosslaufmeisterschaften

And then the winter came: the orienteering trainings stopped and the cold weather and the snow arrived in Wien.

Today I've participated in a Wienese 9k Cross-country race, the coldest one of my life! I was expecting a little better and David Schneider (who won) ended kicking my ass again pretty badly. I ran the first 5k with a cool guy, Albert from LCC, but then my lungs started to ache a little bit and I ended the race in 4th.

The last trains have been cool. All at night (it gets dark at 4h) and some in the forest, off-road. I'm such a Sissy running in the muddy forest and the average is 1 or 2 falls per train... but I'm getting better.

I've been enjoying my life at the surgery rotation (not that much the part of having to be in the operation room at 6h55!). I've been with some cool doctors and I've signed my first surgery sheets as a 1st assistant. I haven't worked at my master thesis as much as I wanted to but the time that I've been spending here has been worth it! In the next days, more trains, trip to Innsbruck and then the Christmas in Portugal. We'll see...


First Sunday of Advent

“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”

Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

HT: Lent and Beyond: An Anglican Prayer Blog

Aspiring for an Ideal

The top movies about love and friendship I always end up going back to. References and aspirations. But I realize, my life is not a movie. These movies fueled the fire of my idealism - which wasn’t necessarily good. I don’t have Richard Linklater or Wong Kar Wai to direct it, I have myself. I can get small doses of the ideal but I know I ought to go back to what’s real, what is true. I have to be realistic.

In real life, I won’t always be smart as Laleina (Winona Ryder in Reality Bites) was. I won’t always have the perfect timing to say the most charming things as Celine (Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset). My quirks won’t be as cute as Juno McGuff (Ellen Page in Juno). I won’t be as well-lit as Elizabeth (Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights). And I won’t be as carefree and ephemeral as Midori in Norwegian Wood. My life doesn’t even have good musical scoring like Nick and Norah’s. I won’t have that.

I can’t always get what (or who) I want. And what I have now, it’s probably what I need.

Tree Day

It's not Black Friday, folks.

It's Tree Day!

We had sunshine in the sky and snow on the ground for the annual search.

Why are they lying in the snow?

I guess cutting down the trees just tuckered them out.

Look at those satisfied smiles.

The Friday Clive

"We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is "good,", because it is good, if "bad" because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country."

Thanksgiving Day

It is a beautiful day in Oakdale,California.

The sun is shining and the leaves are audibly falling in the orchard.
Don't let that sparkly sunshine fool you, though.
It is chilly out there.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

Give us that due sense of all Thy mercies
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we might show forth Thy praise,
not only with our lips but with our lives...

Thanks for that prayer, Carol

Gerontology practicum: the holiday version

When our friends invited us to their ranch for Thanksgiving, I knew that my mother would want to stay here. And that she wouldn't mind if we went. This took me YEARS to understand...well, I can't say that I understand, but I do accept that she is being honest and determined. She and I view holidays very differently.

I have my theories of why Thanksgiving is such a non-holiday for Mom. She was a single mom, she was tired, she didn't enjoy cooking, and getting the house in order was exhausting. Her daughters (that would be me and my sister) did not help. We weren't asked to help, and it sure never occurred to us to offer. Add all that together and what happens? No fun for the mamasan!

When I moved out on my own and invited Mom to our home for Thanksgiving dinner, she firmly announced that she was going to stay home, on her couch, eating whatever she wanted and NOT getting overheated and anxious in the kitchen. She was not going to struggle through holiday traffic. She was going to stay home and be happy. I thought she was nuts.

You see, I look at this day a little differently. Thanksgiving is, in fact, my favorite holiday. I get to prepare and eat some of my favorite foods, we gather around our table with many of our dear family, and it is in the midst of beautiful autumn. But, I have the luxury of having a helpful husband, a man who is known for his delicious pumpkin pie. I feel very comfortable asking for help, and my children even offer. Thanksgiving is a lot easier when you're in it together.

Since Mom moved here in 2003, we have again enjoyed having holiday meals together. She does not need to drive anywhere. She can make a dish or two without any chaos or stress. She can stay as long as she wishes, and she can go home for a rest if needed. It is the perfect arrangement for her.

And it is perfect for us, too. She is there to play her crucial role as Gravy Muse, and our meal is much better for it. Having Mom at the table is always a plus; she is a dream guest, full of interesting conversation and laughter. She appreciates the food and makes me feel like a million bucks for making it. I love it.

But this Thanksgiving will be around a gargantuan table in a Victorian farmhouse in the midst of acres of walnut trees. Familiar foods, favorite friends, a beautiful place to roam, hours of talking as we cook, and guarantees of deep talks and plenty of laughter. We are anticipating JOY.

But Mom would rather stay here. She's not up for the travel, and she's not up for too much noise (and we will be a noisy bunch.) In decades past, this would have resulted in a huge argument for us. But I get it now: Mom is not wrong, and I am not right. We are different. Period. The day is not important to her; what matters to her is family, a beautiful meal, time together. And so we will do that in December, when Madelaine arrives home. A second Thanksgiving with the whole family; it will be an added layer of joy.

Happy Thanksgiving, Mama. Our gravy won't be the same without you, but we wish you joy and quiet and rest. Love you!

Carl Sandburg (1878 - 1967)

Autumn Movement

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.

The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.

HT: Steph

Cornbread stuffing fiasco averted

A huge sigh of relief has been breathed here at the house. The cornbread stuffing recipe has been found; a friend sent it along via email, so we are on schedule for Thanksgiving yumminess.

If you are interested, I posted the recipe on my food blog here .

For those still living on the plain bread side of the stuffing debate (aka:Staci): come to the cornbread side; we'll be waiting with open arms!

The Spirit of Food

I was amazed when I went to the table of contents of The Spirit of Food and found the following names:

~ Ann Voskamp
~ Lauren Winner
~ Robert Farrar Capon
~ Wendell Berry
~ Alexander Schmemann
~ Luci Shaw
~ Andre Dubus

What a collection of literary friends, all in one place!

From the back cover: "You are invited to a feast for the senses and the spirit! Thirty-four adventurous writers...all bring a keen eye and palette to the larger questions of the role of food - both its presence and its absence - in the life of our bodies and spirits."

Gems from its pages:

"...this offering to God of bread and wine, of the food that we must eat in order to live, is our offering to him of ourselves, of our life and of the whole world...It is our Eucharist. It is the movement that Adam failed to perform, and that in Christ has become the very life of man: a movement of adoration and praise in which all joy and suffering, all beauty and all frustration, all hunger and all satisfaction are referred to their ultimate End and become finally meaningful. Yes, to be sure, it is a sacrifice but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life." Alexander Schmemann

"On Sunday morning as I watch my priest lay the Communion table for the gathered believers, I remember why eating attentively is worth all the effort: the table is not only a place where we can become present to God. The table is also a place where he becomes present to us." Lauren Winner

"In Little Lent, the Orthodox abstain from meat and dairy for four weeks before the feast of Christmas. She prepared all of her usual foods in their simplest forms: borscht with vegetable broth instead of pork, salads with oil instead of mayonnaise and sausage. She practiced this as a quiet reminder that she was preparing body and soul for Christmas.

The body and soul formation was not something that I had ever taken seriously. As a lifelong, devout Protestant, I had thought a great deal about my soul. As an American, I had obsessed a great deal about my body. But I had rarely considered body and soul in mutual relation. Everywhere I went in Russia as an exchange student - and I was drawn instinctively to churches - I witnessed a fuller understanding of the body and soul in communion. "Sometimes if I cannot pray," Olga had said at the entrance to the cathedral, "I come to the church and light a candle."

At that time, I would have called Olga's gesture an empty ritual. I might have considered an inability to pray a personal failing, and I wouldn't have thought it could be remedied or substituted by lighting a candle. But Olga allowed this bodily action to stand in the place where her mind and heart might lag, and I found the possibility moving." Amy Frykholm

Some of the essays come from favorite books of mine:
Mudhouse Sabbath (Lauren Winner)
Supper of the Lamb (Robert Farrar Capon)
What Are People For? (Wendell Berry)
For the Life of the World (Alexander Schmemann)

After the flurry of Thanksgiving hoopla has settled down to a weekend at home, to hours of sipping hot toddies and slowly but surely decorating our Christmas tree, I am hoping to read more. What beautiful writing.

For now I know enough to say: Highly recommended!

A few lessons from the lab

The past year, I've been conducting an enormous amount of large-scale experiments (my funder is quite generous). Tomorrow I'll have finished large-scale test number 98, and I will have tested 14 slabs (half-scale slab bridges) and 9 wide beams/slab strips. In this past year, I've learned by trial and error how to get a good routine and manage the testing program.

1. Plan
There's much more to plan about doing an experiment than the experiment itself, obviously. You will need a planning to arrange the delivery of your material, the fabrication of your specimens, side testing and then the course of the experimental program itself. Even though your planning will change (mine is changing frequently because of unexpected delays: sickness of technicians, the carpenter being unavailable,... ), you still need a planning to make sure you won't forget anything and to estimate the time every step will take you.

2. Prepare
Don't walk into the lab with empty hands. When I go to the lab, I have my fixed set of documents along with me: a sheet with predicted values to immediately compare my test result to and a table that I fill out during testing in which I note down observations for every load step. I also take the camera along with me to photograph the failure patterns (and sometimes something to snack on).

3. Classify
Don't wait until months after testing to organize and classify your data and notes. Right after a test, I save the raw data and pictures into their respective folders. I add results into tables which I build up test by test. I write a short summary in my lab book. You get the picture: take action immediately to keep it all neatly organized.

4. Automatize
If you carry out a large test series, try to automatize your data processing as much as possible. Even though programming might take you a few days, the benefits will return to you in the long run. I for example wrote a Matlab code that reads my raw data and returns all plots and numerical values I need for the considered test. Programming is by far not my specialty, but I learned something while writing my code, and now I generate all plots in just a few seconds. That sure is a win.

5. Write
Don't wait until months after the experiment to write your report. With my large testing program, I sketched an outline of how I want to discuss every specimen and test and made it a good habit to complete the report after finishing a specimen. Initially, I could remember every detail of every test, but now I notice that every now and then I have to check in my report to verify what happened during a certain experiment. There's a limit to our memory, so you'd better not wait until you start confusing to write down your results and observations into a report.

6. Smile
You probably won't be working all by yourself if you carry out a series of tests. Respect the technicians you work with, don't treat them as "inferior" because they are not pursuing a doctoral degree. Arrive in time when you need to fabricate a specimen and technicians are volunteering to help you. (I'm writing this because I've seen bad examples, unfortunately). It might be hard work (my muscles used to hurt terribly after working in the lab for the first months), but make sure you enjoy. Joke around, have fun, and above all: smile.

Around the blogosphere

** Reading my adopted niece's blog this morning reminded me how much I miss my not-coming-home-for-Thanksgiving girl. I am grateful for the tutor at Gutenberg College whose family is welcoming Madelaine in for the holiday.

Know a lonely college student in your community? Make sure they have a seat at a table for Thanksgiving. They'll be so grateful (and their parents will be, too!)

Just a few more weeks, Madelaine!

** Tonia has begun writing online again, and she is blowing me away with her words. I am honored to call her my friend.

** There is lots of excitement about Thanksgiving around here. On Wednesday we are heading to a favorite place, the home of friends in the valley. Never again can we say we always have Thanksgiving here; this will be the second time in the last five years we have gone to a friend's house for the big day. I was eager to cook, my friend was eager to recover from some surgery, and there are twelve children who are eager to play and laugh and talk and burn calories before The Big Meal.

What are we cooking? All the usual suspects. Some things we're trying new, though:

Ree's Sweet Potatoes . For Lisa, with love.

A fresher recipe for Green Bean Casserole thanks to Cooks Illustrated.

Cranberry Chutney from Orangette in addition to the ordinary cranberry sauce.

Current challenges include:

finding the recipe for my beloved Cornbread Sausage Stuffing. The page from Martha Stewart's Entertaining fell out a few years ago, and now it is Gone. I miss its smudgy, dripped on, ripped up list of ingredients, and I am wondering if I can recreate the masterpiece without it. This could become an emergency!

Also, Mom is not coming with us, and so I will be without my Gravy Muse. Who knows what the gravy will be like, but our friends are still willing to have me rattle around in their kitchen, crazy risk taking fools that they are.

So, happy Monday, and if you happen to have a copy of the original Entertaining book on your shelf, feel free to email me the best tasting stuffing recipe in the world. That would make my day.

Compline for a stormy Sunday night

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness...

Look down, O Lord, from your heavenly throne, and illumine this night with your celestial brightness; that by night as by day your people may glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Emily Bronte

"Fall, Leaves, Fall"

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

The Friday Clive

"No event has so corroborated my faith in the next world as (Charles) Williams did simply by dying. When the idea of death and the idea of Williams thus met in my mind, it was the idea of death that was changed."

Piquenique 18_11_2010