My trials and tribulations with self help

I am reading Jon Acuff‘s book “Do Over”. It is a long book. Nothing wrong about wanting to write a longer book than necessary. But wanting to write is one thing and reading it is another. Why so many wisecracks? We get it. You are smart. And, truth be told, your book is a good reminder to build character, skills, network and work ethics. Thank you for that. The Take Home Message is a good one. It is a good premise. But why distract the reader with your random diversions just to show how good you are with words?

Is it just me who thinks most self help books are like a monolog by people with huge egos? “I have it figured out. Here are some tips for you suckers.” Even in the sections where the author criticizes himself, it sounds like he is trying to show off.

I did not use the pronoun “he” to refer to Jon Acuff nor to the general pronoun. I am referring to the male writer. The male writer who knows it all. The male writer who will mansplain this complex issue to us. On the other hand, most self help books written by women do not make big claims. When they should!!! (Gift of Failure.)

For most self help books, by page 50, I start to resent the time I spend on the book. One self help (if it can be called that) book that I read without feeling any resentment was Stephen King’s book “On Writing”. King is a pretty grandiose character, too. That does come across in the book. But a. He is Stephen King b. He practices what he preaches, namely, he cuts out 10% at each edit. I wish most self help books could be written with a “tighter” control of language. This “Do Over” book certainly needed that.

My biggest help during my PhD was Mr. Rogers. I still come back to him saying “I’m not very good at drawing. But it doesn’t matter.” when I am feeling incompetent.  In fact, this bit by Mr. Rogers is a fantastic summary of most self help books.

I am always surprised to read these self help books written with such confidence and certitude. How do they do that? When all of science is about curiosity and questions, how can these people make statements as if they are facts. How come all scientists suffer from imposter syndrome and the non-scientists (or even pseudoscientists) feel so free to take the mic?

In any case, the book Do Over is a good one but it is long, and overreaching. I will finish it. And then I plan to read “Finish”. I thought I would ramble on about this book first. I won’t even edit this post to cut down superfluous words. Why should I?


The real thing

All these didactic words required or even mandated to have a message. Delivered fast. Everybody is so smart, witty, having the best time of their lives, taking amazing pictures with the most representative and most sought after hashtag. Things are going their way; they have success, fame, joy, wisdom. They want to impart their wisdom. Oh me too. I’m trying to jump in that bandwagon. But life is not like that. Life is real. Life is family. Life is sometimes cold sometimes warm. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could accept myself and be calm. Be mindful without the bullshit. To grow up, to be aware, to be an adult and to be a child. Without running away and without pretense. 


Too old to rock’n’roll: Too young to die. The name of Jethro Tull’s album evokes in me a sense of misfit. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong there, either. This feeling of not belonging has been with me since my highschool days.  Too “western” to live in Istanbul, too “eastern” to live elsewhere. The funny thing is I did not feel “eastern” when I was living in the US. But now, in Switzerland, I do. Is it the Swiss? Is it because I am more aware? Is it related to the rise of nationalism throughout the world?

I just finished reading Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comic novel about her childhood in Tehran, followed by (lonely) teenage years in Austria then her return to Iran to live through her twenties. The story begins in 1980, the year after the Islamic Revolution, when she is 10 years old and ends in 1994, when she leaves Tehran for the second time.

It’s 1980. Coming from a forward thinking family, Marji finds it very hard to conform to the new rules of the Islamic Revolution: wear a veil, don’t walk with anybody of the opposite sex, don’t wear lipstick or any other makeup. She even has a few brushes with the Guardians of the Revolution. Even though she portrays these events as if she talks her way out of them, I thought that her family, which has influence, got her out of these. In any case, her life is confined to house parties and hanging a Michael Jackson poster is a big act of rebellion under this pressure. Worried about their daughter’s well-being, her parents send her to Vienna. She goes to school there but is never accepted by her friends and, furthermore, she never feels like she belongs there. She is so lost that she goes through a phase where she deals drugs and then stays on the street for two months and gets bronchitis. In the end, she returns to Tehran, feeling like a failure. She was too “western” to live in Tehran. Unlike many of her friends who went to fight in the war (boys) or who had to live under complete oppression (girls), she was one of the few lucky ones that got out. Yet, when she finally gets a chance to live in Europe, she feels out of place. She does not fit in. Granted she is a teenager and which teenager has an easy time at high school? She is all alone in a city where she does not know the language. No family, no friends. Limited money. I don’t know how she does it but she survives those years and then makes her way back to Tehran.

Survival. Survival when dislocated. Survival is an instinct but thriving is a decision. A conscious decision.

Marji thrives in her years in Tehran. Despite the oppression that surrounds her, she is protected by her upbringing, her family’s connections and even her family’s old heritage. Her grandmother’s wisdom protects her. Her family’s resistance in the form of optimism and persistence protects her. The feeling of being at home, familiarity with her friends protect her. Once she gets out of that cocoon, she loses her sense of self. Her sense of belonging. She is dislocated. Even though she knows the western life style,  she has a hard time adjusting because her sense of self is defined by her lifestyle in Tehran.

Do exiles ever talk about their previous life as a bad life? I think not. It’s usually a wonderful life that they leave behind. Especially at the beginning of their new life, their past life is much more wonderful than the new life they try to (re-)build. Back home, they thrived despite all the hardship or, even sometimes, because of all the hardship. They have their own network, own neighborhood and their whole network and support structure keep them afloat in their home country.

If it’s all so wonderful, what pushes them to move away from this lovely network? Circumstances. War. Hope of a safe future. This is what we need to appreciate about the refugees. Most would not be refugees if they had a choice. They were violin players, astronomers, pilots, teachers, doctors. Dislocation meant that they lost everything of value but most importantly their self identity. Some will survive. Will they thrive?






Menus for the grad student

During my bored and boring days of grad school, I had a very good group of friends interested in cooking. As a result I started watching cooking shows. I subscribed to Cook for their comparative recipes, I learned from Alton Brown about the Maillard reaction and envied Ina Garten’s amazing Hamptons home she shares with her husband, then the dean of Yale business school. My secret vice: watching Paula Deen with shock and amazement at how many sticks of butter or lard she put in her “paahs”. She did not use a chefs knife (like I didn’t) and just cut up onions in her hand (like I did). As I was watching these shows, cooking started to make sense. There is a pattern and you don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen if you recognize this. 

Base: The secret to making Turkish home cooking is in the base, which is simple to make and which freezes well.

  •  Ingredients: 1 kg ground beef, 2 onions, 1/2 can of diced tomatoes (or 2-3 good sized tomatoes) and two tablespoons of oil. 
  • Dice the onions. Dice the tomatoes if not diced
  •  Use a medium sized sauce pan, put the oil in and put the pan on low-medium heat (the purpose is to sweat the onions, not sautée them). Stir occasionally for 5-7 minutes.
  •  When the onions are translucent, add the beef and break it up. Turn up the heat to medium. Stir occasionally and continue to break the meet until the beef is cooked through. Time will depend on size of pan. (It’s all about the heat transfer rate.)
  •  Add the diced tomatoes. Stir well for a few minutes. Now cover the lid, and cook until all liquid is cooked. 

This will make enough base for about 4 family sized vegetable dishes. Once the sauce is cooked, prepare 4-6 containers (ziplock bags, Tupperware but all must be freezer friendly) and divide the base up into these containers. 

To make the vegetable dish:

Zucchini: sautée one diced carrot for a few minutes, add the cubed (1 cmcube) zucchini   (1 kg) and the thawed sauce. Stir and Cover the lid. 20 min

Peas: this is the easiest dish possible. Sautée one diced carrot for a few minutes, add thawed base, one cubed potato and the frozen peas (1 bag). Stir and cover the lid. 30 min

Beans: chop off the two tough ends of the beans. Cut into 3 cm length. Add thawed base and the beans. You can sautée some tomatoes as beans and tomatoes like each other. 

Any of these dishes can be varied by increasing the amount of tomatoes (sautée tomatoes to cook them before adding the base), by adding garlic (do not burn the garlic while sautéing), by adding chopped dill or parsley while serving. Once you have the base in your freezer, you can have a home cooked vegetable dish any day of the week. 

I won’t put recipes here, my go to recipe book is online: William Sonoma recipes. I am not one to follow recipes word for word but one thing I learned: if baking is involved, buy the ingredients and measure them. 


The keyword is functional. The Swiss Army knife is not just a tool but an apt description of a world viewpoint. Like the Swiss Army knife that packs multiple tools in the smallest volume possible, everything is over engineered to the point of perfection. This includes use of time (see the SBB website for the epitomy of travel arrangements), use of land (compare the town plan for any and all villages), use of square footage (not a single square foot wasted in the house plan nor the garden peysage), use of words (no superfluous fiction). This perfection and the expectation of perfection leads to impatience with anything that is less than perfect.

Yesterday on the tram a black woman was sitting in front of me with her two suitcases. An old lady on crutches came on board and wanted to sit, I thought and the black lady thought, next to her. As the black lady was trying to quickly move her suitcases out of the way, the old lady started yelling at her and almost pushing her and the suitcases out of her way: “I need both chairs to put my feet up! These seats are reserved for those with disabilities! I need both chairs!” In her confusion, the black lady said: “Can you please sit down?” but the old lady would not calm down.

Why couldn’t the old lady tell the black lady “can you please give me these two chairs, I need both to put my feet up?” when she approached her? Why would she immediately retort to rudeness? Why couldn’t she wait for an extra second while the black lady was trying to move out of her way? Was it because she was black? The old lady was on crutches. The black lady was sitting in the seats reserved for disabled people. So the old lady was correct. But why couldn’t she be nice about it?

There are a lot of rules. The expectation is that everyone knows and abides by these rules. Swiss people are quiet and reserved and I am always surprised when somebody honks because I am going too slow or if I hesitate for a second more. Oppressed by the rules, they are on the lookout to catch you break them and then yell at you. Are they angry at us foreigners? Are they this impatient with each other?

In our second week here, we were supposed to have a meeting with our relocation agent. A car had parked at our parking spot (it is next to impossible to find a parking spot in the city so you rent a reserved spot) and so we were late to the meeting. When we explained what happened to our agent, her first words were “oh I bet that was not a Swiss person”. (It was.) This prejudiced view of outsiders is common even amongst long term expatriates. Outsiders don’t know the rules and disturb the perfectly tended order.

Suffice it to say, as we conclude our six months on sabbatical, I am happy to be a part of the international community.

Wonder and optimism

I just read a book called Wonder. I know it’s been around for a while, and I learned after finishing it that it will be a movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. I am usually not too fast in picking up the latest book. So many good classics to finish first. Anyway.

The book is about a boy, Auggie, who has a facial deformity: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse“. He has been home-schooled until now and the book picks up the story when he is about to start 5th grade. It takes tremendous effort and determination on his part as well as that of his parents, sister and few friends, but by the time the school year is over Auggie is a popular, well-liked kid at his school and goes on to win the “Henry Ward Beecher Medal” that “honours students who have been notable or exemplary in certain areas throughout the school year.” The book starts out as a complete tear jerker, sorry for using that word but I cried and cried through the first part as Auggie was settling into his school life. But after about two thirds of the way into the book, everything starts to turn sunny. Auggie makes friends, his schoolmates bond with Auggie and with each other, everyone (except the one villain whose story is appended to the end of the book) becomes understanding, empathic and friendly. Even Auggie’s sister makes her big break onto the stage when her former-bff-current-enemy gives up the role on opening night. All cheer, optimism. A Hollywood ending. Happy and well adjusted is one thing but a medal at the end? Come on. I smell screenplay. Let’s get some ice cream.

I am happy that things turned out OK for Auggie. He is a sweet, likeable kid and I rooted for him from start to finish. The character is fleshed out in detail, and other characters take turns throughout the different chapters so we get to find out about their perspective, too. The sister was my favorite character, she is supportive but has a bitter and angry side to her. So the character development is powerful, the premise is interesting and the story is captivating as it unfolds. But I was utterly disappointed by the anticlimatic ending.

The story is a sad one, mandibulofacial dysostosis and cleft palate are two disorders that can (and do) cause severe health issues for children. It is not easy to have this disorder nor to be in the same family/school with someone who has it. Why would the author turn everything around to make sure EVERYONE in the book is happy and cheerful at the end and that the one villain decides to change schools? There are good days and bad days; not only for them, but for everybody. Why does everybody need to be happy all the time? Why is it not ok to be sad sometimes?



Academic and mama

I am a member of a group called “Academic Mamas”. Members are anywhere from seasoned mamas of grown children to pregnant mamas, from PhD students to tenured professors. These academics ask for breastfeeding advice, applaud and “like” tenure announcements, give book recommendations on handling baby tantrums as well as teenage tantrums, celebrate births, grants and papers and console each other for miscarriages, tenure denials and paper rejections. I am proud to be an academic mama but it’s hard hard hard work. The only way we can get through it is by supporting each other.

My first support as an academic mama is my mother, who is also an academic mama. She made sure I had no doubt in my mind that I could do it all. “Doing it all” or “having it all” are phrases I hate because of the male dominated understanding of being a perfect mother and outstanding faculty/professional at the same time. To me, doing it all means living through life with some balance such that your personal life and career both make you happy. It’s easier to write than to do it. First of all, there is intense guilt. The guilt that you don’t get to spend time with your child if you go to work and you don’t get to work on your manuscript if you play with your child. I remind myself to be a “good enough mother”. I remind myself that academic life is a marathon and not a sprint. But sometimes that’s not enough to overcome the guilt. Sometimes the work load (at home and at work) is so overwhelming that you choke. Sometimes you need someone else to cheer you on. (And no one is better at that than my mother.) Your academic mama friends are your best line of support here. Make sure you find those mamas that will understand, support and help you. They are there. We are here.

My second biggest support as an academic mama was my graduate advisor. She is  nurturing, caring and protective. So, an academic mama. I had my first child during grad school. She let me work from home through my difficult pregnancy, my son’s premature birth and then weeks of recovery. In a country where maternity leave is several months long this would not be surprising. But I was in the US and most of my friends had to go back to work 6 weeks after delivery. I would have had to quit my PhD if that were the case. My advisor would not let me drop out of the race. It took me about a year but I was back on track and even picked up speed as I learned to manage life as an academic mama.

We are natural multitaskers. This brings me to my third line of academic mama support; collaborator academic mamas. I did not realize it until recently but most of my successful collaborations are with mothers. Our children get sick, we are called to school events, children have spring breaks, they need new shoes, or we are just tired after a weekend of birthday parties. Taking care of children takes up a lot of time, energy, mental effort. We know this. We understand each other. We understand that time is precious. Our meetings are short and sweet. Our phone calls are brief. Our messages are terse. But that’s ok. We know when we need to pick it up when the other academic mama needs to hand over the baton. The roles are sometimes fluid but never unfair. At the end of the day, everybody chips in. Not to say there is no resentment. Sometimes there is. Sometimes there is no one to pick up that baton because everybody’s too busy and that’s bad. But, when you need to rush to your child’s doctor appointment and your academic mama collaborator submits the grant application for you, you remember why working with other academic mamas gives you the support and confidence you need in this academic life.

The life of a working mother is not easy. Especially in countries where school hours are short, hired help is expensive, women can be excluded from the workforce. It is critical to show our students (and children) that it is natural and possible for women to work. Showing our support to one another as academic mamas (or working mothers) is a fantastic way to be a good role model for our male and female students.


City girl

I was born and raised in Istanbul, I have strolled on Istiklal, taken sea side walks in Bebek, spent endless hours on dolmus, minibus, ferry, eaten simit several sticks full (simitcis carry their simits on sticks) bought silver in Kapalicarsi, bought my first bike in Hasim Iscan Gecidi, listened to music in AKM, Harbiye acikhava, watched movies in Atlas, enjoyed mucver in Karakoy lokantasi. But am I a true Istanbullu?

When I was living in Indiana, I used to subscribe to the New Yorker. I read every page of it cover to cover. The goings on about town section provided me with a much needed whiff of city air in my quiet and poor grad student life. That was also when the Sex and the City was big. I missed my Istanbul life terribly and I was living the city life vicariously through these two outlets. Then, I visited New York City for three days, one Labor Day weekend. New York City was breathtaking with its beautiful architecture, lush parks, wide sidewalks, and impeccably dressed men and women. Three days are too short to get to know a city but this much was clear to me: New York was no match for Istanbul.

Istanbul harbors the beautiful and the ugly all at the same time, in the same picture frame. A true mosaic of culture, culinary experience, style, music, background; Istanbul is unlike any other city with “character”. There is no true Istanbullu because the city is not only huge in size but also has tens of layers. The historical layers of Istanbul were depicted beautifully by Betul Sayin in her book “5 Cocuk 5 Istanbul”. But the multilayered nature of Istanbul is not only due to its history. The essence of the city is too complex to be captured by one aspect. Many songs on Istanbul desribe her as a complicated woman. Hard to live with. Hard to be away from it.

I used to believe the one thing that binds all Istanbullus together is our desire to be by the sea side. Yet, there are many people that don’t leave their inland neighborhood, that have never strolled by Bogaz. How can this be? How can you stay away from its beauty? Are those people not Istanbullu?

Even though the older residents claim ownership of the city, it belongs to the newcomers, too, as they bring in their culture, language, food and music. Istanbul’s attraction is that it is a mosaic rather than a blending of colors. There is only one word for it and that is Istanbul. I am an Istanbullu.

“Now we are at the heart of chemistry”

These are my favorite lines out of all the books I have read. They are from Atkins and de Paula’s “Physical Chemistry” book, Reaction Dynamics Chapter. The book is a fascinating read (for physical chemistry students and instructors), it is easily accessible and these lines make it high literature. By the time you get to this chapter, you have discussed equilibrium thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and you have started thinking about molecules, why they behave the way do and how their molecular behavior results in properties you observe in the macroscopic world. But you have not gotten to the heart, yet.

My favorite teaching moment is when I say these lines in class. Students have come in, I have waited for them to settle, I have made eye contact with several of them that are waiting for their friends to be quiet. I say “Now we are at the heart of chemistry” and pause for dramatic effect. I know some eyes roll. But some of the students are intrigued. “Can you imagine being at the HEART of CHEMISTRY?”. I remind them of the energy levels, the partition function (“what was that?” “the number of accessible energy states”) and tell them that knowing the partition function will let us know whether two molecules will react or not. That knowledge is powerful. It takes us from single molecules, “bonds being ripped apart” to all the reactions we see around us and to life.  Transition state theory, which explains reaction mechanisms, is one of the hardest topics to grasp in physical chemistry. But, I remind you, it takes us to the heart and once you get to the heart it is almost like magic except that it is all rooted in theory.

I think I miss teaching.



Reading is solitary. Readers are not. Readers find each other. I just joined a book club. The idea is similar to all other book clubs (I assume). You read a book, and then you meet at a member’s house and discuss the book for about an hour.

We used to have journal club every other week when I was a graduate student. The idea there was to share the latest findings with fellow group members. Each member was responsible for one journal and would bring 2-3 interesting articles to share with the group. This was great to keep the group up to date on the latest articles and there would always be one or two articles that were really interesting. Here is what happened though: 1. “Oh I should read this paper.” 2. File under “must read”. 3. Forget that paper exists 4. Read that paper if and when you need it for your thesis/paper/research and not remember it from journal club. A more ideal journal club would be one where everybody comes to the table having read one interesting article in detail. The keyword here is detail. Depth is what science is all about. You need breadth, so keep up the journal club. But read that one article, discuss it, dissect it in detail. Go over its outline, the language, the flow. What is strong about it, what makes it a good paper, what makes it a bad paper? What is the major contribution, is it significant, is it interesting, would you like to continue that research, if so how?

If there is one occupation in which reading should take more time than the occupation itself, that occupation is writing. A writer must read more than she writes. I just made that up and not because I am a bookworm or an avid scientific article reader. In fact, I am not, and to be perfectly honest, I have not been for some time. Too much on my plate. Life got in the way. But low reading, I found, is a surefire recipe for my well to dry up. I cannot write. I cannot write because I have not been reading enough. (Boy am I glad my blog is hidden in obscurity and my students are not reading these words.) The one thing this sabbatical is helping me get back to is reading. All reading. Reading books, reading fiction, reading scientific articles.

I just read about the daily habits of wealthy people and it turns out they do a lot of reading, too. I don’t buy it. There are many readers that don’t make money. I know that the fact that those wealthy people read a lot is simple selection bias. But it gives me hope to hear that readers are cool. Reading is cool. I really look forward to more reading this year.