April 2004 Archives

The Flavor of Dirt

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I've just returned from a gourmet grocery store. Walking out of the store with a couple of shopping bags full of nice stuff to eat gives me a feeling that I think must be akin to the feeling "It's good to be the king." I think back, every time, to my undergraduate days: as an unemployed student without a meal ticket I had less than ten dollars a week to spend on food, and my diet consisted primarily of rice, cheese, carrots, and peanut butter.

Aside from dentistry, food is the best measure of the rise in my financial well-being from childhood to my current age of nearly 52 years. My mother spent as little as possible on food. She used to buy large blocks of corn meal mush, slice it and fry it in oleo. I loved it. She made meat loaf that I liked and salmon loaf with canned salmon, which I wasn't so crazy about, and chipped beef on toast, which I didn't like at all.

I've already described my undergraduate diet. As a graduate student with a teaching assistantship I ate a lot of ramen, but I also bought pastries from the bakery and take-out Chinese food. Now I buy fresh produce at any price: small plastic boxes of berries, occasional papayas, and baby squash. As I write this there's an artichoke boiling on the stove; when it's close to ready I'll melt some of the imported Irish butter I bought today. There's still a limit to what I'll spend on food. I won't spend more than about $8 on a bottle of wine, and I've never tasted caviar or truffles. Which is why I know that I've not yet reached the pinnacle of my culinary indulgence.

As a child I was a dirt eater. I wish I could remember the first time I tried eating dirt; perhaps I did it on a dare, or maybe it was just the natural tendency of a two-year-old to put anything and everything in her mouth. In either case, I attribute it to my brother and I having spent many hours playing outside, unattended, when we were very small (see Licking The Swingset). I was fussy about the dirt I ate. It had to be dry, "clean" dirt, meaning free of any obviously organic or unidentifiable elements. It had to be dirt that had never known mulch-- dirt that had been washed by many rainfalls. The untended portion of the backyard, on the periphery of the swingset, was an excellent source of good clean dirt. Although my mother reacted with mild disgust to my dirt-eating, I was never punished for it. Two unrelated wives' tales no doubt converged to spare me: my mother believed that we all eat a peck of dirt in our lifetime, and she also believed that every craving was the body's way of fulfilling a need.

People often complain that some things don't taste as good as they smell-- fresh bread and coffee are two examples. I'm telling you now, speaking with authority, that dirt tastes as good as it smells. Anybody who has worked a garden knows the wonderful, "earthy" smell of freshly turned dirt. This is the flavor of dirt, precisely-- it's earthy. I don't know if my palette would appreciate the flavor of dirt anymore; too many years of kung pao chicken and vindaloo have undoubtedly dulled my sense of taste. Although I loved the flavor as a child, some inhibition of adulthood prevents me from tasting the dirt in my backyard today.

But... I've heard truffles described as having an "earthy" flavor, and I've often wondered without irony if truffles taste like dirt, and if so, are they as good? As a child, would I have rejected a truffle while relishing the dirt in which it grew? Someday, when Mike has finished school and is gainfully employed, I intend to spend quite a lot of money to do a "truffles vs. dirt" taste test (comparing the flavor of the truffles with my memory of the flavor of dirt). If truffles do indeed taste like dirt, I expect that before I retire (and give up the income that will make it possible) I'll indulge a craving for truffles, thus recapturing a pleasure that I enjoyed free of charge when I was three.

I haven't posted for quite a while and I should explain that I'm going through a bit of an upheaval that has shoved the blog to a back burner. I'm starting a new job on April 19. I'll still be employed by the same company, but in a different location and in a different role. The good news: the new office is 5.2 miles from my house. I've been commuting 23 miles for ten years, so this will be a major improvement. The bad news: I'll have to travel, and I'll have to start trying to remember people's names.

I've been bored for quite a while, and upset about the pink slips being handed around and the uncertainty of it, and I've hated the commute all along, and even so, it wasn't an easy decision. Most people don't understand why a job change terrifies me. Most jobs, I imagine, involve a portable skill: if you can flip burgers at McDonald's you can flip burgers at Burger King. If you can read x-rays in Seattle you can read x-rays in St. Paul.

But for me, every new job has required that I learn something completely new. In grad school I did all of my coursework and took all of my exams in mathematics, supporting myself as a teaching assistant for the first two years. Being a math T.A. was hell; it was slave labor. I was ordered to check my mailbox in the math department every day, so I would stop by the mailroom at the end of the day and find a thick stack of calculus exams stuffed in my box, with a note requesting that I grade them overnight so the prof could hand them back the next day.

When the opportunity arose I jumped at the chance to become a research assistant instead, but the research was in computational fluid dynamics. I'm not old enough to say I was in on the ground floor of cfd, but it was a young enough field not to have found a home of its own in our university. My doctoral thesis was signed by a math professor, a chemical engineering professor, and a research scientist in the medical school.

I was hired as a computational physicist right out of grad school, and the first thing I had to learn on the job was how to use spectral methods and how to couple a spectral code to a finite element code to model a submarine moving through water. If this is gibberish to you, be relieved.

After a couple of years I changed divisions within the laboratory where I worked and I had to learn stuff about nuclear weapons and shock waves and Riemann solvers. Then I moved across the country and went to work at a different lab and I learned spectral elements and vortex shedding. And then I went to work for a company and I learned a little ship design, and lastly, ten years ago, I changed jobs again and started learning about weather.

I had to pick up the new knowledge while working with large computer codes, figuring out how to run them, how to evaluate the results, how to make them better. For a while I would feel and sound stupid, every time, never knowing the jargon or the acronyms that people use to show off their knowledge of their chosen field.

As if that weren't bad enough, I started each new job knowing I'd have to prove myself to a skeptical team of coworkers and a skeptical boss. Having always worked in a wildly male-dominated field, I began each job with the knowledge that if I sat at a table with a man and I said something and he disagreed, he would be given the benefit of the doubt, not I. For that matter if I sat at a table with a woman from China and I said one thing and she said another, she would be given the benefit of the doubt. The same was true for a woman from Germany, or Russia, or England, or India. American men do not consider American women to be as intelligent as women from just about any other country on the planet; don't ask me why. Finally, if I sat at a table with a brunette and we disagreed, she would be given the benefit of the doubt, not I.

It's because of all these changes, really, that I've been offered the job I'm starting a week from Monday. Because I'm now "an expert in modeling and simulation." But it doesn't make this change any easier. I'm realizing though that one thing has changed: I'm not young anymore, and I know that age negates the "blonde effect". In fact it may do more than that. It may negate the American/Chinese affect, and dare I hope it negates the male/female effect to some degree?

I've known the man whose job I'm taking over for many years. When I told him how afraid I was, he was amazed. He said that not only would I be given the benefit of the doubt--I would be "esteemed". He used that word, heh, "esteemed". The young fellow in the office next to mine almost laughed at my fear; he said "This job will be a piece of cake for you." I hope they're right.

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