I owe it all to Earl (Grey)

morning tea

Morning tea, by a.m.medina

A debt of gratitude and a certain amount of the credit for much of what I accomplish in this life, I owe to a rather mythical nineteenth-century figure, a man who knew a phenomenal beverage when he sipped it, and who appreciated tea flavored with the oil of the bergamot orange so much that he put his name on it: Earl Grey. (At least that’s how the story goes…)

Without a doubt, my eventual success in grad school was not quite, but almost entirely dependent on the amount of Earl Grey tea I had in reserves. I even dedicated a line to this mystical potion in the acknowledgments of my dissertation. Though, I do have a couple of other strategies up my sleeve. Some days, the only thing that kept me trudging through the 1,400+ brilliant, but long pages of Clarissa or drafting whatever ingenious, if obscure analysis of The Red and the Black was the knowledge that I would soon get up, stretch my legs and brew myself another cup of steaming hot Earl Grey embellished with a mesmerizing, swirling cloud of luscious half and half.  I also use enough stevia to make it taste like a rich creamy dessert. In this way, I indulge myself in the heavenly flavors and GET THE **** BACK TO WORK.

My cup of tea makes everything seem doable, even if it sucks, is boring, hard, pointless or annoying. How much work can you get done in the time it takes to drink the steamy contents of your insulated mug? Does it really matter? Tea is so yummy, who’s counting?

Not too long ago, spurred on by an implicit dare from my dear friend Andrea, I reluctantly went on a 10-day stevia hiatus to try to reduce my dependence on the mind-bendingly sweet herb. I don’t know how I made it through those days, in all honesty. I am back on the white powder now, though admittedly in smaller doses, but for 10 days, everything was so bland and unsweet. Grudgingly, I suppose I learned to appreciate the tea itself, blah, blah, blah, but I couldn’t wait to put an end to that little experiment. Everyone has a vice, or several, right? One of mine is a hopeless addiction the magical combination of Earl Grey, cream and stevia. And I own it. It’s like my signature. My students will most likely remember me affectionately as “that weirdo who was always going on about how Earl Grey was her hero. I don’t even remember what subject she taught – just the tea obsession.”

I also adore Earl Green, Lady Grey, permutations including lavender and/or vanilla, and even plenty of other non-Earl varieties of tea. In the summer, after the first hot cuppa Earl, to start the day off right, I switch to iced Earl. It took several years for this innovation to occur to me, but it is every bit as delicious as the hot version. The only problem is that my toddler also loves it and so we compete for possession of the insulated cup of iced tea, me trying to balance sharing with my greedy little tea monster while not letting him have enough caffeine to keep him up past his bed time. Bed time must be protected at all costs. Sometimes I decaffeinate the tea in order to circumvent this predicament.

My tea habit has had other effects on my young son. He recently went through a period of intense literary interest in The Bear Snores On, by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. The Bear Snores On is the charming account in verse of a hibernating bear who snores away while his wild gang of somewhat inconsiderate friends throw a party in his lair, finally waking him from his slumber only to leave him wide awake when they fall asleep themselves, weary from their gluttony. Here is a ridiculously cute reading of the book by a small hoard of adorable children:

Curiously, Ulysse’s fascination with this woodland tale was focused primarily on the movements of one of the few objects present in the bear’s lair: a white enamel teacup with a blue rim, like you might see on a camping trip. On every page, for several weeks and dozens of readings, he unfailingly indicated the location of the teacup with a shrill and enthusiastic “tea! tea!”

My cup brimmeth over simultaneously with pride and bewilderment. Pride, because that cup is all over the place! Almost every animal drinks out of it at some point in the story and then tosses it carelessly back down on the floor somewhere new, and Ulysse always finds the tea! (I guess animals are not that concerned with keeping things tidy in the lair or preventing the cross-species spread of germs.) Bewilderment, because a teacup is practically the only thing he cared to notice about the book for several weeks. To him, it was the amazing adventures of the great teacup! I never got tired of reading it to him because I am so fond of how the rhymes are constructed – very imaginative and playful, and I do enjoy word play. I suppose his fixation is owing to what he experiences in daily life, namely, a mother he spends most of his time with, who is rarely to be seen without her mug of tea.

I can think of a few less flattering objects to symbolize me in the eyes of my offspring…the red fleece robe Fab calls my Mother Christmas robe comes to mind, the Smartwool mid-calf length slipper boots I wear all winter with the aforementioned robe, the over-present and ever captivating iPhone…

I average three (more like four) cups of tea per day. That’s kind of a lot, I think, and I’m sure it’s unhealthy in one way or another (many.) If I dared to google, I’d probably find a long list of articles telling me about the evils of too much tea or the cholesterol in half and half. I know my dental hygienist cringes behind her face mask when she sees the stains on my teeth. Even my borderline paranoia about my teeth can’t dissuade me from my tea habit.

There’s a scene in Rousseau’s Julie or the New Heloise where Julie, the virtuous and pure heroine, describes her daily life (or Saint-Preux describes her describing). She says that although she loves coffee and has the financial means to drink it everyday, she only indulges every three weeks or so. That way she appreciates it that much more on these rare and special occasions. Does that sound like crazy talk or what? I mean, seriously. If you’ve got it, drink it!

Last year I bought a 5-pound bag of organic, fair-trade Earl Grey tea, which I drank almost on my own. I now realize that the few remaining ounces have lost most of that pungent bergamot aroma that used to fill the kitchen when ever I got the double-bagged stash out to refill my tin.

The lesson? Better to order fresh tea more often than to get the volume discount?

No, that can’t be it. It must mean I should drink more tea…

What’s your vice and/or coping mechanism?

Stepping out of indecision: questions on the work/life dichotomy


I may be somewhat scarce for the next wee bit, as we are settling into our new home in Rhode Island after our move from Atlanta. Fortunately, I have the pleasure of introducing our first guest blogger, Parisa Rinaldi. I’ve known Parisa for 5 years, since she was an undergraduate in my former lab. I think she and her husband go down in history as the most mature undergraduates ever! Needless to say she has gone on to do great work and is a brilliant geographic information systems analyst, a talented artist, and one of the most gentle souls I’ve ever known.

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On the virtues of cardboard

Ulysse crawling the grounds of his kingdom.

It was a warm day in late June. Ulysse and I were playing on the deck with the fans on full blast to keep the heat and the mosquitos at bay. A pile of cardboard boxes sat upon the table leering at me. I had been collecting these boxes for no particular reason other than that they could possibly be used for something, which is my default philosophy about most things, to Fab’s eternal dismay.

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Surviving a military move and loving it!

This past week I had the opportunity to participate on a panel of 4 scientists to discuss Gender in Science at Emory University. That was so exciting and fascinating. I could go on and on about it, and I will, I promise…just not today. Today is MOVING DAY. Today we are packing up all of our belongings into boxes, loading them into trucks, and sending them off. We’ll see them again in about a week in our new home in Narragansett, Rhode Island! Continue reading

Getting your point across, plain and simple

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert Einstein

Coming from Albert Einstein this point is particularly well made. Many more times I have heard this advice phrased as, “explain your project as you would to your grandmother or someone you just met at a dinner party.” The point is to first, keep it clear and second, engage the listener. Why is the latter as important? Because it is important for the listener to know your work matters. Oh…and your work should probably matter…if it doesn’t matter then why are you spending any time doing it, let alone telling me about it? A lot of stuff matters so chances are good that our work does too, and it is our not-so-easy task to explain why.
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Do student evaluations make it harder to teach?


Classroom with Three Figures by Lavern Kelley, painted white pine, plywood, brass, and plastic, 1979, 1984–87. Photo by Cliff, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/.

Being back in the classroom – as the professor – has reminded me of one of the aspects of teaching I have always disliked, feared, worried over the most: “How will I score on my students’ course evaluations?!?” It is an unfortunate preoccupation to have when I am just trying to make sure that my class has the right balance of interesting content and challenging, educational assignments and expectations, but it comes back to haunt me from time to time. So when I came across this article by Anya Kamenetz on NPR Ed entitled “Student Evaluations Get an ‘F,’” I realized that I am not alone.
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