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Aunt Pythia’s advice

November 2, 2013

Aunt Pythia lovers! Please rest assured that Aunt Pythia took a much-needed one week rest but is now back and is bigger and better than before!

What?!           YES!!!

And please, don’t forget to ask me a question at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have been dating a guy for 6 months, and realized that I have been suffering due to his “too direct” way of communicating, a.k.a. criticizing me too much.

Everything is bad, he said my skin will look better if I exfoliate more, he said the shoes I wear looked too cheap on me, or that I should use different deodorant because the one I am using right now is “failing”, and the worse, he said I have bad breath.

I understand that I should not take criticism too personal, and it reminds me that I have many things to improve, but he made me feel horrible and I’m losing confidence.

I really want to break up with him because I don’t think he loves me, but he keeps on saying that he does, and despite all those critics, he stays in this relationship with me. What should I do?

I Am Sad

Dear Sad,

A few things.

First, what you’ve described is a classic case of someone (namely, a jerk) projecting their insecurities onto someone else (namely, you). He does it through accusations, and as a good friend explained to me, people accuse you of the thing they are guilty of. So next time he accuses you of having bad breath, realize it is he who is sensitive to his breath. So your first task is to flip those statements around every time they come out of his mouth.

Next, I know it’s easier said than done, but I want you to work on flipping more than just his words. I want you to start realizing that when you say “he stays in this relationship with me” it means that it’s up to him, whereas it’s really just as much up to you. In other words, you’ve given him all the power to decide whether this relationship is going to continue. You didn’t even tell me if you love him, only that he loves you (or at least claims to), which is another indication that you feel powerless and your emotions are irrelevant. So they second task I’d like you to try is to flip that mindset around and realize that, given how insecure and mean he is, he’s lucky you haven’t broken up with him. You have the power to end this, even if you haven’t exerted it yet.

Finally, I want you to address this stuff with him (if you do indeed love him – otherwise skip to last four words of this paragraph). Once you’ve learned to recognize his projections for insecure and mean barbs, and once you realize the power you have in that relationship, I’d like you to tell him that you have standards for a high quality of life, and this treatment is not meeting those standards, so he needs to stop. And if he can’t, then break up with him.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

If I drink quickly enough and pee slowly enough simultaneously, do you think I could pee forever?

Aspiring Guinness

Dear AG,

Dunno but please do document your efforts.



Dear Aunt Pythia,

How do you find the time to work as a data scientist, be a mom, write daily blog posts, organize Occupy/hacker events and still maintain a sense of humor? I’ve got one job, one hobby, no kids and can do little more than collapse on my day off. I don’t even have a TV.

What’s your secret? Are you one of those amazing people who only needs four hours of sleep per night?

More energy hopeful

Dear More,

I’ve been asked this question before and, although I will tell you my “secrets”, I’m guessing you are underplaying all the stuff you actually do. To convince yourself of that, think about how your best friend would describe you, not how you did above. Just sayin’. OK here goes.

First of all, I’m a huge sleep hog. I think that’s one of my secrets, which is that I don’t deny myself sleep. I often fall asleep before my kids, who are themselves sleep hogs and go to bed at 9:30 [Update: after reading this my oldest son insists that he is not a sleep hog and that the 9:30 bedtime is mandated by the dictator who is his mother]. I also take naps whenever I can. Love naps.

I generally think people shortchange their own sleep thinking it will make them more efficient, when in fact it does the opposite. A great night’s sleep sees me jumping out of bed at 6am to blog some point that got me all in a huff the day before. I can’t wait! I’m excited to do it!

The second thing I want to mention is that I’m a scrupulous planner, and I have enormously high (extremely personal) standards for my activities. I say “no” almost all the time to almost everything, so I can spend more time doing stuff I love like watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9 with my kids and taking naps. That means I’m a persona non grata when it comes to, say, the PTA, where my policy is that if my husband won’t do it, neither will I (and he basically won’t do anything).

Third, what with all the reinventing I’ve done over the years, I don’t hover needlessly over my own decisions. I write a blog post, then publish it. I give myself 1.5 times as long to prepare a talk as the talk will last, a trick I learned from my teaching experience. If things suck, I take it in stride, make a mental note to myself, and move on. In other words, I’m ruthlessly efficient and my skin is thick. It means I’m not a stickler for details but I get through more stuff than otherwise.

Finally, I really like and trust the people I meet and work with. It sometimes burns me but then again almost always works out, and I’d recommend it overall, especially if paired with a natural or learned resilience to disappointments, which gets easier when you have a fantastic support system. That means I’m always psyched to work on the next project with other people and that energy feeds me and gets me going.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dearest Aunt Pythia,

I’m a young math professor, and, as you know is typical, this career entails for me a certain level of travel to conferences. Lately, I’ve realized that the colleagues that I meet regularly at conferences are a sad bunch of life cripples. Totally lacking in beneficial social graces and unable to hold even just a slightly decent conversation of non-trivial length (especially one not involving mathematics), I feel continually shocked when around them, particularly by the unsubtle, autistic fashion in which they interrogate me about my personal life, professional activities, collaborations, etc.

Could you suggest any techniques for coping with interactions with them? How can I survive, or even have a little fun in this bad party I’m stuck in? Also, does Aunt Pythia have any ideas for minimizing the anxiety that I’m struck with prior to attending a conference?

Keep up the frank work,
Pitiable In The Suburbs

Dear Pitiable,

I’m afraid I’m going to have to use my previous advice against you. You are accusing these guys of all sorts of things that you yourself are guilty of. In particular, you don’t sound like someone overbrimming with social graces when you call people “cripples”.

And when I pair your nasty and dismissive tone with the acknowledged anxiety you experience before going to a conference, I am forced to conclude that you are projecting anxiety and insecurity onto these nerds.

Look, I’ve been to a LOT of conferences, and I agree that there are lots of awkward moments. And yes, there are lots of people that are on the autism spectrum in mathematics. But those people are still really wonderful in general and I have always found a way to enjoy myself with great company. In fact I cannot remember a conference I went to that I didn’t end up enjoying once I sought out the people with whom I click. Even at Oberwolfach, the most macho of all places, I managed to find some bridge partners and beer.

My advice to you: spend a lot of time willfully separating your anxiety from other people’s flaws, and set yourself the task to find something beautiful, or at least amusing, in every person you meet at your next conference. And take it from me, there are assholes in math, but they are typically pretty minor league compared to, say, the finance assholes or the Silicon Valley assholes.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Goose
    November 2, 2013 at 9:48 am

    I’m curious why you say that Oberwolfach is the most macho of all places 🙂 Did you get a picture with that model of Boy’s surface?


  2. Thomas Karnofsky
    November 2, 2013 at 10:02 am

    This is such a great line, thanks, I may make a big sign for my living room, next to the one that says, “listen, don’t react”

    “spend a lot of time willfully separating your anxiety from other people’s flaws”


  3. y
    November 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Wonderful installment of AP. I had also been wondering how you do so much, and thanks for sharing your “secrets”.


  4. November 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    I don’t think being critical of your partner is inherently bad. Communication is important. If something about your partner bothers you, you shouldn’t necessarily squelch it for the sake of harmony. But the method of delivering the communication itself is very important. It’s not that successful relationships are without conflict or criticism. John Gottman can predict with very high accuracy whether or not a couple will survive by observing them having an argument. According to Gottman, it’s very important that criticisms start softly.

    On the quality of Gottman’s predictions: http://www.gottman.com/research/research-faqs/

    On soft startup: http://relationshipresourcecenter.com/articles-concerning-relationships/relationship-articles/the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse/


  5. Aaron
    November 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Is Aunt Pythia losing her edge? Both Meh and Pits seem to have escaped her notice.


  6. Abe Kohen
    November 2, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Cathy, you write: “I give myself 1.5 times as long to prepare a talk as the talk will last, a trick I learned from my teaching experience.” I have a somewhat similar rule in that I prepare a 1.5 hour talk for a 1 hour presentation (so that there will be no awkward pauses if I cover the material faster and there are few questions from the audience), but it takes me longer than 1.5 hours to do that prep. Any thoughts?


  7. Abe Kohen
    November 2, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Aunt Pythia, do you watch Masters of Sex on cable TV. Great show, IMHO.


  1. November 30, 2013 at 8:13 am
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