Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Disrupted train travel

Sunday evening, I hopped on the Amtrak from New Haven to Philadelphia.  The total journey was supposed to take less than three hours, and I was supposed to arrive just after 9pm.  There would be plenty of time to take a taxi to my hotel, unpack, prepare mentally for the final stop on my Fabulous Working Journey of October 2013. 

The train stopped on the tracks about twenty minutes outside of New York Penn station.  A draw bridge was up.  And broken.  And mechanics were going to fix it, any time now, so we were just going to wait until that happened.  My neighbor asked the conductor if there was a plan B, and she said that plans A through Z were all the same: wait until the draw bridge was fixed. 

Around 10:30 pm, now running about three hours late, Amtrak implemented plan AA (you know, the one that comes after Z).  The train reversed back to the previous station, we all got out, crossed over the tracks, and hopped on a regional train to Grand Central Station. 

Turns out that Amtrak only goes into Penn Station, not Grand Central Station.  As an outsider, I didn't know this.  I think I heard the conductor of the regional train trying to explain how we stranded Amtrak riders could get to Penn station, but as there were hundreds of people packed into the cars at this point, it was difficult to hear what the conductor was saying.  Realizing that I would never make it out of New York City unassisted, I turned to the couple next to me and asked if they had been on Amtrak, and if they knew where to go to continue an interrupted journey south?

The couple I asked just happened to live in Philadelphia, and indeed, they had been on their way home before the draw bridge broke.  They were also very familiar with New York City.  I followed them down the long hall to the exit, into a waiting taxi, through Times Square, lit up like New Year's Eve at 11:30pm on a Sunday in October, and around the corner to Penn Station.  We hurried down the long hall, to find that a Keystone train was leaving for Philadelphia at 11:58, in just twenty minutes. 

The line to the ticket counter was long.  The broken draw bridge had stranded people on both sides of New York City.  But a woman waived me to a counter near the line's exit, and eight minutes before the train departed to Philadelphia, I had a ticket. 

My train arrived at 1:20 am at the Philadelphia 30th Street Station.  There were not quite enough taxis to meet the 1:20 am train, so I waited in the taxi queue for about fifteen minutes.  And then fifteen minutes later I was finally in my hotel. 

Reflecting on this experience, I feel lucky.  I feel lucky to have found a couple who knew exactly how to handle an Amtrak incident between New York and Pennsylvania.  I feel lucky to have screwed up the courage to ask someone for help.  If I had waited in silence, assuming I would find someone from Amtrak to assist me, I probably would have spent an extra ten or fifteen minutes in Grand Central Station before I figured out where to go next.  And then I probably would have missed the Keystone train to Philadelphia.  And then perhaps I would have had to spend the night huddled against my luggage in a train station. 

Everything worked out.  And it would have worked out even if I had spent a few extra hours in New York City awaiting the next train.  But while I am here, and writing, and reflecting, I think I ought to send a Thank You drifting out into the internet, just for the simple gift of a few more hours of sleep, and the peace of mind of having arrived safely. 

Thank You.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

After speaking

Over the weekend, I was at a conference located somewhere in the central time zone.  A grad student, after giving her first research talk at a conference ever, asked if it becomes easier?  If you lose some of that nervousness when presenting your research as you age? 

I have lumped all my travel this semester into two painful weeks of hotel rooms and airports and train stations.  During these two weeks, I've been scheduled to give four completely different talks.  The first one was on Saturday in the central time zone, at a conference sponsored by a professional society.  A friend of mine was receiving an honor from that society, and I was happy to go and see her, and give a shorter talk. 

The second talk took place this morning, in Rhode Island, at a rather major conference with funding from the National Science Foundation.  It's great to be invited to speak at an important, interesting conference like this one.  I know and like a lot of the participants.  I admire their work.  I'm learning a lot, and possibly developing new collaborations.  I will return home armed with lots of new ideas.

But no, dear grad student.  Presenting research doesn't get easier as I age. 

This morning, I was nervous.  Nervous.  What if I say something stupid in front of all the smart people out there?  What if they ask the details of that particular argument -- wait, how did that argument go?  Oh no!  I don't even remember!  Quick, look it up!  Stick it just under the talk outline -- just in case.  Take a few deep breaths.  Try not to shake. 

During the talk, the nervousness affected me by making me go slower, and be more meticulous.  Consequently, I only got through the first 2/3 of my talk, and had to completely drop the last bit, which I thought was most interesting. 

Then after the talk, I was exhausted.  I slumped in my chair, depressed.  Why didn't I think to ask that question that Professor Famous asked, earlier?  So it wouldn't have caught me off guard?  Why didn't I skip that one part that everyone knew?  So I could have at least mentioned the applications?  Why do people ask me to give these talks?  And midway into the next talk, I realized that what I really needed was a hug from Tim.  Where was Tim?  Oh yeah.  Two time zones away. 

Then someone else gave a talk.  We took a break.  Lunch.  Several people came to ask me questions.  Several people commented on how they appreciated the clarity of my talk.  (Not slow.  Clear.)  A few offered ghosts of ideas for continuing research.  This might be interesting -- have you thought of it?  I think an argument along these lines will give part of what you need, won't it?  Indeed. 

And slowly the heavy, slumpy feeling left, and I remembered why I come to these conferences and speak, even when it is hard and I am nervous. 

Because even though the nervousness doesn't really leave, and no, it doesn't get much easier, still -- you gain a lot from doing hard things. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Clown and Owl

While cleaning out an older home in September, we discovered a clown and an owl costume from about the 1950s.  There is a reason, friends, that children everywhere are told not to wear masks with their Halloween costumes anymore.  It is because they may look as scary as these two guys, the Clown, and the Owl.

With the help of Mr Clown and Mr Owl, as well as their respective wives and others, we were able to get the house emptied and very clean.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Sometimes, I write too much.

Papers, letters of recommendation, politely worded emails requesting assistance, grant proposals.

I use writing to teach myself something new.  To fix a problem in a paper.  To sway someone to my point of view.  To figure out what my point of view is, and why.  To tell the people who care about my family what is happening to us.

My to do list is full of things I need to write.  Email a colleague.  Update a letter.  Request enrollment. Review a paper.  Write a paper.  And other such things that are hard to do.

In high school, they ask if you like words or logic?  Narratives or equations?  As if you could walk through life focusing on just the math without the writing.  Without persuading the world that what you do is Important.  Without showing the world that you are actually doing Something.  You need words for that.

But at the end of a long day writing, I find myself less inclined to write to you, dear Blog.

I will try to do better.