Monday, January 30, 2012

LEGO Friends: Feminist Friend or Foe?

I've decided to do a follow up post about the LEGO Friends sets I wrote about in December, now that the sets are actually out. Apparently, the uproar over these sets continues- there is now a Facebook petition against them. As I wrote in December, I'm no huge fan of our super-gendered toy environment, but I also don't think that these new LEGO sets are the surefire ticket to stereotypical gender roles that their detractors make them out to be. And I suspect I have one significant advantage over a lot of the people who are up in arms about these sets: I have actually seen one. In fact, I've bought one, and watched my daughter play with it. I can even compare how she plays with it to how she plays with her other two sets- a house and a castle (spoiler alert: she plays with all of the sets in exactly the same way).

I am fairly confident that many people who have written angry diatribes against the LEGO Friends sets have never seen one for two reasons: many of those angry diatribes were written before the sets actually came out, and many of them are full of misinformation. So let me clear some things up:
  1. The sets are not pre-built. They consist of a bunch of little blocks and special pieces, which are assembled following instructions. In other words, they are just like every other LEGO set in this regard.
  2. The sets are not entirely pink and purple. There are some pink, purple, and pastel blocks. But there are also other color blocks in the sets, and once built, the result is not a sickening confection of pink. (Unlike, for instance, the Hello Kitty Megabloks sets I've seen, which have somehow escaped the wrath that is now raining down on the LEGO Friends sets.)
  3. The sets do not consist entirely of vignettes of girl figurines doing gender stereotypical things. There is a house set (last I checked, some men live in houses, too), sets representing various possible activities (some, but not all, of which could be considered "girl" activities), a treehouse set (not exactly a stereotypically girl thing, right?), and a car (again, men drive those, too).
Oh heck, let's just look at all the sets. I'll put direct links to the LEGO site here, but also links to the Amazon page in case you are won over by the sight of the actual sets and want to buy one:
Now, I will agree that the majority of the activities represent things that are typically associated with girls- the inventor's workshop being a notable exception. However, I think we should remember several things:
  1. It is hard to make toys out of most jobs. I suspect a LEGO cube-farm or server room would sell really well to techies trapped working in such places, but I doubt those sets would appeal much to children of either gender.
  2. The LEGO figurines in the Friends sets are meant to be girls, not grown women. I base this on the fact that the house set seems to include a Mom and a Dad figurine. 
  3. Many grown women like to bake cupcakes, go to beauty salons, have pets, lounge by the pool, and follow fashion while at the same time pursuing challenging and rewarding careers in a variety of fields.  Interests in baking, fashion, animals, and pool lounging are not incompatible with interests in, say, science and engineering.
  4. No one thinks that the pirate LEGO sets are going to turn the kids who play with them into pirates.
Don't get me wrong: I think LEGO could do better with the activities- maybe adding something sports-related and another less stereotypically female career-type activity (although I struggle with what it should be- see point 1, above).  I also do not want to trivialize the concerns people have raised: play is a very important part of how our children learn the skills they will need in life. It is fair to be concerned that the toys we provide give all of our children a fair shot at future success.  But I think many of LEGO's critics are making a mistake in focusing too much on interests and too little on skills. Interests can change on a dime. Skills build upon each other, with skills acquired early providing a foundation upon which later skills can build. On the skills front, LEGO did everything right. They did not dumb down these sets, and they made them interoperate with their other sets, so that they can serve as a gateway to more complicated sets.

In this sense, I almost think that the LEGO Friends sets are subverting gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them. There is something to be said for having these sets appeal to little girls who are only interested in "girly" things and to the adults who buy toys for little girls and will only buy "girly" things. (For the record, I think there are more people in the latter category than the former. Far more. Even the most princess obsessed four year olds I know have other interests, too.) LEGO sets are really, really good at encouraging some important skills: spatial reasoning, a "feel" for building things, and problem-solving abilities. All of these skills are critical for careers in engineering, computers, and science. These are good, high-paying careers, and not many women pursue them. I think part of the reason for this is that a lot of little girls do not get a chance to develop important foundational skills early enough. If LEGO has to bring out "girl-specific" sets in purple boxes in order to reach more girls... well, I can live with that. Maybe they'll win some more girls over to the dark side engineering and science.

So, what do we here at Chez Cloud actually think of our LEGO Friends set? Well, it gets mixed reviews. Pumpkin chose the inventor's workshop. (I didn't push her to choose that one, I swear!) She loves it. She came home from the store and built it right away, essentially by herself. She has now started mixing the pieces from that set in with her other sets, creating, among other things, this city scene:



(Those are skyscrapers with a big billboard on them.)

And this airplane/science lab/wheelbarrow:



Hubby, on the other hand, is not a fan. He doesn't like all the special pieces, and he was disappointed that it lacked a base piece on which to build the set. However, these problems are not unique to the Friends sets at all- many of the "boy" sets also suffer from them. I think he is remembering the LEGO of his youth (he was, and is, a huge LEGO fan), and is finding the modern sets a bit disappointing in comparison. He is a bit of a LEGO purist.

And me? I am just glad they come with girl figurines.

A few weeks after we bought the LEGO Friends set, we decided that Pumpkin needed more blocks, so we bought her the castle set we'd considered for her at Christmas time before settling on the starter house set instead. Pumpkin was really excited when that castle set came in the mail. She got me to open the box right away, and dump the pieces onto the cookie sheet my husband had previously appropriated for her LEGO building purposes. She spread out the pieces to inspect them, and then looked up at me and said:

"Mommy, there is no princess in this castle. But that's OK! The girl from the workshop can be the princess!"

This reaction is so exactly what I predicted it would be, that I am afraid you won't believe me- but it is true. I will refrain from writing any snarky comments on anyone else's posts saying "nah, nah, I told you so." But I can't help but feel completely vindicated in my original reaction to this entire topic.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Zenbit: Reflected Rock








 
Location: Morro Bay, California, USA
Date: September 24, 2011

Friday, January 27, 2012

Weekend Reading: Too Good Not To Read Edition

I had a completely different weekend reading post lined up, but it will have to wait, because damn there were some good posts on the internet this week. I couldn't not share them with you, particularly since they come from disparate segments of the blogosphere, so I suspect none of my readers will have seen all of them. It was like the entire blogosphere was on fire this week, while I was posting fluff about my workout. (And also a review of a really cool book, which includes a giveaway that is still open... so if you missed that post take a look and see if you want to try to win the free copy. And I did rather like my post about the secret to happiness, so that's something.)

Anyway, to the links:

First up, Parisienne Mais Presque had a beautiful piece about bread. It makes me wish I had a decent bakery on my way home... But I do not, so the grownups do without most nights, while the kids eat toasted bread that we make in our breadmaker, slice, and freeze.

Remember the incident with the dogs in the park? Right after that, there was a rash of dog attacks in New Zealand, including a horrific one in which a "friendly" family dog mauled a three year old. (I read the New Zealand news- I can't really explain why, since my husband, who is the New Zealander in the family, doesn't. But I do.) And a woman who had been mauled by her neighbor's dog here in San Diego died, not directly from the attack, but her family says she never really recovered. So, not being a dog person, I've been struggling to remember how much joy dogs bring to some people. And then I read this post about a boy and dogs... and well, you should just go read it. It has restored my faith in dogs. And, a little bit, in people, too.

Next up, a powerful post from Zuska about fighting her own internalized sexism. This really resonated with me, because no matter how often it happens that I realize some woman doesn't take me seriously because my hair is blonde or because she judges me to be too pretty to be smart, it always surprises me. I naively expect more sisterhood, I guess. This has happened less and less frequently as I've aged- when I was in college I was frequently written off as an intellectual lightweight by men and women alike. In fact, this probably contributed to the break up of my first college relationship. The guy I was dating had been taken by the surface attributes and wasn't prepared for me to be better at chemistry than he was. It continued in grad school, where some of the other women nicknamed me Barbie. To some of the other women, it was just a little good-natured ribbing. But to some of them, it was something darker, and came with the implication that I didn't really belong there. It even continued into my early career. At my first job, a visiting investor stopped me as I was walking through the lobby and asked for coffee, assuming I wa sthe administrative assistant. That investor was a woman. Now, though, I don't get this reaction from other women. That is one of the hidden benefits of aging, I suppose.

And speaking of the hidden benefits of aging... Alice at Finslippy had an amazing post about how now that she is older, men don't treat her like an object anymore. This line really really caught me:

"Maybe my gray hair pushed me over the edge into a new world, one where I'm considered worthy of respect. Or, more likely, I'm not considered at all."

Yes, that. I do not have gray hair (a hidden benefit of being blonde?), but I, too, have largely disappeared from the leering attention of strangers on the street, and like Alice, I am fine with that. More than fine, even. Glad.

Her post is a wonderful construction of controlled and directed rage, and you should go read it. The only downside of reading that post was that it made me realize what crap my daughters are in for when they get older, and that was a bit depressing.

Liz at Mom-101 was inspired by Alice's post to write an equally amazing post about her experience with acquaintance rape, and what it was like to have her rapist attempt to friend her on Facebook. The mind boggles at the idea of a man who forced himself on a young woman back in high school trying to friend her on Facebook now. As I said in my comment over there, I suspect that means he remembers the encounter very differently, and that is a sad, sad comment on the state of our culture, that someone can be a rapist and not even realize it.

She also writes about the power of blogging about these and other difficult experiences. I agree with her on that point- one of the best things about the internet and the blogosphere is the fact that you can discover that you aren't as alone in your feelings and experiences as you thought you were. But it takes people brave enough to write their authentic stories for that to happen.

And last, but most certainly not least, Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time has a brilliant post about how its not that she's "forgotten" to have a baby, its that she has other priorities now- and maybe always. You really should go read the post, and read all the way to the end- the last two paragraphs are brilliant. My thoughts on this topic are a jumbled mess, so apologies if what I write doesn't make a lot of sense.  First of all, even though I come from the other side of the artificial mother/not mother divide, I am in complete agreement with her statement that "It’s not about “forgetting” to have a baby, and it’s not about not “really” wanting one.  It’s about the fact that I want many things, that I am many things." I have written about this from the motherhood side a couple of times- first, in frustration at the fact that our culture seems to require women to declare that "first and foremost, I am a mother", and later in my post on being a feminist mother, in which I assert that motherhood grew my life in such a way that I have found room for the demands of motherhood without losing the room for "me". As I said in that post, it took me a long time to adjust to motherhood and get to this place, but here I am.

That said, there is no denying that something is given up to have kids- but something is gained, too. For me, overall the "gained" side comes out ahead, but some days, it does not. And we are rarely honest about that. We talk vaguely about the joy of motherhood like some strange cult trying to attract new members. Yes, the joys are many- but so are the sacrifices, and we usually gloss over those. So I do not find it surprising at all that some women look at the truth of what motherhood really is and say "no, thanks." Or "not now- I want to do X first." Really, it is more surprising to me that more of us don't opt out, given the fact that the joys of motherhood are so hard to express. Well, anyway, anytime I try to express them I fail miserably.

With all of that said, I still think there is too much emphasis on the fact that kids impact women's careers. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that the assumption that your career will suffer lasting harm from having kids is too generally accepted. This is not at all a comment on Dr. Crazy's post, which is about her specific situation and decisions. But I feel like I have to say this again, for any young woman who wants kids and is freaking out about combining motherhood and career: it is possible to do it. And be happy while doing it. I have more to write on this topic, and I'm still trying to formulate my answer to FeMOMhist's question about how, exactly, I made my life expand to accommodate motherhood and "me"- but I do not think this post is the place to do that. I'll come back to it, soonish.

But for now- stop reading here and go read the wonderful posts I've linked to. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Good Workout

I think I have mentioned the Voltaire quote about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good in an earlier post. It is practically my mantra at work. I've recently discovered that I should have applied it to my workouts, too.

My favorite workout is kickboxing. I took some form of kickboxing class for over five years, going from a style based on Bruce Lee's style, to pure Muay Thai, to a Kenpo Karate-Muay Thai mix. I would dearly love to be taking a kickboxing class now, but I cannot find one that fits my schedule. The weekday ones are all too late in the evening (or in the middle of the work day), Until bedtimes get easier here, there is no way I could miss one bedtime per week. That would just be cruel to my husband. Soloing for bedtimes is HARD. There are a few weekend classes that would theoretically be possible, but none of them are convenient enough to stand a chance of becoming a routine.

So, I've been trying other workouts instead. I've tried running. I don't really enjoy it, and my asthma often kicks in before I can really get my heart rate up. I've tried a workout DVD. I bought a dance workout DVD, thinking that maybe Petunia would dance along with me and thereby allow me to workout when she is in the room. No dice- she still comes over and demands "uppie!" Still, I could do it when she is not around- my husband agreed to pick the kids up one night per week so that I could get a kid free workout. Even with out the toddler impediment, though, I find that I'm too uncoordinated- I'm so busy trying to figure out the steps that I get a mediocre workout. I've looked into other types of workout DVDs, but the ones that look promising (i.e., that don't have the word "dance" in the title) all have reviews saying that they need lots of space... which I don't really have. I will probably pick one to try eventually, but I haven't yet.

Then, my sister and my parents got me a Wavemaster heavy bagfor Christmas. I'd thought about getting one before, but had always talked myself out of it, because I know that I won't get as good of a workout as I would in a class- and I won't improve my skill level as much, either.

It turns out, I was thinking about it all wrong. I was holding out for the perfect workout, when I should have been happy to take a good one. I don't get a workout that is as good as what I would get in a class, but I get a workout that is better than what I get with any other method I've tried since having kids. My skills won't improve much, but I have enough skills to workout safely and effectively, and that's what really matters. I'm not trying to turn myself into a martial arts master, after all. I'm just trying to lose a few pounds, increase my fitness, and make my clothes fit better again.

Oh, and beating the crap out of the heavy bag is excellent stress relief. How had I forgotten about that?

Also, working out in the privacy of my own garage has two distinct advantages over working out in a class: (1) I don't worry at all about what I look like in my workout clothes, and (2) I get to pick my own music.

What music did I pick? Well, since you asked.... Here is my workout playlist. I'll add comments, so it is almost like I'm playing along with the (now out of date) internet meme about listing songs that have been important in your life. But not really, because, as we have already established, I suck at internet memes.

Youth of Today - Amy MacDonald
I found Amy MacDonald via my Sinead Lohan station on Pandora. She's awesome (so is Sinead Lohan, actually). If you think about this song as being about mothers instead of youth, you'll get an idea of why I chose it to start my workout.



I am stretching and setting up my "gym" (rolling out the heavy bag, putting down the mat I boughtso I could do crunches, etc., in between bouts on the bag), putting on my hand wraps, and doing some light warm up while this is playing.

Bittersweet Symphony - The Verve
This song takes me back to Sweden, which I visited or a couple of months in grad school. This was before iPods, and my luggage was overstuffed without lugging along my music collection, so I listened to the local version of MTV a lot. This song was popular on that, and I liked it. I still love the opening string part. I once figured out how to play that violin riff. And then I forgot it. Doh. Not that I play violin much anymore!



I am doing a couple of rounds of shadowboxing while this plays. Shadowboxing is a great warm up, and also lets me think about form. I do crunches and other ab exercises in between rounds. Almost all of the rounds I do are two minutes, with 1-2 minutes in between rounds.

The Metro - Berlin
This song takes my sister back to Paris... but that's her story. It reminds me of high school, in a good way.



I am finishing up shadowboxing and doing a round of slow bag work while this plays. In slow bag work, I focus on form. I'm punching the bag, but going slowly, and trying to make sure I get my form right. I do more ab exercises in between rounds.

Violent - Stellar*
This is a New Zealand band. I've wanted to pound away on a heavy bag while listening to this song ever since I first heard it, because it just seems like the right thing to do when listening to this song. But it is also a romantic song for me. In a roundabout way, this song is responsible for getting me and my husband together. He was a visiting scientist at the company I was working at, and took a fancy to me. I was clueless about this, but I thought he was a fun guy to hang around with, so I did. I was extremely frustrated by one of my coworkers, and that made him think of this song. He had it on a mix CD (again- before iPods), so he lent me that CD. A couple of songs after this one, was the Iva Davies version of All the Way. Listening to that made me realize that the guy I was dating at the time didn't love me "all the way", and eventually I broke up with him and got together with Hubby. And the rest is history....



Anyway, this is a great song for a martial arts workout. I am doing my first round of full on heavy bag work while it plays. And then some more ab work and/or jumping jacks, depending on how I feel.

Ready to Go (U.S. Mix) - Republica
This is another song I found via Hubby. It was apparently used as an All Blacks theme song at one point. It is high energy and great for a workout.



I am doing more intense heavy bag work while it plays, followed by more ab work.

Common People - Pulp
This is a brilliant song, isn't it? Like so many Pulp songs, it manages to be upbeat and a little bit dark at the same time.



I am still pounding on the heavy bag. During this song, I throw in a round of "fast" work- a one minute round in which I just throw as many punches and kicks as I can. I don't disregard form, but I don't focus on it either. I've been mostly throwing punches- jabs, crosses, and left hooks are my favorites. This is an unbelievable workout for both heart rate and arm strength. By the end of a minute, my arms are jello. I need to add more kicks in as I get more fit, too.

Paint it Black - Rolling Stones
Apparently, this was an All Blacks theme song, too, at some point- how could it not be, given the NZ tradition of the "black out"? But I first heard it from my Dad. I've always liked it.



I go back to a focus on form for a round while this song is playing. By this time, my abs are getting tired, too, and I resort more to standing twists (and some of the other moves I learned from the abs workout on my dance workout DVD) than mat work. I expect that will get better with time, too.

Ring of Fire - Social Distortion
It pains my father when I say it, but this was the first version of this song that I ever heard. He quickly rectified that, but while I like the Johnny Cash version, this version is still my favorite. I think this goes all the way back to junior high... but I wouldn't swear to that. I had it on a cassette tape, though, and I can still see that tape in my mind. I loved it. I know I was still listening to it when I was 16, because I can remember driving around listening to the tape.



I do one more "regular" round on the bag, some ab work, and then the last 45 seconds or so, I do another speed round.

Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of - U2
To me, Joshua Tree will always be the best U2 CD. But All That You Can't Leave Behind is the CD that won me over to their newer stuff. This song dates from the time during which I was trying to deal with the slow end of my relationship with the man I dated all through graduate school- the one I broke up with before I started dating my husband. My ex is a great guy and we had some wonderful times together, but at the end he and I were, umm, stuck in a moment we couldn't get out of. Anyway, I still really like this song.



I am doing cool down, stretches, and putting the "gym" away while this plays. This gets cut short if I was late getting home, and I end up finishing my cool down stretches inside, while our leftovers heat up in the microwave.

By the end of my workout, I'm dripping with sweat (even though its been chilly here lately), and my muscles definitely know I've had a workout. I'm even a bit sore the next day, which makes me happy, because it means that I have finally figured out how to get some real exercise into my life, even if it is just a good workout and not a perfect one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Recommended Reading: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

One of my favorite things about blogging is that it leads me to cool things that I wouldn't have found on my own. Today's post is about one of those things. Back in November, I was contacted by a book marketer, offering me a review copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, by Glynis Ridley. My first instinct was to politely decline. I can hardly keep up with my once per month book club, and I have a prodigious back log of books that I want to read.

But then I read the blurb about the book, and I was hooked. It is the story of an 18th century working class woman who disguises herself as a man in order to accompany her longtime employer/lover Philibert Commerson on Bougainville's expedition to circumnavigate the globe. Commerson was the expedition's botanist, and Jeanne Baret was his assistant, contributing significantly to his botanical work. The standard story is that no one- not even Commerson- knew she was a woman until the expedition reached Tahiti.

Several aspects of that summary caught my attention: the fact that a woman disguised herself to sail around the world in the 18th century being only the most obvious one. I wondered what her contributions to botany were, and why I'd never heard of her before. I was intrigued by the fact that she was a working class woman, and wondered what role her class played in her story. I could not believe that she could have actually fooled a long time lover with her disguise, and I wondered what had actually happened.

So, I wrote back and accepted the review copy, with the caveats that I was unlikely to be able to post about the book until January, and that I would write my true opinion of the book, whatever they happened to be. I thought that I might be able to convince my book club to read it, and thereby not add to my "to read" back log. Unfortunately for my back log, that has not yet happened, at least in part because we were already reading Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff. My book club skews towards fiction over non-fiction, and the other members aren't ready to consider another non-fiction book yet.  (This skew, incidentally, is part of the reason why I have such a back log of books to read- my tastes skew towards non-fiction, so the books I'd pick for myself and the books my book club picks rarely overlap.)

Still, I can't be sorry that my book club led me to read Cleopatra right after I finished reading this book. It was interesting reading the two books back to back. They both dig into sources that are heavily weighted towards the men in the story to reconstruct a picture of a fascinating woman. Of course, Cleopatra is someone we all think we know about, whereas I suspect most people's knowledge of Jeanne Baret is similar to what mine was- non-existent. Furthermore, Cleopatra was an elite, at the pinnacle of her society, while Jeanne Baret was born near the bottom of hers. This difference may explain why I found The Discovery of Jeanne Baret a more enjoyable and easier read than Cleopatra- which is saying quite a lot, because I actually really enjoyed reading Cleopatra. But there was something about Jeanne Baret's story that drew me in and made me unwilling to put the book down.

Part of the draw was the fact that the main character seemed so unlikely. She was born in 1749, into the day laborer class in the Burgundy region of France. Ridley takes a brief detour to describe just what that means. Her parents would have owned essentially nothing. They sold their physical labor on an uncertain market every day. The food the family ate would have been of poor quality and far from completely nutritious. Life expectancy was less than 30 years. Travel was unheard of. According to Ridley, at this time "the average European country dweller never went more than twenty miles from home." I would not be surprised if the average American's daily commute is longer than this.

And yet, by the time she was 26, Jeanne Baret was "living in a fashionable Paris apartment, organizing papers and preparing natural specimens for the eminent but often unsystematic botanist Philibert Commerson." Before long, she would sail around the globe, making her the most traveled woman in Europe, and quite possibly the world. How did this happen? The details are a fascinating read.

Ridley makes a convincing case that Baret's change in fortunes came due to her botanical knowledge, gained as an "herb woman". This leads us to another fascinating facet of the story: the interplay between the science of botany, which was reserved for men, and the folk knowledge of the properties of plants, which was largely the preserve of women. At the time Jeanne Baret lived, botany was in its infancy, and the herb women probably knew more about plants than the most eminent botanists of the day. Commerson seems to have been more willing than some to reach across the gender and class divide and learn what an herb woman could teach him. But he is no modern man. He most definitely does not view Baret as an equal, and some of his actions are likely to infuriate the modern reader. The contradictions in his character make for interesting reading.

Because history was written by the men, the full truth of Jeanne Baret's life is lost to us. In this regard, she is again similar to Cleopatra. Both women's place in history was assigned not just by men, but men who had an agenda that did not include providing a fair portrait of their subject. In Baret's case, the men who wrote the histories of the Bougainville expedition had agendas that led them to minimize her role and to distort the facts about her. A remarkable woman was reduced to a slightly scandalous side show, with her efforts barely acknowledged. Large parts of her story are glossed over or sanitized because the men writing the expedition journals were writing to their audiences and/or needed to salve their own consciences.

Ridley does an admirable job of resurrecting a more complete portrait from the sources available. She does not flinch from the darker implications that she uncovers- her reconstruction of what probably happened to Baret on New Ireland is particularly gripping. She always makes her sources clear, and explains her rationale for the assertions she makes. Some readers will find that this exposition of the sources makes the book more dense and the story more difficult to follow, and wish that Ridley had written a historical novel rather than the biography that she wrote. I am not in this camp. I enjoyed following the logical thread through the incomplete sources, and forming my own opinions about the assertions Ridley made. I came away from the book having learned about the French world of the 1700s, what it meant to be a scientist in that age, the conditions on the great sea voyages of the time, and, of course, about a remarkable woman who deserves to be rescued from the obscurity into which she had been consigned. I recommend it highly.

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The publisher has been kind enough to provide me with a copy of the book to give away. If you are interested in winning the copy, just leave a comment. I'll enter all comments that do not specifically say they do not want to win the book into a random drawing on January 31, and pick a winner.

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I received the review copy for free, but have not been otherwise compensated for this post.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On the Importance of Comparing to Reality Rather Than Fantasy

I am beginning to think that the secret to happiness is in learning the difference between real options and idealized fantasy, and to only allow yourself to compare your current situation to real options.

Cases in point, none of which were always obvious to me. Item 3, in particular, was hard won, and I still struggle with it from time to time:

(1) Awhile back, I got in an internet discussion with another woman who had worked in tech about whether or not software and related tech careers are a good careers for women. The other woman had had left her tech career because she was so disgusted by the sexism she encountered, and she came across as very bitter and unhappy about that. She accused me of being blind to the sexism in my field. I am most certainly not blind to the sexism in my field. I just don't think that it is either unique to my field or a good reason to leave my field. I could compare the current situation in my field with my idealized view of what a sexism-free career would be like, and that probably would make me miserable. Instead, I compare my career with likely careers in other fields, note that I cannot think of a career I could pursue in which I would not face the effects of sexism in some form, and I'm reasonably happy.

(2) I have, however, been thinking about making changes to my career. I am trying to be realistic about the other options I might pursue. I could allow myself to believe that some other career would be perfect, but that would be fantasy. In reality, all career paths have pluses and minuses. I know that, so even while I'm debating whether or not I'd be happier changing my path, I am not really unhappy now. (The downside of this, by the way, is that I'm not all that motivated to make a change, and my poor husband is getting tired of discussing the subject with me. I will almost certainly write some blog posts about this sometime soon, since blogging is one way I can think things through without forcing my husband to listen to me talk about the same thing over and over.)

(3) I refuse to compare my body to the images of women I see in the mainstream media. I know that those images are an airbrushed idealized fantasy, not a reality. As this old Blue Milk post makes clear, even the women in those pictures cannot live up to that fantasy. Sure, I want to lose weight- but that is because my clothes and my scale tell me that I have gained weight. Rather than being miserable because I cannot live up to those airbrushed pictures, I set myself a realistic goal for my weight and fitness level, and I have a plan to get there. So I'm reasonably happy.

(4) As I have noted before, I'm a happy work outside the home mom. I don't experience much mommy guilt. I do get twinges of guilt sometimes, and other people certainly say things to me that can start the mommy guilt cascade going, but I'm fairly good at short circuiting it. I think this is because I have a very realistic picture in my head of what my life would be like as a stay at home mom, and I prefer the life I have now. If I were comparing my life to some rainbow and fairy dust fantasy of what my life as a stay at home mom would be like, I am sure I would not be so happy, and I suspect that guilt cascade would be far more likely to take hold. Note that I'm not saying that I think stay at home moms have crappy lives. On the contrary, I know some very happy stay at home moms with wonderful lives. But knowing what I know about my personality, my kids' personalities (and low sleep needs!), the cost of living in our city, and the lifestyle we like- in short, knowing what the reality of me staying at home would be- it is better for everyone concerned that I work. And so I am happy to do so.

What do you think? Can you think of other examples of situations where you can make yourself happier by making sure you're comparing your situation to reality and not fantasy? Can you think of counterexamples?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Things We're Loving Now: Shoes, Toys, and Books


I read an interesting idea once for remembering some of the sweet details of raising children: every now and then, write down what things they are enjoying. I liked the idea, and since this blog is, among other things, where I write down things I want to remember about motherhood and raising my children, a very infrequent series of posts about things we're loving now was born. (Here is the one earlier entry, filed along with a few other posts under "stuff".) I suspect I'll write similar posts from time to time. They aren't sponsored- i.e., no one is paying me to write them. No one has ever paid me any actual money to write any post, and I suspect it will stay that way. However, the links are likely to be referral links, as are many of the links in other posts I write.

Anyway, here's what we're loving now here at Chez Cloud:

Petunia has resurrected a toy that I was ready to give away. She found the wooden sushi set that Pumpkin got for her 3rd birthday. I never really understood what the point of that set was, and Pumpkin only played with it a little bit. But Petunia knows what to do with it- she likes to cut the sushi apart. The pieces velcro together, and she takes the big wooden "knife" and chops them apart. I suppose it is helping develop fine motor control or something like that. Regardless, she loves playing with it.

She also loves to read to us. She'll go get one of her books, and go through the pages, narrating the story in her incomprehensible toddlerese. She does a really good job with her current favorite book, Each Peach Pear Plum. There is at least one word on each page that I can understand- usually the name of a character. Her rendition of Knuffle Bunny is really cute, too. I can't understand much at all until she gets to the last page and yells out "'Uffle Munny!"

She still lets us read to her from time to time, too. She has recently executed a complete about face on a book called Dogs Don't Do Ballet, by Anna Kemp. When we first got the book, she refused to let me read it to her. She'd push it away and emphatically tell me "No!" if I tried. Lately, I've been reading it twice a night. Luckily, it is a cute story.

Pumpkin is making her father proud with her Lego-building skills. We got her a basic multi-purpose house and car set for Christmas, and she was soon building the house from instructions without help. Then a friend of hers had a birthday, and one of the toys her mom said she liked was Lego Friends- the new "girl" Legos that have caused so much fuss. Pumpkin came with me to buy the gift. She was intrigued by the Friends sets and I was curious about them, so I bought her one. She picked the Inventor's Workshop set. I'll probably write a post about this later, but the short story is: it is a Lego set similar to many others, except there are pink and purple and turquoise blocks. Hubby doesn't like the set because it has specialized pieces and no base- but looking at the "boy" sets that Pumpkin also considered, I think that is not limited to the new Friends line. I think that perhaps this "issue" got blown out of proportion. Regardless, she is now wanting to build things that are bigger than her current collection of blocks, and we are debating whether or not to get her another set now or make her wait until her birthday in April.

Pumpkin is also loving books right now. She is reading really well now, and we are having a hard time keeping enough books of the right level around for her to read. When we read to her, she has been requesting stories from a book called Just One More, by Joy Crowley. It was a Christmas gift from New Zealand, and doesn't seem to be available in the US. That is a shame, because it is a fun book.

And what about the grown ups? I'm loving my new Wavemaster heavy bag, but that is also probably the subject of another post.

I am also ridiculously happy with these shoes:


Hubby is loving his Roku. We decided to get Amazon Prime, so he has lots of shows to watch. But I think he might love it most because he can show us YouTube things on the TV without getting a laptop out.

What about you? What are you and yours loving right now?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Weekend Reading: The In a Hurry Edition

Wow, what a week. What a couple of weeks, actually. I've been positively swamped at work, so I haven't been out reading lots of things- I haven't had time for my usual lunch breaks! It should start getting a little better next week, I think. I have a bunch of links saved for eventual inclusion in one of these weekend reading posts, but lack the mental energy to assemble them into a coherent post.

I do still have a couple of links for you, though. Both, in their own way, are about the consequences of being female.

First, this post makes that the point that just because having kids correlates with career slow down for a lot of women, we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the women in question chose to slow down and get on some "mommy track". In fact, there is active discrimination against mothers in the workplace. This is not anti-parent bias: fathers actually benefit from positive discrimination. There is more evidence than the study cited in these posts, too, but I'm too burned out right now to go find it. As I said when I tweeted a link to this post, this discrimination is one of the factors that keeps me from blogging under my real name. I don't want prospective employers who don't know me to Google me and find this blog. Which is sad, but true. I have other reasons, too, around the privacy of my children, but the career protection reason is an important one.

Second, Liz at Mom-101 had a post about little girls and nail polish that I really liked. Nail polish is not a big issue in our house- Pumpkin has a couple of bottles, and we paint her nails roughly once every few months. But that doesn't mean that I'm immune to the deeper issue of helping my daughters navigate mainstream femininity, so her post still resonated.

Happy weekend, everyone! I just got word that the last of the four big upgrades my team has been working on has completed successfully, ahead of schedule. So I think I will really enjoy my Friday Night Beers tonight, and maybe I can unwind a bit this weekend. I hope you can, too.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Project Management Reading Suggestions

A couple of the comments on my recent post about project management indicated that some people would like to read more about the topic. Eventually, I'll write a post about how I got into the field, but I don't have time to do that tonight. So instead, I'll give you a short list of things other people have written about project management that I like.

First, Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto is probably the best explanation I've ever read of why we need project management- even though most of the book isn't explicitly about the topic. However, one of the most important aspects of project management is making sure that teams don't forget to do things, and that topic is discussed at length in The Checklist Manifesto. As an added bonus, it will make you feel better about being the sort of person who writes a lot of lists.

For the actual nuts and bolts of project management, my favorite book is The Art of Project Management, by Scott Berkun. It is written for software projects, but I think people who are running other types of projects will probably pick up some good ideas from it.

I also like some of the management-centric posts on the Rands in Repose blog. Again, though, this has a software focus.

I don't find the PMP (Project Management Professional) materials particularly useful for day to day project management on the types of projects I run. However, if you're interested in managing projects for a government contractor or a large pharmaceutical company, you'll probably need to get PMP certified. To be fair, there are some concepts in there that you could argue I use- but I would argue back that I was doing those things before I'd ever heard about PMP. (I am not PMP certified, but I have taken training classes that aim to prepare students for getting the certification.) I have no specific recommendations for PMP materials, but there are lots of them.

Finally, I have always argued that some aspects of parenting have a lot in common with project management- in both cases, you're trying to get people to do things on your schedule, and frankly, some of my past colleagues were about as easy to argue with as my two year old.  And apparently, I am not the only one who sees the similarity between parenting and project management. So you could also read some parenting books... And all joking aside, I think Faber and Mazlish's classic Siblings Without Rivalry is one of the most useful management books I've ever read. Replace "siblings" with "team members" and you're good to go!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dinner during Dora: The Fish Hater's Fish Tacos

I've written before about how I am a partially reformed picky eater. One of the types of food that I still really don't like is fish.  This puzzles and frustrates my husband, who really likes fish. So, I've been trying to find ways to gradually introduce fish into my diet. Eventually, I may be able to eat relatively unadorned fish. Right now, though, I have to find recipes that mask the fish taste.

And so I present the Fish Hater's Fish Tacos. Not only do these not taste at all fishy, but they also are ridiculously fast and easy to make.

Fish Hater's Fish Taco's

Ingredients:

~0.5 lb mild white fish. Halibut works well. I suspect tilapia would, too, but my local supermarket does not carry any tilapia that is rated as sustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I've also used Dover sole, which does OK, but is a little too flaky. If you like fish, you might like these with salmon. If you don't like fish, don't listen to the fish lovers who tell you that salmon doesn't taste fishy. It does.
1 tbs sesame oil
2/3 cup island teriyaki sauce. I use Soy Vay Island Teriyaki Sauce. I think you could also make your own.
grated cheese
shredded greens
diced cilantro
chopped pineapple (something I'm going to try adding next time I make this recipe)
tortillas

  • Slice the fish into bite size pieces

  • Heat the oil in a skillet on high
  • When the oil is hot, add the fish. Cook ~1.5 minutes each side (the halibut browned nicely. The sole did not)
  • Add 1/3 cup of the island teriyaki sauce. Mostly boil the sauce off while turning down the heat to simmer (I have an electric stove, so reducing the heat from high to simmer takes time- if you have a gas stove, you'll probably want to boil on high for a bit and then turn down).
  • Add the remaining sauce, and simmer covered for 5-10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, dice the cilantro, shred the greens, chop the pineapple, etc.
  • When the fish is done, put the tortillas on a plate and microwave for ~20 seconds to make them warm.
I serve these disassembled- i.e., everyone chooses their own taco toppings from bowls on the table.


And by everyone, I mean me and my husband. Neither child has agreed to even taste these yet. We have them with sweet potato fries and they are both partial to "tacos" made out of nothing but cheese, so they don't starve.

Source: I made this one up. I was inspired by the Yaki tacos at Islands, though.

Who eats it: Just the grown ups, so far. Petunia will eat my sloppy joe tacos, though, so I'm hopeful that she'll eventually try these. I suspect Pumpkin will be like her mother, and will be trying to add fish into her diet when she's 40. But maybe one of these times she'll surprise me.



Sunday, January 15, 2012

Quotable: Success

"No one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It's just more comfortable."

- Muriel Barbery, in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Translated by Alison Anderson.

I can't say I'd really recommend this book, but it had a lot of interesting quotes and thoughts about life, the universe, and everything. I've got a post brewing about happiness and success (and money), so this quote caught my eye. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Let's Not Freak Out About Education Edition

My brain is fully occupied with two things right now: (1) figuring out what to put on our school choice form, and (2) my team's current status on our integration project plan. Since topic #2 is both dull (for anyone who is not on my team, and probably for some of the people on my team, too) and off limits due to confidentiality agreements and my own decision not to blog details about work... let's talk some more about education!

And specifically, let's not freak out about it.

First up, The Grumpies had a great post defending enrichment activities for kids- you know, the things that make lots of well-meaning people roll their eyes and expound about how overscheduled kids are these days. Now that I take a step back and think about it, it is pretty funny that we, as a culture, can simultaneously worry about whether our kids are getting enough challenges/enriching experiences and whether our kids are getting enough unstructured play time. And yet, we do.

Next, an article from the Nicolas Kristof in the NYTimes about the importance of teachers. I certainly agree that teachers make a big difference in kids' lives, and I don't actually disagree with the conclusion he reaches at the end of his article- that we should spend more time this election year discusing how to encourage good teaching- but I found some of his argument a little overstated. He states: "A great teacher (defined as one better than 84 percent of peers) for a single year between fourth and eighth grades resulted in students earning almost 1 percent more at age 28" and also quotes some figures about the impact of a bad teacher.  But he glosses over a lot, no doubt partially due to the constraints of space in a NYT column. First of all, a 1% increase in income isn't really that much, particularly given what most people make at age 28. I was just one year out from grad school. If you'd judged my salary potential based on that year, you wouldn't have been impressed.

Also, kids are in school for lots of years. I actually think that most kids have a pretty good chance of coming across one or two (or more!) great teachers in that time. I had several really great teachers during my time in my average public schools. I had some mediocre teachers, too, but I can't think of one that I would consider truly "bad". And I doubt that one year with a not so great teacher spells doom, as long as the parents recognize the issue and make sure that it doesn't translate into hating school or something like that.

I'm sure most of us can look back and think of great teachers we had and a few not so great ones, too. And for the most part, we all got through our primary and secondary education, went on to college, and did fine. I'm not saying that there aren't cases where this isn't true- I'm sure there are. I'm saying that I think that for most kids, we're probably worrying more than we need to.

Which isn't to say that I think everything is hunky-dory in education land these days.  I think there are serious funding problems right now, and lots of things that could be improved... but I also don't think that most public schools are anywhere near as bad as the conventional wisdom considers them to be. Take a look at GoingPublic.org for a different view on the state of public education in this country. They are very much an advocacy group, so I don't take everything they write at face value, either. (For instance, I'm not sure I see a conspiracy of moneyed interests behind the rise in charter schools.) But I think it is worth looking at their site and thinking about what they say.

I'd very much like a thorough, unbiased evaluation of the state of public education in our country. Anyone know of one?

None of this, of course, will stop me from thinking hard about our kindergarten choices. But I hope I can keep from freaking out about the situation, whether we get our first choice school or not.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Looming School Decision

Awhile back, I wrote a post about our upcoming decision about where Pumpkin (and eventually Petunia) will go to school. That decision is inching closer.

On Monday, Hubby and I tool the day off of work to visit a couple of potential schools for Pumpkin. We're faced with a decision because while our neighborhood school has a decent reputation, we don't think it offers any language instruction- not even in the after school programs. This bothers us for several reasons:
  1. Pumpkin likes learning languages, and early indications are that Petunia will, too (she certainly loves our language DVDs).
  2. Research shows that early childhood is the best time to learn a second language. There is also research indicating that learning one new language makes it easier to learn other languages later, and that it can improve performance in your native language, too. (Yes, I am too lazy to dig up the links to that research. Sorry.)
  3. This is one academic area in which we feel completely unqualified to offer enrichment at home. As a scientist and an engineer, both now working in computers, we can probably cover the math/science/tech area. I like history and we both like to read, so we can probably cover those areas, too. But neither of us is fluent in another language, which we both regret. So, like all good parents, we're going to try to have our children make up for our shortcomings.
Anyway, back to our school decision. In San Diego, you can "choice" into any public school (subject to availability of space), and there are a range of magnet schools available focusing on various topics. You write your top five choices on a form, and then there is a lottery to decide who gets which choice. The form is due February 15. Magnet schools also often have enrollment targets to ensure diversity. There are several magnet schools that focus on teaching a second language in addition to the regular curriculum. One, a Spanish language immersion school, is actually closer to our house than our neighborhood school. It is two blocks away. We've been intrigued by it since we moved in and figured out what it was. In an immersion school, all or most instruction is conducted in the new language. We wondered how that would work, and weren't sure if it would be a good fit for Pumpkin. It is a K-8 school (although we could pull our kids out after 5th grade and go to another middle school if we wanted), and we wondered whether the math offerings in the middle school years would be sufficient.

Another magnet is a "Spanish enrichment" school in a neighborhood that would be convenient for our commute to and from work. Its curriculum includes 30 minutes of Spanish instruction every day, except for the "minimal day" (half day) that all San Diego public schools have every week due to budget cuts. We wondered if this level of Spanish would be worth the extra drive.

There are two other language magnets that we have considered. One offers an immersion program in French or Spanish, but is in a location that is not at all convenient for us- it is at least 20 minutes out of the way for our commute. There would be buses, but these have been cut recently, too, and we're not sure we want our kids to have long bus commutes this early in their education. The other offers a semi-immersion program in Chinese. It is in a moderately inconvenient location- Google maps says it is a 13 minute drive from our house, but we know that it is in a part of town with bad rush hour traffic. Also, it seems that the curriculum hasn't really stabilized. They started as an enrichment program and are now transitioning to immersion (except for "English language arts"- i.e., reading and grammar). So we hadn't really been considering it.

But now... well, now we're scrambling a bit to figure out what we should do. I hate to say it, but my friend who was horrified that we hadn't started looking into schools at this time last year was probably right: we should have started working on this earlier.

We loved the Spanish immersion school in our neighborhood. We got to see the Kindergarten classes, and they were amazing. The students were all speaking (and reading!) Spanish. They seemed happy, and while the school's resources aren't amazing, they aren't bad. There is a diverse group of students, both in terms of race and socioeconomic status, which we like. The magnet resource teacher who gave the tour had great answers to all of our questions. In short, we would be very, very happy if Pumpkin got to go to school there. But our chances are not great. The school had 300 applicants for 160 spots for this school year. They have divided the district into three zones, and we are in the zone that gets the fewest spots (23% of the incoming class). Now, we don't know how many applicants they usually get from our zone, so maybe it isn't so bad. But we can't count on getting in, so at the very least we need a strong plan B.

We thought the Spanish enrichment magnet was OK. However, the magnet resource teacher who gave the tour seemed to be downplaying the Spanish curriculum. This could have been because a couple of other parents on the tour responded quite negatively to her discussion of the Spanish program. They gave the impression that they thought learning a second language was a waste of time that would take valuable class time away from some other, more important subject. So maybe she was just trying to allay their fears. I need to call the magnet teacher and figure out what the goal of the Spanish program is at that school. Should a child who completes K-5 at that school be able to place in an intermediate or advanced Spanish class in middle school? Or is it more like the Spanish I had in school, which left me able to count and say a few colors, and not much else? The rest of the programs at that school seemed fine, but I was left with a vague feeling of unease about the other parents. I think most people were there looking at the school because it would get them on track to feed into one of the higher ranked high schools in the district, and not because of the programs that school offered. Several of the other parents were talking about how they wished they could get into the school in the next neighborhood over, which is ranked as one of the best in San Diego. Fair enough- but the reliance on the single number ranking has problems, and that ranking is based largely on test scores. I suspect that the other school has such high test scores because it takes very few out of area kids, and it is in a relatively wealthy part of town. Interestingly, some of the other parents were planning to check out our neighborhood school, too.

We can't go and visit our neighborhood school until January 31. I suspect that it will seem on par with the Spanish enrichment magnet, but without any language offerings. I've been looking into whether we could add an after school language program on our own, and we could, but it may not be easy. There are classes available from several places, but they typically start at 4:30- which is a little early for us. One of us would have to tweak our schedule to make that happen. I did find one program that will bring the class to you at a time of your choosing, so that might be an option if we could either find one other family who was interested in it or were willing to pay for a two person class on our own. Or, we could try to find an after school nanny who could tutor Spanish (given our proximity to Mexico, I actually suspect that this would be feasible).

We've also started thinking about our other options. Perhaps we should reconsider that Chinese magnet. We're running short on time for visits- we're both really busy at work right now, so all of these visits are difficult to schedule. However, there is a "school fair" that we could attend on January 28, which would give us some information. We could write the Chinese magnet in as our third choice, and then figure out whether or not we would take the space if it were offered to us. The only problem with this approach is that writing anything in addition to our first choice makes it a little harder for us to get our first choice. The initial lottery disregards this information, but they place everyone into schools if they can- and then take them out of consideration if a spot opens up later at the top choice school. The magnet teacher at the Spanish immersion school gave us some tips for handling that, though.

Another option would be to consider private schools as a fall back plan. The "top" private school in our area offers language classes (of course). It also costs $23,000 per year. We might get financial aid, but I'm doubtful. Remember that we will eventually have two kids in school and this school runs through high school (and I sort of doubt we'd have the fortitude to pull our kids out of the private school as they got older- but you never know). Also, the diversity at that school isn't so great (as you'd expect with a price tag like that).

There is also a French bilingual school that actually is accredited in France as well as California. It is in a location that would be moderately inconvenient, but not terrible for us. We know some people who sends their kids there, and they really like it. The kids are also bona fide polyglots, thanks to the fact that their parents have two different native languages (neither of them English), and there is French and Spanish taught at the school. I think the older child is also starting Chinese now. My husband works with the mother, so he is going to ask her for more details- like how much it costs. We could call the school and get this information, too. It is not on their website. We also don't know when we'd have to apply for that school, and when we'd have to commit to it if we wanted to go there.

So, we have some tough decisions ahead. Here are the options as I see them:
  1. Write all three possible magnets on our choice form, with the Spanish immersion one as our top choice. Follow up as recommended by the magnet teacher and hope for the best. We've heard that it is very likely (almost certain) that we would be offered one of the three choices.
  2. Write only the Spanish immersion school on our choice form, but research the French bilingual private school and consider that our back up plan.
  3. Write only the Spanish immersion school on our choice form, consider our neighborhood school as our back up plan, and assume that we will be able to make some sort of after school or weekend language class or tutoring work out.
  4. Let go of our obsession with having our kids learn a second language. Write the Spanish immersion school on our form, hope for the best, but just go with the flow at our neighborhood school if we don't get it.
Do any of see any other options? Do you think we're crazy for worrying so much about languages (a lot of the other parents at day care do)? Feel free to tell me what you think about any of this in the comments.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Project Management

My job has gotten very, very busy lately. My company is merging with another company, and, as the person in charge of the group that handles the corporate databases and scientific software, that means that my group and I are looking at over a year's worth of work to put everything together, all while most people wonder what the hell is taking us so long. Oh, and while we also complete the "regular" goals we had for this year.

It also means that today, I said something that five years ago, I would not have ever imagined would come from my lips: "I need to get this technical work done and out of the way so that I can concentrate on project management."

You see, five years ago, I was in the midst of a career crisis. I had somehow turned into a project manager and I wasn't all that happy about it. I didn't view it as "real" work. It seemed like I spent my days gently (and not so gently) encouraging other people to do their work, and I wondered whether it might not be better if I just rolled up my sleeves and did the work for them.

I have completely changed my tune. My "a ha!" moment was when I joined a project that was in trouble. It was behind schedule, but no one was sure by how much. It was over budget, but no one knew how the spend was trending. And management was threatening to just cancel it. I came on board and had a new schedule in place, with a known budget trend within a month. Roughly 8 months later, management decided to renew the project for another year. The team was happy, and so were the customers for the software the team produced. One of the customers sent me a really nice email (as I went out on maternity leave), complimenting me for turning the project around- and I realized that, yes, I had done that. Project management was indeed "real work".

So now, I am still a bit on the fence about whether or not project management is what I want to do with the rest of my life- a topic for a future blog post or ten, I'm sure- but I am not at all on the fence about whether or not project management is "real work". It is. I fully understand why someone has to set aside some time to keep his or her eye on schedules, dependencies, and communication (intra-team, inter-team, and up to management). In fact, if you are going to tackle multiple projects at once, or even just a single long and complicated project, someone probably has to forgo work doing the hands-on technical and/or scientific work altogether and focus on project management full time. Otherwise, your projects will probably finish late and/or over budget, if they finish at all.

I know that most techies and scientists roll their eyes at project management. I think that is because people try to apply the wrong techniques to their projects. If you are running an agile or agile-like software development project, you don't need the project management techniques that were developed by government contractors to deal with their multi-year projects, which were required by the government to be fully specified before they began. In fact, if you try to graft those techniques onto an agile-ish software development project, you will probably make it fail- or at least make your best programmers quit in search of less annoying pastures. (I actually spent an entire year of my life insulating project teams from overly waterfall-y project management requirements. I learned a lot, but I can't say that I have any desire to repeat the experience.)

Similarly, if you are in the development part of drug research and development, you use a different process than if you are in the early research part of the cycle. This is not to say that I think early research should run with no project management whatsoever- but it should have a much more lightweight process. When I work with a research project (yes, we have these in scientific informatics!), I favor the use of flowcharts and checkpoints over fully specified project timelines- and I don't expect the management of that project to consume anywhere near the amount of time that managing a project that is developing enterprise-level software will consume. When I worked with teams that were heading into the development portion of R&D (and yes, I've done that, too- and that had nothing to do with software!) I expected to be able to write fairly good timelines, because the processes the team would be using were already known, even if the outcomes were not.

All of this makes it hard for me to explain what a project manager does when I get asked about it at the various "alternative career" events I've attended. I guess I can boil the core responsibilities down to these:
  • Know the deadline(s) for the project, and what the impact of slipping that deadline will be
  • Know which of these three things management would prefer you compromise, and which you think you should compromise, if pushed: schedule, budget, or quality. And yes, sometimes compromising quality really is the correct answer!
  • Know the tasks that need to be completed in order to get the project done, and know their interdependencies (i.e., if task A runs late, will that impact tasks B and C?) Know which tasks are done and which are in process.
  • Manage team communications. Make sure the team is communicating however is most effective for it- be that with meetings, emails, or IMs. Know that different teams communicate in different ways, and allow- no, facilitate!- that. 
  • Be the source of project information for senior management, so that they don't go bugging your team. Try to protect your team's time.
  • Know and track your budget, to whatever level of detail your organization requires.
  • Keep your eye on the hidden administrative tasks that can derail a schedule- like keeping contractor work orders up to date.
  • Keep an eye on your team's state of mind and availability. Are they burning out? Are the bored? Who's going on vacation soon? How will that impact the project? Try to fix the problems you see.
The processes I use to accomplish these things vary with the company and the project team. But if I'm not on top of any of these items, I do not feel good about my projects.

I know I have some other project managers amongst my readers. What do you think? Is my list complete? Since I just wrote it off the top of my head in five minutes, I doubt it. Add your items in the comments! Also, for those who are curious about project management- feel free to leave questions. I'll either answer them in the comments or write another post about the topic.


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Update: I've written a post with a short list of some project management reading suggestions.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Surprisingly Profound Kids Art: Friends and Fishy

I've had a bruiser of a day- within 30 minutes of getting up, I let Petunia burn her mouth on oatmeal, causing her to refuse to eat any breakfast. And then about an hour later, she threw up all over me (we think because her tummy was fully of snot from the cold she's getting over and not much else). So there was a lot of laundry to do and a little bit of sofa cleaning, too. Hubby took Pumpkin down to the Children's Museum during Petunia's naptime so that I could get some work done, but Petunia didn't cooperate. We took two walks (at least it was a beautiful day!) before I finally got her down for her nap roughly 30 minutes before it was supposed to be over. I managed to get 40 minutes of work done- just enough to meet the immediate needs, but not enough to get ahead at all. To top it all off, Petunia threw an absolute wobbler at bath time. She didn't want a bath (but she needed one- see the bit about throwing up, above). Then she didn't want out of the bath, but she didn't want to stay in, either. Then she didn't want to go get dressed.

Anyway, she's off reading stories and snuggling to sleep with Hubby now, and I am ignoring the fact that Pumpkin and I should be cleaning up her room and am letting her color while I blog, instead.

And I'm going to make myself feel better by indulging in a post that will make me smile, but will probably only be interesting to my parents. Hey, its my blog. I can do that.

One of the things that has been making me smile these days is my kids' art. I have no illusions that they are budding artistic geniuses, but something about the innocent outlook and straight-forward execution just makes me smile.

First, a few months ago, Pumpkin drew this picture of herself (on the left) and her "silly friends"- these were the friends she started playing with a lot when she was having trouble with B. at day care (that trouble seems to have passed, thankfully). One is another girl and one is a boy. She and her silly friends liked to run around and do silly things. I never really figured out what those things were, but she was happy- and that was nice, after having her come home sad about B.

I had hoped that we would get to keep this one, but she came across it recently, and decided that she wants to give it to the little girl depicted in the middle, whose mom just had twins, so all I'll have is this snapshot.



Friends
Artist: Pumpkin, age ~4.5 years

Next, Petunia recently announced that she was going to draw a fishy. And then she did! We're not sure if the fact that she actually drew a fish was an accident or not, but we were still impressed. She drew a fish in exactly the same way that I do.



Here is a close up of the fishy.



I like to think that this depiction of a small fish in a big, strange, but beautiful sea is a metaphor for the artist herself. She won't confirm that, though.

Fishy
Artist: Petunia, age 27 months

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Back to Work Edition

In honor of the fact that just about everyone is back to work after the holiday break, I have a bunch of posts about work and how it fits in with our lives.

First, I found a post about work-life balance that really resonated with me, from a woman in tech. I agreed with just about everything she wrote.

There was also a good Harvard Business Report post about the law of diminishing returns at work, something I've written about before, too.

Science- particularly academic science- as a culture could learn a lot from those posts. A few weeks back, Scicurious had a really good post about the persistent idea that being a good scientist requires allowing science to consume your entire life. I don't think that working on science is some sort of magical exception to the fact that most people cannot sustain maximum productivity over long hours. In fact, I first noticed the negative effect of trying to work past my "work limit" when I was still in academic science. And yet, the culture of bragging about long hours in the lab persists. It is a shame, and as the Twitter discussion in Scicurious' post points out, off-putting to a lot of potentially good scientists. Now you could argue that there are still plenty of scientists, so why worry? Well, I think we'd probably get more quality science done if we dialed back the work hour expectations on scientist. And I also think that life outside the lab informs the sorts of questions people ask, and that we as a society are probably missing out on some diversity in the questions asked because we are driving away diversity in the question askers.

Anyway. This all brought to mind a post of Laura Vanderkam's from November, musing about strategy in marathons and careers. The post is about how we motivate ourselves, but the topic made me think about how I've come to view my career as a marathon, not a sprint. I think I can afford to run a little slower when I'm running up a hill like having young children, as long as I stay in the race. The folks who are sprinting right now may run out of steam, anyway. So I'm focusing a bit more on long term strategy and less on short term positioning, and I find that perspective helpful in squashing the occasional career-related panic.

So, what strategies to use? Cal Newport argues for deliberate practice- i.e., seeking out work practices that maximize your effectiveness by actually making you better at your job. He had a recent post looking at how innate talent or intellectual ability factors into his deliberate practice theory. His conclusion is that the small differences in innate ability can be swamped by practice, which is reassuring for those of us who don't think we were born on the far ends of the bell curve!

He also had an interesting post about why we bother reaching for career success. Why don't we all embrace the minimalist lifestyle and try, as one commenter on a Slashdot thread I read once argued, to work as little as possible? His answer is that people generally want to do something meaningful with their lives, and work is how most of us accomplish that.

I agree... to a point. My thoughts on this and on the problems with our culture that glorifies working long hours were clarified by one of Anandi's recent posts. She writes about why she wants to see her crafts published, and that got me thinking about the value of diversification. My thoughts went first to diversification of income streams, and pulled up an old Scalzi post about the various revenue streams he has. It is accepted wisdom that diversification is good in investing, but not necessarily in other ways of earning income. Scalzi's post makes a compelling case for income diversification for creative types. I have long thought it would be good to have income diversification for the rest of us, too. It would certainly smooth out some of the bumps from lay offs and the like!

But perhaps more important than income diversification is self worth diversification. If all of your self worth is bundled into your job, you are probably in for a rocky ride. Even the most lucky of careers will have their down times. In those times, it is good to be able to look at the other aspects of your life and realize that you are still "adding value" to the world (to use obnoxious business speak) even if your career isn't going as you'd hoped at the moment. I actually think that having this diversification in self worth makes me a better employee, too. It (and the hefty buffer in my bank account) makes me less fearful and cautious at work. I will say what I think, and take some risks, because the consequences of failure don't seem catastrophic to me.

Which brings us back to work-life balance. I wonder what it will take to change our culture to be one that really recognizes its value for everyone?
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