Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Advice to my 40something self


At the age of 48 with Chris, I was giving the Annual Carnegie lecture in formal wear (2000)

As a Senior Olympian, I trained for and ran the 100-meter dash competitively. I had little innate talent, but I practiced technique and style as best I could. The first 30 meters of the race is all about acceleration—going from standing still to fast in a few seconds—a task similar to the early phase of a career. One day you were a student, then suddenly you became a professional.


The next 40 meters of the race is all about maintaining speed, watching your form, and not letting up. It is akin to life in “mid-career,” when you’re no longer the young brilliant newbie but before you age into sage wisdom. For me, this phase occurred during my forties.

As a track and field athlete, you practice tirelessly. I worked out three days a week with intense training. To prepare for running 100 meters, I started first with two 400-meter runs, two 200-meter sprints, before practicing the 100-meter race three times. My second attempt at the 100-meter race was often the best. In a career, however, you don’t usually get a second chance.


Most people have built their families by their forties. My kids were 2 and 5 years old when I turned 40. For the next decade I dedicated my life to being a great mother and an engaged scientist. My husband did the same—he was an engaged father and an upward trending local ecologist. We were usually either working or parenting. As kids get older, they become physically less challenging, but there are play dates, school, soccer practices and games, birthday parties, and homework projects that fill up the parenting time. When my son was in 5th grade, I became the PTA President for his school of 550 students and 40 teachers as well as almost a thousand parents. I worked for two hours every morning and one and a half hours every evening on this “job”—often 6-7 days a week.


Dana's birthday party at Jug Bay log cabin circa 1993

On the science side, I was hitting my stride—international travel, invitations to speak, multiple grant awards, and lots of smart people in the lab. I gobbled up all the projects that came my way—ocean sciences, astrobiology, climate change, molecular biology, and paleontology. I was a kid in the proverbial laboratory “candy store”—enjoying every minute but not thinking much past that “sugar” rush.


By the time I reached 50, I woke up from this path and reassessed things. Looking back nearly 30 years (to when I was 40), here’s advice to my fortysomething self.


Take more time to establish work-life balance for yourself—not just your work and family obligations. Although successful at home and lab, I found myself going grocery shopping or jogging at 10:30 at night! I recall standing in the grocery line with dudes loaded down with chips and beer reeking of marijuana. The parking lots were usually pretty empty, but the people there were somewhat sketchy. Who goes grocery shopping at 10:30 at night? You might imagine that with a late night strategy for exercise, I rarely went jogging once a week.


Husband Chris worked his butt off as well. He ran a 1,000 acre wetland sanctuary about 35 miles from our home in Silver Spring Maryland, a town outside of Washington DC where I worked. His job came with the requirement of having to live onsite in a 3-bedroom log cabin. For 8 years, we traveled back and forth from Silver Spring to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary—me every weekend, and Chris longer weekends usually Friday morning to Tuesday night. Having two houses meant dirty laundry, sour milk, and moldy spaghetti sauce in two different places. I had to memorize which house had the cinnamon and which had the chili powder.


Although we both supported each other as parents and scientists, I’d advise myself to pay more attention to the relationship. Anyone who’s been married for longer than 10 years knows that marriage doesn’t guarantee a fairy-tale life. It’s hard work.


In 1995 Noreen Tuross and I along with our combined families went on a field trip to Hawaii to find the shellfish, Lingula, a type of brachiopod that has been around for almost 500 million years. It seemed like an ideal work-life trip. Noreen had rented a northshore Oahu mansion with a backyard pool close to the beach. While she, her son Jake, and I went Lingula hunting, the rest had fun at the beach or sightseeing. I groused at Chris when I came back to the house, tasked with work processing seawater still to be finished.


Noreen came into the garage, drinking a beer, where I was filtering liters of seawater samples on a jury-rigged setup I’d built out of bits and pieces.


“Do you want to make it to ten years?” she asked in a voice tinged with annoyance.  We’d been married 9 years but I was grumbling.


“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll stop the nagging.”


Running the family Ship of State is not the same as nurturing a relationship. Fortunately we figured this out.


With Hans Paerl chasing storms in the Sargasso Sea, 1995

By the time I turned 50, I’d developed what was called “Competent Woman” syndrome. I felt I needed to be in control of everything and when I wasn’t, I argued with people, cried without reason, and in general was depressed. I tackled this by joining a National Institutes of Health study on women who were entering menopause. I had biweekly visits with a team of clinical scientists with blood draws and surveys about my mental state. Finally, I entered into a drug trial and was given a pill that was either a placebo or a drug to help me feel better. I started the medicine and within a week, I’d improved! I was convinced I’d been thrown a lifeline.


Turns out—I was given the placebo. When I met with the medical team, they gave the Competent Woman diagnosis, and I knew they were correct. I should have paid equal attention to my feelings.


As someone looking back to her forties, I’d advise myself to revel and enjoy in being able to swim, dance, hike, run, and walk. Embrace the mind-body connection (it may not last…).


What’s important for the mid-career? I should have developed more of a vision about where I wanted to be in my fifties. I wasn’t born with the ambition gene turned on. It wasn’t until later than I developed Leadership Deficit Disorder. The Carnegie was a great place to work, but there were extremely limited opportunities for advancement. Today, I’m a visionary of whatever I delve into, whether it’s isotopes, Institutes, or the Salton Sea, I know where I’d like to head and how I’ll get there, taking a team along with me.


A 30-year project on Australia's paleoclimate; with Giff Miller, Lake Gregory, 1999

Asking myself—and paying attention—to where I wanted to be as a mature, sage, wise scientist should have been at the forefront of my thinking much sooner. Fortunately, I figured it out a decade later.


Last bit of advice—keep up your friendships with old friends, people who don’t have kids, and older neighbors. When you’re caught up with school age kids, there doesn’t seem enough time to include friends who aren’t the “ready made” ones that are your kids’ friends’ parents. When the kids leave home, you’ll wish you’d kept more friendships going.


Maintaining your speed while nurturing yourself will get you happily to the next phase of the race—the all out push—where you summon the strength and wisdom to go the last 30 meters.

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...