Sunday, July 26, 2020

Relaxing into retirement OR Didn’t I already pay for Medicare when I was working?

The Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees in Yosemite--the new wheelchair zipped up hill!


As a University professor, you get used to not being paid for three months out of the year even though you work nearly every day all year round. We’re not paid for vacation time taken; there is no such thing as “sick leave”. When I worked at the Carnegie Institution, we were paid 12 months of the year including one month of paid vacation plus holidays. However, for those 12 months, I was paid significantly less than University of California paid me for 9 months of work. The catch with Carnegie was that although our time was fully compensated—they gave us “back our time” to do whatever we wanted to do with it. That’s worth a substantial amount. Time is something you never seem to have enough of.


Universities take all of your time and then some. I don’t know of any professors who knock off for the summer. During the academic year—the 9 months from September to June—most work 120% of the time. This past year, as my ALS symptoms worsened, I was able to work more like 60-70% of the time, but that extended through the three unpaid months as well. In a typical day, it takes me 4+ hours to “get ready to greet the day.” I often sat in my “office” from about 11:30 am onwards. I’d check my email stream around 8 am to see if something needed to be attended early on. I called the day quits around 5:30 or 6 pm. Employees were supervised, time sheets approved, faculty meetings attended.


Those not familiar with scientists might think when the Big R happens, we hang up our PhDs and do other things. This cold turkey rarely happens. Often there is a student who still needs to finish up; a grant that needs to be completed; papers that still need to be written. From a personal standpoint, going from full time work to complete separation hasn’t been an easy pill for me to swallow.


So here’s how things are shaping up this month so far. Checking email at 8 am is no longer a requirement! I might glance by 9 am, but I don’t have that heart-pounding feeling on Monday morning. Friday, it’s easy to “knock off” without doing any work at all. I no longer make any appointments before noon or after 5 pm on Zoom unless there is a compelling reason. I’ve been removed from the faculty email list, which felt weird for a while, but now seems OK. I no longer need to consider requests for people to use the isotope lab. I readily turn down requests to review manuscripts I’m not interested in. With the very few visitors we’ve had here this month, I enjoy the afternoons chatting and catching up.


But, there remain some important projects that I’m still actively engaged in and a few new ones!


The Salton Sea still attracts migratory birds--how long will that last? Photo Credit: Jon Nye

My largest effort is with the Salton Sea Task Force that I started back in fall 2019. We’re now a group of about 17 people who have met weekly or biweekly since November. We’ve produced 1-2 page White Papers at the level that can be understood by an elected official. We held a Zoom Webinar with 9 speakers in May. We have the first draft of a complete 120 page report “Crisis in the Salton Sea: Research Gaps and Opportunities”.

This Monday, we’ll be “meeting” with our first elected official—California Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia! I’ll be presenting our work and introducing the team. We’ve been working up to this for quite some time. It will be my first meeting with a politician to try to shape public policy.


Although I officially retired, I’ve been “recalled” by the University to become the Equity Advisor for the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. The position requires me to take training classes with folks representing UC Riverside’s other Colleges (e.g. Business or Medicine) and then get to work providing support to staff, grad students, and faculty who need help with equity, diversity or inclusion issues. 


My first training was on the rights of disabled people, a subject I now have substantial experience with. Issues about gender and under-represented groups will be in my future. I suspect I’ll be working with developing policy or help for parents who have school age children at home due to the pandemic.


On the science side, postdoc Kaycee Morra is leading a workshop on a new isotope method—the integrated triple quad-isotope ratio mass spectrometer system (TSQ-Isolink-IRMS)--she’s been working on for the past year. Since being allowed back in the lab, she’s run full speed testing how things work, what doesn’t work, and how sensitive the instrument actually is. We’ll be zooming with Seth Newsome’s lab group at Univ. of New Mexico. I think we’re finally seeing how powerful this system is.


Kaycee, 3rd from left, will explain all soon

There are the letters of recommendation to write—one for a former undergrad from UC Merced who was in my first Ecology class. Another for a former AMASE grad student—now a professor seeking an award. A few tenure letters for outstanding people are pending. They’ll be easy to write and a real pleasure.


Last, there is the mopping of two thorny projects—the San Jacinto field and isotope study started in 2008 . Husband Chris is taking the lead on writing the manuscript. Colleagues at the San Diego Natural History museum are lending their statistical talents. Then, there’s the biweekly E. coli isotope project that has fascinated and confused us for just a year—but we need to get the work out there. Former grad student Derek Smith is working with current student Bobby Nakamoto—a nice combination for me and always intellectually engaging.


Now for Medicare. Didn’t I pay for my Medicare after working for 50 years? No,  I did not pay enough for Medicare Part B. Signing up for health insurance has been a nightmare. The idea of “Medicare for All” is truly frightening if we’d be using the same antiquated system we have now. And it’s damn expensive for us! Good thing I have time to call, fill out forms, and figure out an overly complicated system even a University professor puzzles over.

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...