Monday, February 20, 2012

A Lost Dream - Un Sogno Abbandonato

Warning: Sorry, Folks, but this posting DOES NOT end with my decision to finish my PhD.

Last night I dreamt that I was having lunch with other students at the Imperial College canteen, as usual, and that nobody (supervisor included) could explain to me what "normalization" is and when is needed or not in an equation. Everyone looked so confused and lost at the table. I left the room totally frustrated, then I woke up. The memory of that dream (with the recursive Bayesian equations mentioned in the dream) was haunting me while I was feeding Tronk breakfast this morning.

Recursive Bayesian Equations

My Facebook Status:
I dreamt that I was working on the last chapter of my doctoral thesis and that nobody at Uni (supervisor included) knew what normalization is for. Painful dream.

You need to get back to studying...
You need to finish
You can do both, just have to wait until William is a tiny bit older and at school
There is no reason why Enrica can't finish once William goes to school. The first baby is most certainly not dead. Just hibernating. : )
4 solid hours a day over 6 months. I bet you finish

Here is my reply to these comments and to all the people who will ever raise the question why I didn't, whether I should, should have or will have to finish my PhD at some point in my life.

I'll start by telling you this. One month ago, a PhD student at Harvard emailed me to ask me to go to her office to talk about  "the state of the art in automated human behavior analysis", a chapter of my PhD dissertation, the thesis I never finished writing. Buried under negative thoughts, I said "NO", with all the pain resulting from that reply. To be frank, the sole idea of having to reopen and look through my ex PhD work was putting me in a state of anxiety and was making me feel bad. The reason is hard to explain.

Since I had William, for a year or so, I could not accept my decision to stop working on my PhD thesis. That PhD in Bioengineering was all it mattered in my life until I met my husband. I had already published three papers with promising results obtained from the analysis of 220 programs I wrote from scratch in Matlab and run on ten different subjects (of which three were real), with complicated equations of Bayesian Inference and of particle filtering.  And I had already completed four chapters of my PhD thesis, that my PhD supervisor had already read and edited. All I was missing was the last two chapters, the one containing the final analysis of the data sets (work which was killing my back) and the chapter drawing the conclusions. I had difficulties understanding some aspects of the complex wavelets that I used in my first year to implement the face detector but I was slowly overcoming these difficulties as I have overcome others. I knew on the other hand that without some foundations in maths, science or social sciences, with or without the PhD,  I could not go very far. See? The more I talk about this the more I feel bad. 

Before I had William, I was hoping to finish my PhD in Boston. Then, after talking to two Professors, one at MIT and another one at Brandeis University, I realized that if I had decided to finish my PhD here in Boston, practically, I would have had to start it all over again and I really couldn't bare such weight, both financially and physically. I have had enough with the four years spent working in the lab, sometimes until 10 pm, sometimes until later. I reached a point  all I wanted was to be done with my PhD, to recover from my back problem, to get a job, to pay my debts and have my personal life back.

But life took a different spin for me. At the end, I was forced to choose between two options: (1) to continue to destroy my health in London with an herniated disk, bank debts and a long distance relationship (2) to move to the US and have a family. I chose to have a family and by family I mean a husband, not a child. My initial plan was to recover from my back problem, get used to living in the US and find a job. I had not excluded, however, the possibility of having a child later in life.

Yet I became pregnant as soon as I moved to the US and this is the first question I had to answer: who is going to be always at home with my child? No doubts it would be me,
 as John was in full time employment and my parents could not help me from Italy. So I chose to give my child a full-time mom for as long as I can and I don't regret this choice. I am glad my child has a mom at home who feels the duty to take care of his needs and education full-time.

I often wonder what I will do when my child goes to school in two and half years time. I ask myself how my life will change. This is the scenario I often imagine:  me taking William to school, then going back home to hurry to prepare lunch to then go to pick him up and take him home to give him lunch. Then find things to do with him in the afternoon. In this scenario I really cannot see my thoughts going on Bayesian equations and on particle filters. 

I am only certain this:
I will not be that permissive working mom saying "yes" all the time to overcome the feelings of guilt from not being at home when my child comes home from school and this by itself is worth a thousand PhDs.

At the same time, when someone asks me what I do for a living, when I am thinking of going back to work or someone mentions something that even for few seconds brings my mind back to the PhD I never finished, there is a fire inside me that starts burning
. And I feel the urge of talking about my past research experiments as if talking about it could serve the purpose of making me feel better.  As a matter of fact, by doing this, all I accomplish  is make myself feel bad.

So, to make it clear to you, the PhD I have not finished is a bit like a baby that I have not been able to save, a baby who died. After that I had a second (far better) child and I am now responsible for taking care of this second child. 
Remembering the days (or dreaming of) when my first baby was alive no longer makes sense and it only makes me feel bad.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

To John, for his birthday - A John, per il suo compleanno

This posting is dedicated to my husband John. Happy birthday dear husband and amazing dad!!!

Tronk has learned a rather strong expression from his dad: God Dammit! It all started in the car when Tronk started imitating his father expressing his anger against the well known aggressive Massachusetts car drivers (see video below)

This wasn't a single episode. Tronk is in love with this expression and I initially found it rather embarrassing to stand next to him at the doctor's office while he was greeting the people next to us with his sweet loud God Damnit. Not that it was making me feel any better to hear that on the train. In those situations it was always the parent (me) who was getting the dirty look from the old lady, not Tronk!

Today, I was typing an email on the computer when Tronk came to me with a rather frustrated expression of the face and said these exact words as loud as he could possibly do: 

"Questo computer! God Damnit Mamma!" (This computer! God Damnit  mom!)

I know very well that cursing (swearing or cussing, as you prefer to name it) is a form of disrespect towards other people but when I hear him say God Damnit these days, all I can do is hide and burst into laughter, hopefully without Tronk seeing me. It is funny and I don't see a reason for telling him to stop saying what his father says all the time. Not to defend my husband's colorful language but God Damnit does not seem to be such a bad expression, according to the Urban Dictionary:

"The expression God Dammit is used in situations relating to anger, annoyance, or frustration. It is a phrase used to ask God to damn something, usually a situation, and it in no way means that you want to damn God. Also, when used at a person, it does not mean that you want God to damn that particular person, it means that you want God to damn the situation that the person caused, indirectly damning him or her."

Italian readers, would you be concerned if your children used the expression "Maledetto!" in public? Not really. So stop giving me that dirty look, old lady. Let my child be and wait until real cursing begins.

Tronk, would you please sing happy birthday to daddy? Below are our first and last attempt.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Houses with the roof - Case con il tetto

So Tronk has a new obsession. It started in early January just after Santa's arrival (Tronk's former obsession). This time, there isn't a cartoon character involved, nor a car. I don't know what has triggered this new obsession but Tronk seems to be in love with houses and roofs. One day he discovered that there was a house with a roof. He was convinced that all the other houses didn't have one. I had to point at several houses in our neighborhood to explain to him that all houses come with roofs, except in Ireland of course, but he did get the concept.

Few days later, we were in the car for a trip and Tronk was pointing at every single house with the roof he could see going past. "Mamma, una casa con il tetto! C'e' una casa con il tetto! Oh, un'altra casa con il tetto! Qui c'e' una casa con il tetto e qui c'e' un'altra casa con il tetto! Che bello!" (Mom, a house with the roof! Here there is a house with the roof! Oh, another house with the roof! Here there is a house with the roof and here there is another house with the roof! How beautiful!). Comments of this kind went on and on for at least fifteen minutes. That was only the beginning, unfortunately. Not only I have had to conduct a thorough analysis of the roofs in our neighborhood each time we took a walk outside our house. More recently, Tronk has come to the conclusion that "mamma ha il tetto!" (mom has the roof), while daddy hasn't. He is not quite sure whether nonno and nonna have one but he is working on this one to find the answer.

I had days when I really didn't want to hear talking about roofs. It is easy to say "ignore him". As soon as Tronk was pointing at a brand new roof with his little hand and was asking if I liked the roof with his irresistibly sweet voice, I was back in the same exact dynamic I described six months ago; I couldn't help showing him excitement,  no matter how frustrated I was. "Oh si', che bella!" (Oh yes, how beautiful!), even if the house he had just pointed out was covered with peeling, dirty white paint. 

But today I came across these roofs of Turin, my home town, bathed in the kind of snow that I saw few times in my life. These sunshine lit white roofs bring up memories of high-school mates throwing snow balls at each other, scared of getting their coats dirty, while waiting for the 64 bus in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, cups of hot chocolate with friends and the infinite pleasure of waking up at 10 am the day after and realize, with surprise, that I didn't have to go to school.

I wonder where the chimney sweep has gone
Could be Via Accademia Albertina, the street where I used to live in a loft
Ci sono due campanili, hai ragione! (There are two bell towers, that's right!)
Thanks to these photos, my whole perspective on houses and roofs changed. I was ready to share my excitement with Tronk but instead, as soon as he saw the pictures, he went: "Che bello il campanile che fa din don dan! Fra Martino Campanaro..." (how beautiful is the bell tower that goes din don dan!  Frère JacquesFrère Jacques...). No matter the effort I made in getting him to appreciate the beauty of my favorite roofs, Tronk got excited with the bell towers and continued to talk about them. Luckily, there are not many bell towers that look like that in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Days of the Blackbird - I Giorni della Merla

Blackbird complaining
Monday. Feeling sleepy. "Ti piacerebbe che fosse venerdi'!" (You wish it was Friday!) my mother would say. Another day started like this: oh no, it's Monday, and it is almost 11 am. William's cheeks are no longer hot like fire - the poor guy has been sick for almost a week and my foot has not recovered as fast as I would have liked - There is nothing to eat in the fridge. Let's get out of here!, I said like a volcano erupting. Come on Tronk, where are your shoes? Sono qui mamma. (There are here mom)

We managed to share a pleasant hot buffet at an Asian restaurant not far from where we live, although I must say it turned out that Tronk enjoyed spitting most of it in the floor. I don't envy the guy who had to clean the mess. Then Tronk asked for two things, two things without which he never falls asleep: a binky and his white muslin blanket (the one we used to swaddle him). It has become his security blanket. I put him in the stroller and covered him with his warm sleep sac. I immediately saw his eyes wobbling, as if I had put him under the effect of a powerful sleeping pill. Sooner than expected  he was knocked out. My original plan of taking him to the local kids playground was out the window. I was looking for anywhere to take Tronk to. I decided to set my mark on Walegreens (another five blocks). By the time I got to Walegreens,  I could hardly feel my hands and my foot was still attached to my leg but it had become like a dead rat. William had no intention of waking up. If I could have gone three more blocks I could have taken him to Isis Maternity, where they have a small indoor children's playspace. The sort of place where Tronk would have been able to do a bit of walking, socializing and playing and I would have had the luxury of browsing through nice expensive clothes without too many interruptions.

Didn't happen. "You stop here, find a place where to rest and wait until Tronk wakes up.", said my foot with a rather authoritative tone. Ok. 

Starbucks was too far. I went inside the closest cafe' at the local cinema. For the Italian readers, this is a place with a bar which only sells ice cream topped with candies, blue Italian ice in winter and popcorn topped with liquid butter - Don't ask me why but here in the US these are considered treats. Not the sort of thing I was dying for yesterday. A real coffee? Not quite. Dirty water topped with milk foam was the best I could get there. I settled with cranberry juice, one of the few drinks I could have there which I knew would not make me feel as if they were giving me a sugar IV. I sat at one of the tables in the empty cafe' of the cinema and watched Tronk sleep while I was taking small sips of cranberry juice. Unfortunately, I didn't have a book to read.

Hey, who do you think you are? Sleeping Beauty?
3:10 pm. Tronk knocked out
3:40 pm. Tronk still sleeping. Only me in the cafe'
4:15 pm. Not the slightest move in the stroller. Still only me at the cafe'
4:30 pm. Wish I had purchased a ticket to watch a movie! 

He eventually woke up when I noisily took him to the bathroom, probably on purpose to wake him up. I was expecting to see a very happy boy after such a long nap but no. Tronk was in rage. John came to pick us up and, with his help, I took Tronk home as soon as I could. Once home, Tronk was happy.

Nevertheless, I was so exhausted and couldn't accept that once again I started the day with good intentions but in the end I found myself stuck in a rather unattractive place, this time in a movie theater without being able to see a movie. What a day to start the week. I can't even blame it on the snow as this year we hardly got any. This reminded me that in Italy the last three days of January are called "i giorni della merla" (the blackbird's days). It is that time of the year when all I want is to emerge from the dark tunnel of winter to  see some light...

Long, long ago in Milan there was a very hard winter. The snow was falling from the sky and covered the whole city, the streets and gardens. Under the water spout of a building at the station Porta Nuova was the nest of a family of blackbirds, which at that time had feathers white as snow. There was mommy blackbird, daddy blackbird and three baby blackbirds, who were born after the summer.
The little family suffered from the cold and struggled to find breadcrumbs to eat, as the few crumbs that had fallen from the tables of men were immediately covered with snow.
After a few days daddy blackbird made ​​a decision and told his wife: "Here there is nothing to eat, if this continues we will all die of hunger and cold. I have an idea, I will help you move the nest on the roof of the building, close to the chimney of the fireplace, so while waiting form my return you will not be cold. I'll leave and will go look for food in the places where the snow has not yet arrived."
And so he did: the nest was placed near the  chimney  and  daddy blackbird left. Mommy blackbird  and her baby blackbirds were all day in the nest, warming each other and also absorbing the smoke from the chimney all day long.
After three days daddy blackbird  came home and almost was not able to recognize his family! The black smoke coming out the chimney was painted black all the feathers of birds!
Fortunately, from that day on the winter became less rigid and the blackbirds were able to find enough food to get to spring.
From that day, however, all blackbirds are born with black feathers, and to remember the family of blackbirds whites become blacks, the last three days of January are called "Three Days of the blackbird."

I am glad there are over.