Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Stories

Mr. Snarky and I both took a half day today, to attend the Halloween parades at our daughters' schools. We realized last year that with two parades and extra rough traffic as everyone tries to make it home for the trick-or-treating, it was silly to try to fit in a full day of work.

This year, Petunia's parade was up first, at 11:30. Back when we were choosing costumes, she told us she wanted to be a witch, and stuck with that for the requisite several days before we purchased a witch's costume for her. Parents who have ever had a four year old can guess what happened next: she insisted on wearing her Cinderella dress and shoes for the Halloween parade. She went out trick-or-treating as a witch, though, and we already had the Cinderella gear, so I'm calling this a win.

She was adorable, and so were all her friends. There is a little toddler- walking, but not yet 18 months old- who is for some reason a favorite of Petunia's. He likes Petunia, too, and apparently points and says her name when he first sees her in the morning. The teacher brings him out of the baby yard most days to give her a hug goodbye when I pick her up. He was dressed as the cutest tomato imaginable and Petunia chased him across the play yard to extract a hug. He was more interested in getting a chance to explore all the toys on the big kids' side of the fence, but she did eventually get a hug, so all was well.

Petunia then decided to turn camera shy, so we could not get a picture of her and her beloved tomato or of her with any of her friends or teachers. However, this fit of camera shyness did have the benefit of providing me with a photo for this blog post.

Mr. Snarky and I had a nice leisurely lunch before heading to Pumpkin's parade. She is in a K-8 Spanish immersion magnet school. After the first grade, kids can only transfer in to the school if they can pass a Spanish test, so the number of kids decreases as you go up in grade level- kids move out, for whatever reason, and almost no one transfers in. One of the nice side effects of this is that the upper grades seem quite close knit and have a lot of spirit. They participate with a fair amount of enthusiasm in things like Halloween parades and other festivals and assemblies. The Halloween parade is cool to watch. The big kids- from about 5th grade up- reach out to high five the little kids both as the little kids go past in the parade and then when the big kids are parading and the little kids are sitting. The little kids LOVE this. So do I.

Interestingly, the big kids tend to wear quite appropriate and non-scary costumes. However, there seems to be an age at about 3rd or 4th grade when the boys in particular favor scary masks. Today, as I was standing behind Pumpkin's class watching the parade go by, I noticed that one of her classmates was trying to get out of his seat. He broke free but got stopped by one of the parents there to help with the parade, who told him he had to stay with his class. It turns out that he was frightened by the masks. The parent helper eventually convinced him to sit down behind the row of parents, so he couldn't really see the masks anymore, but he was still upset. In the end, I held his hand for most of the parade, and that seemed to help. He sort of knows me, because he takes swim lessons at the same school Pumpkin does, and we've run into him there a couple of times. But I think he would have held any adult's hand.

As I stood there, holding the hand of a six year old boy so sensitive that he could not bear to watch a parade in which some of the older kids were wearing scary masks, I was struck by how unfair life is going to be to him. He has clearly already learned that boys hold in their emotions, because although he was visibly distressed, not a single tear fell. But worse than that, in 15 years, the man that this sweet little boy grows into will almost certainly scare people just by walking down the street, because he is Black. That man will carry the sensitive boy frightened by masks inside him, just as I carry the sensitive girl upset by TV depictions of someone making a fool of themselves inside of me. But too many people will not see that, and will see only his skin. If he is lucky, the worst that will happen is that they will cross the street rather than walk near him.

I stood there, holding his hand, wishing I could make the world a better place for him, but knowing I cannot. I could not even really make the Halloween parade less scary for him, so what can I hope to do about the truly scary things out there in the world?

Then the parade ended. I helped him get his chair back in line with the rest of the class, and we all walked back to the lunch tables for a Halloween party. I hugged Pumpkin and took her picture, helped hand out juice pouches, and made small talk with the other parents there. We all cleaned up, the bell rang, and Pumpkin and I walked home.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

More Thoughts on Working for Free

I have more thoughts about working for free, and have decided they are wide-ranging enough that they belong here, and not on my Tungsten Hippo site, which I am trying to keep focused on bookish things. (Aside: according to my spellchecker "bookish" is a word by "booky" is not. And several online dictionaries agree. If asked, I would have said both were made up words. I would have been wrong. )

Anyway, back to working for free. Which, technically, I am doing right now, sort of. Is my blog work? Laura Vanderkam has an interesting recent post about how to define work, and blogging is even more borderline for me than it is for her, since I do not consider myself a professional writer. And yet, I have two published books, from which I have made income, so maybe I'm just being silly (like the time I only realized while writing a comment about how I wasn't the breadwinner in my family but I did make the most money that... duh, yes, by the standard operational definition of "breadwinner" I am one). Also, I may eventually make a career transition that leads me to use my network, writing, and other skills I've picked up from my online adventures. (Not saying I will, but it is one of the career ideas that bounces around in my head.)

This just goes to show how messy the distinction can get, and also hints at why it is so hard to figure out when to work for free, assuming that you can afford to even consider the option.

Think about the irony of my original Tungsten Hippo post: I posted it (for free) on a website I've created for which my stated financial goal is to make back the cost of web hosting.

Why did I do that? Because Tungsten Hippo is a learning project for me. I've used it to learn the basics of Drupal and CSS (surprisingly easy), and am now using it to try to learn a bit more about marketing (harder than many people seem to think it is). I have future ideas that I could pursue with that site that would let me learn some new coding skills and push my Drupal and CSS skills past the easy stage.

I am not alone in this. People give work away for free to get chance to learn something new, and this is not a new phenomenon.

What does seem to be new- or at least more widespread than it used to be- is the expectation that people will do this as a normal part of building a career. If you haven't heard about the expansion of unpaid internships by now, you probably just haven't been paying attention to employment news (nothing wrong with that!)  or maybe you're Mitt Romney. It seems unlikely that Mitt Romney is reading my blog, so I'll go with the former.

I have also come across people recruiting for unpaid labor in fields in which I did not think this sort of thing was done- for instance, a friend (probably @betzsteve) tweeted out a link to something- a CraigsList post, maybe?- looking for an unpaid volunteer postdoc, with multiple years of postdoctoral research experience required. WTF?

These things don't strike me as pure learning experiences, unless the lesson being taught is in the workings of capitalism. They strike me as exploitation of people desperate for a break in a shrinking job market.

In addition, the expectation seems to be that you'll gift your work product in its entirety. When I write here, or on Tungsten Hippo, I retain my copyright. I am not handing my work over to someone else to use for profit. I am producing work and putting it out there where people may gain benefit from it- but ultimately, it still belongs to me.

Maybe the proliferation of these "opportunities" is just how it is in a system like ours. Times are tough, and the job market is more competitive. Employers ask for free labor because maybe someone will give it to them.

The problem I have with this is that it gives an advantage to people who can afford to work for free, and those people are usually from a narrower background than seems appropriate in a society that likes to tell itself it is a meritocracy.

So when @tressiemcphd tweeted out a link to @MattBreunig's post about how the expectation that people will write for free probably doesn't exclude poor people's voices as much as people like me think it does, it made me stop and think. Matt Breunig usually writes smart things, so I thought really hard, even after I saw (and basically agreed with) @SarahKendzior's reply:

Eventually, I had my answer, and it doesn't necessarily make me look good. Truthfully, when I wrote about the voices being excluded from the dialog, I wasn't really thinking about the poor, at least not as Matt Bruenig is.  I was thinking of the person of modest means who HAD gone and gotten the credentials, and was still frozen out of opportunities because he or she could not get by without pay for some time after graduation. Or perhaps because he or she didn't realize that was what you do.

My thoughts on this subject were subconsciously influenced by my own experiences, even though my family was solidly middle class, not poor. Or at least it was by the time I went to college- we were on food stamps when I was little.

One scene in particular sticks in my memory.

It was the end of my fourth year in college, when the natural question to ask of a graduating senior was "what are you doing next?" I was at a party of some sort, and a woman who I almost knew- a friend of a friend, back in the days before Facebook opened up the possibility of that leading to us knowing anything of each other- asked me what I was doing after graduation. I told her I was going to graduate school, and where I was going, and she got a fake sad look on her face and said "oh, you didn't get into MIT?"

I was a bit taken aback, but explained that actually, I had not applied to MIT, but was turning down Caltech and Stanford to go to the school I chose, and I briefly stated a reason why, something about thinking the young program I was choosing was the best fit for my interests and would give me the most opportunities to learn, blah blah blah.

She looked at me as if I were an alien landed in the middle of her senior year celebrations. Which, I suppose, I sort of was. She could not fathom someone who could get into one of the "name" schools turning them down.  In her world, that was insane, because she understood something I did not, even after four years at a "name" undergraduate institution- that the name of my graduate school would matter in the job market.

In truth, I picked my graduate program only in part due to the fact that the program seemed like a good fit and would give me good opportunities to explore my interests. I also chose my graduate program because it, alone of all the programs into which I was accepted, acknowledge the NSF award I had won and passed some of that money along to me, in the form of an extra $3000 per year in stipend.

Now note, I was entering a graduate program in science, so all of my options offered me a stipend, and in all cases, the stipend was sufficient to support myself. But that extra $3000 per year meant I didn't have to have a roommate. It gave me more breathing room. And at the time, I thought choosing that was the smartest thing to do.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. I can never know what would have happened if I'd gone to Caltech or Stanford instead of the school I chose. The school I chose has since made enough of a name for itself that people in the fields relevant to my current career are not unimpressed by it, although people in the wider community have never heard of it and never will.  I am not at all unhappy with my career trajectory, or the income level at which I currently live.

Regardless, I still know that I, a middle class student with a degree from a top tier undergraduate institution, made my choice about what to after graduation based in large part on the immediate financial return of that choice. You simply cannot convince me that aspiring writers from modest backgrounds are doing any differently now than I did then as an aspiring scientist. Will having more paying options for entering the writing career open it up to truly poor people? Probably not. But I remain convinced that our current system is narrowing the range of voices we hear, and I do not like that.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Content, Money, and Who's to Blame

My weekly Tungsten Hippo post is about how creating content is the hard part of setting up a website- and always was!- and a few thoughts on why it matters whether or not we pay writers.

It was not inspired by the NYT piece that is making the rounds today. I do not work that fast! (And as an aside- can we stop with comparing things to slavery? Being expected to write for free is indeed annoying, even insulting. But it is not even close to slavery.) I did publish it a little earlier than usual because I wanted to include it in my tweeting in response to the Twitter activity that article inspired.

However, in a major self-promotion fail, I then tweeted from the wrong account, and my Tungsten Hippo project garnered none of the extra attention created when one of my tweets got RT'ed by several people with large networks.
I also should have put a link to my post in THAT tweet and not a separate one. I clearly need to work on my marketing skills. (And I am! I may write a future post about the various things I'm using Tungsten Hippo to learn about.)

Anyway, the post was actually inspired by one of the secondary reactions I had to the odious treatment Danielle Lee got when she politely declined the chance to write for free. We rightly focused on the racism and sexism in that story, but I was also struck by yet another example of people setting up a website and thinking that since they've done the hard tech work, people should be thrilled to provide them with the content for free. I wrote my post to express my opinions on that. You should go over to Tungsten Hippo to read them- it is not a long post. But I will say here: I think they have it exactly backwards, and I think we're all culpable in the results.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Downtime Edition

This week's links are brought to you by this excellent article about how we need more downtime than we think....

On a related topic, I don't really agree with this post about how our lifestyles have been designed, but it is an interesting and provocative read. And I do agree with the point that our current work culture is pretty suboptimal.

And Laura Vanderkam discussed the balance between planning and spontaneity on the weekend. We tend to list out the chores and work we need/want to do, make sure we plan in at least one fun thing for the family, and then let the rest happen as it will. I don't like a completely packed weekend, but I find that for us, having one fun thing explicitly planned works well.

But let's stop being serious for awhile and just have some fun links:

As someone with a rather common last name, this xkcd comic made me laugh out loud.

If you haven't yet seen this gif showing the most popular girl's names in the US by state and decade, check it out.

I associate James Blunt with driving the East coast of Australia, because his song "You're Beautiful" seemed to always be on the radio when we were there (early January, 2006). Now, I will also associate him with a great sense of humor.

I decided to set up a tumblr for Tungsten Hippo, mostly because there seem to be a lot of cool book-related tumblrs and I wanted to follow them. The Times Haiku tumblr is one of my favorites.

Speaking of cool things in Tungsten Hippo-land, here is my favorite recent pin, a purse made from old books.

WTF, Evolution brings you the giant swallowtailed caterpillar.

Of course, we need some potty humor (courtesy of Mr. Snarky, of course):

But let's end on a more highbrow note, with some good old-fashioned sports trash talking. With horns.

(h/t to @cpellegr of Spurious Tuples for that last one.)

Happy Weekend, everyone. I hope you have some good downtime!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Boxed In

This post may be unnecessarily cranky. My asthma is acting up, so I have the irritable feeling I get when I'm not breathing well. And yes, I'm taking my meds this time. Petunia's had a fever for the past few days, and I suspect I'm fighting off whatever that was, and it is messing with my lungs.

So anyway, you've been warned about the crankiness.

I do not think, however, that the underlying feelings I'm about to discuss are due to the irritable, not breathing well thing, because I've been feeling this way for awhile. I'm just choosing now to rant about it because of the irritable, not breathing well thing.

I'm feeling boxed in. And boy, do I hate it. Turns out, I really do just want to be closer to free.

First of all, there are a bunch of things about my current workplace that leave me feeling unable to be the kind of manager I'd like to be. I keep trying to remove the constraints so that I can solve my management problems (or just keep new problems from cropping up), and I keep running into roadblocks. This is annoying me greatly. I take management seriously. I care about it. I want to do it well. I think it is important to do it well- bad management causes so much unhappiness in people's lives, and I think being happy* is one of the most important things in life. I am starting to think that I have chosen my industry poorly in this regard, but that is a rant for another day. For now, let's just say that biotech tends to glorify "scientific genius" and gloss over the ability to actually manage a team to get shit done.

Second of all, I'd like to change how I live my life. Maybe spend more time on my projects. Maybe spend more time in Auckland. Maybe write more. Maybe travel more. Definitely spend less time going to work to feel constrained into doing a shitty job at management. I can almost see how to get there, but not quite. I've got too many other constraints on my life right now, and I haven't figured out which are real, which are imagined, which can be maneuvered around, which are absolutely non-negotiable. The end result, is I feel trapped. I hate feeling trapped. I am fighting the urge to gnaw my own arm off to get untrapped, because I'm pretty sure that would be counter-productive. (Gnawing my own arm off in this context would be doing something like rage-quitting my job, which while annoying in parts (see point 1, above), is quite good in other parts and pays a significant portion of our bills.)

Third, I am completely, utterly done with the way the world wants to put me in a box. Am I a scientist? Or a techie? Or a writer? Or a mother? Or a website builder? Or.... Damn it, I'm all those things and more, and I don't see why I should have to choose. Sorry it is messing with your organizational scheme, world. You should have designed the schema better. As any good database designer can tell you, there are really only three numbers: zero, one and many. People are many-dimensional. Deal with it.

How free are you feeling these days? Are you a "gnaw your own arm off to escape captivity" person?


*Or at least content. My definition of "happy" doesn't necessarily mean "giggling deliriously." Happy to me means enjoying life as best as your circumstances will allow. This post may help explain. Or it may not.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Sort of Homecoming

I went to graduate school here in San Diego, but I have not lived here for my entire post-PhD life. After graduate school, I moved to New Jersey to take a job. I wasn't unhappy in New Jersey, but I always felt like I was just a visitor there. I had friends and favorite places, and there were many things I genuinely loved about living in New Jersey. But it never felt like home.

I eventually decided to move back to the West coast, and started a job search. I still had a fair number of friends in San Diego, so it isn't really surprising that my job search primarily resulted in interviews in San Diego.

I remember flying back to San Diego for my first interview, and being met at the airport by a car service. It was late afternoon, and I have a very distinct memory of a noticeable feeling of relaxation coming over me as we drove past the small set of boat slips near the stretch of Harbor Drive that leads from the airport to Interstate 5. I looked at the boats, with the downtown San Diego skyline in the background, and I smiled, realizing that I was home.

First home. (Not my photo- I don't have one! Photo found here
That memory of the almost palpable sense of homecoming has stayed with me through the years. San Diego is still "home."

So I was a bit surprise when I felt that same sense of homecoming right after arriving in a different city.

It happened on our recent New Zealand vacation. We flew from LA to Auckland. It is an overnight flight, and we arrived groggy and feeling a bit out of sync. We fumbled through passport control and customs, and out into the arrivals terminal. I took the kids to go get a snack while Mr. Snarky went to call the budget car rental place we use.

Eventually, we got our car and headed to One Tree Hill to give the kids a view of the city and a chance to stretch their legs at a park. We drove away from the airport, past the little strip mall where Mr. Snarky and I stopped on my second arrival in Auckland for a slice and to look at the Dick Smith's for a trackball. We drove on, and I noticed how the motorway had extended since my last visit (which was while pregnant with Pumpkin). And then I caught sight of the Sky Tower, and I felt the familiar loosening of tight shoulders and indescribable feeling of rightness. I felt like I was home.

Second Home.
I didn't know what to do with this at the time, and I am still not sure. San Diego is still home, and neither Mr. Snarky nor I want to move to Auckland. I think I would like to spend more time there, though. In my perfect world, I would spend a month there every year. Of course, in the real world, this would have to be one of the winter months for the next 15 or so years, while my kids are still in school. Also, I still want to travel and see new places, so I don't really want to spend all of my vacation days in one place every year. So for now, I'll just add this as another facet of the life I'd like build. And maybe bump Lisbon up the list of places I'd like to visit, because when I described my Auckland homecoming moment to one of my friends, he knew immediately what I meant and said Lisbon was like that for him.

Do you have a place that just feels like home? Have you ever had a sense of homecoming in a place that wasn't your home?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Finding without Searching

This week's post over at Tungsten Hippo is about how sometimes searching for something is not the best way to find it, and gives links to a few sites I've found useful for browsing for short ebooks.

I have been asked why I don't give ratings to the books I put on Tungsten Hippo. One reason is that I am only posting books I like, so ratings seem a bit redundant. I also want to put any ratings I do create in the place where they'll do the authors the most good, which is on Amazon. So this weekend, I set up my Tungsten Hippo Amazon profile, and have started writing reviews using it. I am working my way backwards through the books I've posted at Tungsten Hippo, posting reviews on Amazon. I will also try to create reviews for the new books I post as I go forward. Since I only post books I like at Tungsten Hippo, my reviews will primarily be 4 and 5 star reviews. I haven't decided yet what to do about the short ebooks I don't like- and there have been plenty of those. I have even stopped reading some part way through.

I am also undecided about whether I will create reviews on Kobo and Barnes and Noble. I am not convinced that the potential impact is worth the effort. If anyone has any opinions on that, feel free to tell me about them in the comments.

Between the question about ratings and questions about the source of the name... maybe it is time to create an FAQ over on the Tungsten Hippo site. Maybe I'll get to that this week. But first, I have a regular Wandering Scientist post I've been meaning to write since I got back from our New Zealand vacation. I think I'll work on that next.

I've picked up quite a few new Twitter followers recently. If any of you have clicked through and are wondering about the back story of Tungsten Hippo, it is here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Harassment Edition

This week, my feeds were full of discussions of sexual harassment in science, due to the unfolding story at Scientific American and Science Online. Here is a good summary, which will lead you back to the post from Danielle Lee that started this all. You'll note that the original incident had definite notes of racism as well as sexism, and that the science world has once again missed an opportunity to talk about the racism in our ranks. I sincerely hope we can rectify that soon, once the current sexism storm plays out.

Instead, we are talking about sexism, and in particular, sexual harassment, because as the summary spells out, no sooner had a resolution been reached to the original incident than new revelations came out about harassment committed by Bora Zivkovic, the now former blogs editor at Scientific American. He is a well-known and well-liked figure in the online science field, and it seems many people were so shocked by the news that they didn't know how to respond. Janet Stemwedel covered that really well.

There are many more excellent posts about these events out there, some poignant Storifies, and more. This guest post by Hope Jahren resonated with me particularly strongly, perhaps because it is written from a perspective similar to mine, of an older, established scientist looking back at the crap she had to put up with to pursue her career. The Lady Bits section on Medium has a call for submissions out for posts discussing harassment, and this post will lead you to some of the submissions. 

This entire episode is dredging up memories I've kept long buried, from college and later. The Filner episode here in San Diego dredged them up earlier this year, and I squashed them back down. I'll do the same now, I think. I should probably let the memories come to the surface and process how I feel about them now, years- as many as 20!- later. But instead, I've stopped reading, for fear that I'll derail my own career with the anger those memories engender, as the disgust with what I had to put up with to get to this point in my career compounds my uncertainty about whether the "here" that I've ended up at is really where I want to be.  

But hey, in some good news, earlier this week, Filner pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from his harassing behavior.

So maybe we are making progress, because back in 1993, when I experienced the worst of the harassment incidents in my past, the people in charge to whom I complained just told me to stay away from the guy. And I accepted that answer, because I wanted a good letter of recommendation from the professor who was boss to both me and the harasser.

I am on the periphery of the online science community, an industry scientist who is not as free to discuss her science and whose career goals and experiences diverged from those of the prominent science bloggers many years ago. I've never been to a Science Online event, and do not consider myself a "science blogger." Perhaps that is why I am not shocked by this news- it isn't in my own online circle. Bora Zivkovic is just a name to me. Still, as I said on Twitter, really the most surprising thing to me about the entire story is how many people are surprised.

It is not just that harassment is endemic in science (although it is), it is that harassment is endemic in our entire culture. My earliest memories of events that I can clearly classify as harassment go back to junior high. And no, I am not defining harassment as some guy making a crude joke, I am defining it as using sex and/or sexual innuendo as a tool to exert power over me.

I wish I could say that I hoped my girls would not experience these things, but frankly, that does not feel like a realistic hope. Instead, I hope that I will be able to teach them how to navigate this environment and thrive despite it. I am not sure I am the best teacher for that, because I am not sure how well I have really done at navigating these issues myself. But I hope I can rise to the occasion.

This is a bit if an unusual links post for me. Sorry about that. Feel free to leave suggested reading links in the comments, even if I decide not to read more about these events, others might find the links helpful.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Another Way to Enjoy a Half Day

Awhile back, I wrote about taking a half day from work and treating myself to a chill-out afternoon, at the local mall because it is convenient to work and day care, has a restaurant that serves quite drinkable margaritas, and has comfy outdoor chairs in which to read.

Today, I took another sort of half day, which was far more tiring but still quite restorative.

I took Petunia to the zoo.

I told her about my plan last week, and every day since I told her, she asked how many days until we would go to the zoo. She was unbelievably excited about our zoo day. So excited that she insisted I wash her favorite Minnie Mouse dress, which was a handmade birthday gift from my Mom, and which must be worn with her favorite Minnie Mouse shoes and Minnie Mouse socks and, yes, Minnie Mouse underwear (and yes, we will change our underwear if we find we're wearing Dora underwear on a day on which we want to wear our Minnie dress).

Anyway, I picked her up at about 12:30, and we drove down to the zoo. She was very excited to get to carry the map without having to fight her big sister for the prerogative, and in fact insisted that we stop almost as soon as we got the map and figure out where to go.

We decided to go see the monkeys first, because she wanted to know how monkeys sleep, and her teacher at day care didn't know. Luckily, the San Diego Zoo has an entire Monkey Trail, and even more luckily, one of the monkeys (a Colombo monkey) was sleeping when we came upon him (or her, I didn't check). Based on the evidence in front of us, we decided that monkeys sleep in trees.

Then she wanted to go see the zebras. I convinced her that we'd need to stop and see some birds and hippos before we got to the zebras, and the map came in quite handy for this. I also got to stop and see the okapis, because (1) they are right next to the hippos and (2) they are my favorite zoo animal (I sympathize with the whole "seems to be put together from spare parts" vibe, since that is how my life sometimes feels).

We did finally see the zebras, as evidenced by this picture that Petunia insisted on taking.

This picture is cropped and enhanced
We next stopped by to try to see the polar bears, but all we saw was one polar bear butt (a source of much amusement later, during dinner). Even Petunia didn't want to take a picture of that.

She wanted to ride the Skyfari from the minute she saw the green gondolas in the sky above us, so after our disappointing visit to the polar bears, we got in line and got into a gondola. I wondered if she'd freak out once we were airborne, but she didn't. She loved the ride, eventually shaking her hand loose from mine and peering over the edge.

The highlight of the day... until we got to the train
After we got off the Skyfari, she played at the playground in the children's zoo area, and then we bought her some new binoculars. Her old ones were unbelievably crappy- it is a good thing they came in her stocking so she thinks they were from Santa and not us. I'd bought Pumpkin some binoculars on a special mommy-and-me zoo trip a couple years ago, and Petunia coveted them. She was thrilled to pick out an almost matching pair- she got blue to Pumpkin's red.

I convinced her to go look at the koalas before caving and buying her a cotton candy (and myself an ice cream). Then she said she was tired and wanted to go home, and so we did. But she perked up quite a bit once we realized the little train that runs outside the zoo was open, and she insisted that we run to catch the departure that was loading when we saw the train. I felt a little silly running for a train that I knew would run again in about 15 minutes, but the smile on Petunia's face when she settled into her seat next t a giant stuffed bear was worth it.

My feet are pretty tired tonight, and my thighs are not letting me forget that I carried Petunia up the hill to see the zebras. But my stress levels are very low, and I have some unbelievably cute pictures, so I call the day a win.

I occasionally lapse back into true mommyblogger mode, because among other things, this blog serves as a way to capture some of things I don't want to forget. But please do continue to comment on yesterday's Ask Cloud post about telling your boss you're pregnant and planning your leave.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ask Cloud: Breaking the Pregnancy News

It is time for another Ask Cloud post!

Industry Postdoc writes:

"I am 10 weeks pregnant and am trying to figure out when to tell my boss. I've been at my job (an industry postdoc) for 5 months and my due date is two weeks shy of 1 year after my start date. My boss is female and has two kids, and I have no reason to believe that she would react irrationally or hold my pregnancy against me. I don't know if this is relevant, but 80% of the group is male.  As far as I can tell, I get along well with everyone and am reasonably well-respected at work.

I don't know if there are other factors I should be considering in deciding when to tell her. It's possible that she won't react well, or will see this as an indication that  less dedicated to my career, or whatever. I don't know. In terms of taking time off, it's hard to know exactly what I will want to do (this is my first time being pregnant) but I think I would ideally take 3-5 months off and then come back to work, possibly part time for the first few months or working from home a few days a week.

My employer has pretty good benefits, but postdocs are not eligible for  some of them. So one of the reasons I'm thinking about telling my boss sooner rather than later is that she might help me navigate this issue, and I would also feel better about talking to HR if I don't have to worry about my boss finding out from someone else."

The general advice is to wait until you're out of the first trimester, but you are close enough now that I think that if you are ready to tell your boss, you should go ahead and do so. Actually, I think it is OK to tell your boss whenever you're ready, even if you're only 6 weeks along. Everyone's situation is different. Synthetic chemists, for instance, generally have to announce their news quite early, so that their work can make accommodations to ensure they don't have to work with any chemicals that might be harmful to the fetus. Someone who is having a really tough time with morning sickness might also want to tell people earlier. On the other hand, someone who has a history of miscarriages may prefer to wait until as late as possible. Or she may not. Basically, talk to your boss when you are ready for your boss to know.

You don't have to have the conversation about your maternity leave plans at the same time as you initially tell her you're pregnant. In fact, I think it might be better to put that off to a later discussion, and if she asks, just say that you're still thinking about what sort of leave you think will work best.

Most people- even bosses!- will be genuinely happy for you when you tell them your news. If she is not... well, you might as well know that now, so you can have more time to think about how you want to deal with that.

If you're lucky, here's roughly how the discussion will go:

You: "I'm pregnant. I'm due on [insert due date]."

Boss: "Wow! That is so exciting! Congratulations. How are you feeling? I was sick as a dog my entire first trimester."

You: "I'm a little woozy, but I'm doing OK, thanks."

Boss: "Have you thought about your plans after the baby is born?"

You: "A little. I know I want to come back to work, but it is still really early, and I haven't really figured out what I want to do about maternity leave yet. What sort of leave did you take?"

Boss: who knows, but her answer will be really informative.

Then you take the info you gleaned from your boss's answer, the info you get from HR about your benefits, the info your partner gets about benefits, and you and your partner make a plan about how you guys want to handle the first months of parenthood. The info you get from your boss's answer doesn't dictate what you do, but it can help you form a strategy to increase your chances of getting the leave you want with minimal impact on your career. If, for instance, your boss says she was back to work three days post-partum, you can still take a three month (or more) leave, but might want to think about things you'd be willing to do to keep your work going while you're out, such as revising a manuscript or answering the occasional work email. If your boss says she stayed home until her youngest was two years old, you'll want to think about whether she's the type to make passive aggressive remarks about your plan to use day care (for instance) and steel yourself for that so that they don't derail the conversation about the leave you want.

When you are thinking about your plan, think about what you want/need at home, but also about how you can make things go more smoothly at work. I can't really tell you what you'll want on the home front. I think that is something that is different for every family. I didn't really know what I wanted until I was in the middle of it, and just got lucky that the leave I'd arranged before I left was about right. My advice is to listen to your instincts on this, try to block out the cultural expectations (which are hugely contradictory, anyway), take your best guess, and realize you may need to make some adjustments mid-flight.

However, I think you can and should plan ahead for the work side of things, and I have some suggestions of things to consider:
  • Are you willing to check your email once a day and try to respond to urgent queries? I did this both times, and it did not feel stressful at all. However, I like to have multiple things going at once, and was happy to have the work questions to distract me from unanswerable parenting questions like "why won't my baby nap unless she's in motion?" You may prefer to be able to focus entirely on parenting, which is fine. You just need to establish your boundaries, and have a plan for how people can get information from you if they really need it.
  • If you want to request a part time period, what portion of your duties would you resume during that period? How will you prioritize them? I actually had to write an entire plan about this for my second maternity leave. The level of detail and formality my company requested was sort of silly, but the planning was very useful.
  • If you want to request the option of working from home, how will you handle child care? If your boss has kids, she knows darn well that you are unlikely to be able to get much work done at home with a baby without child care unless you win the baby sleep lottery. Winning the baby sleep lottery can happen, but you want a plan that works even if you lose that lottery.
  • What are you willing to do to smooth the transition between you and whoever temporarily assumes your duties while you're out? This is particularly important if you want to request a leave beyond a few months.
Basically, one of the great things about maternity leaves is that they are not unexpected, so use this to your advantage, and plan how to minimize the impact on your job. This will make your boss happy, because otherwise, she'll have to figure that out, and she won't know what your boundaries are (unless she asks, and in my experience, bosses suck at asking about boundaries). Agreeing on boundaries ahead of time can feel scary, but believe me, it is better to do that than have hurt feelings on your side and/or disappointment on your boss and colleagues' side when your assumptions about what is "right" turn out to be wildly different than theirs. (Note: you might find some useful tidbits about planning in this old Ask Cloud post about taking an extended leave, which also gives the details of the leaves I took, in case you're curious about that.)

I think the second trimester is the perfect time to do this sort of planning, because most women have a boost in energy and feel better during the second trimester, which will help you think clearly about what you are willing to do at work. I think if I'd tried to figure that out during the exhaustion and constant nausea I experienced in my first trimester, I'd have greatly underestimated the amount of work I would want to do. Of course, every woman's pregnancy experience is different, so there is no guarantee you'll feel great once you hit the 4th month. Regardless, it is really hard to look ahead and predict how you'll feel once the baby comes. But try to do it anyway.

As Eisenhower said: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." I love this quote for so many reasons. It is true that things almost never go according to your plan. This is doubly true when children are involved. But the act of planning forces you to think through your options, and having done that makes your responses to the inevitable surprises much better.

That's what I have. What advice do the rest of you have for Industry Postdoc?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Diverse Worlds

I have a new post up over at Tungsten Hippo, about reading to discover new worlds and new aspects of my own world.

"Some stories hold up a mirror and help us better see ourselves, others give us a window into the experiences of different people. A rare few do both."

I'm reading a book right now that is in that rare third category. It is a collection of essays by Kiese Laymon called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.Laymon is a hugely talented writer, able to really make me understand the emotional impact of his experiences as a Black man from Mississippi while at the same time holding up a revealing mirror to my own experiences as a white American. The aspects of white America his mirror shows aren't always our best ones (he in fact has a memorable passage about "the worst of white people"), but overall, the essays are hopeful in tone. As depressing as some of what he writes about is, he does not leave the reader depressed.

The Kindle edition of the book is selling for $1.99 right now, and honestly, the title essay alone is worth more than that.

I haven't figured out how I want to include collections over at Tungsten Hippo yet, and I can't post about this book there until I do. So I'll tell you about it here and urge you to go read it. It is well worth your time.

I'll sort out what to do with collections eventually, so feel free to keep sending me recommendations for those as well as for stand alone short reads.

In other Tungsten Hippo news, I set up a Tungsten Hippo Facebook page. If you're into Facebook, you can follow me there. I'll post links to all my Tungsten Hippo posts as well as occasional other things I find that are relevant.

I do not have a personal Facebook page (and do not intend to set one up), so I'm new to Facebook and am still figuring out how best to make use of it. But learning new things is part of the point of the Tungsten Hippo project, so that's all good.

I also spent some time this weekend making the main Tungsten Hippo site more search engine friendly. Those changes will largely be invisible to users, unless you're the type of user who notices a URL going from to or the appearance of the "Short eBook enthusiast" slogan in the home page title in your browser.

Of course, the most important thing for search engine optimization is to have other pages link into Tungsten Hippo, so my next step will be to look for blogs or forums where I might want to participate as Tungsten Hippo. If you know of any, please tell me about them! If you have a website and feel inclined to link over, it would be helpful and much appreciated. I am already doing better than I anticipated in terms of number of hits, so I've started to think that my little project might actually turn out to be useful to other people, which would be pretty cool.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Management Edition

When I first became a manager, I struggled with feeling like management was real work. I'd finish a day and feel dissatisfied, because I couldn't point to what I had produced that day. I've gotten over this, and now think management is some of the most important work I do. I still love the direct technical aspects of my job, but I've come to really enjoy management, too- at least when I have the freedom to manage properly. Nothing frustrates me more than feeling constrained and unable to manage well.

So now I read about management as much as I read about tech and science topics. This week, I'll share some of the links about management I've gathered up.

First, Tim O'Reilly has a great post about the mistakes he made as the founder of O'Reilly Books. It is a long read, but it is definitely worth your time if you are at all interested in management and/or entrepreneurship.

Next, Scott Berkun posted a Q&A about his book, The Year Without Pants. The book is about his time at Automattic, the company responsible for WordPress. I haven't read the book (yet), but it sounds interesting.

Do you remember when I argued that even extremely successful women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg are constrained by gender biases, and have to think about them in determining how to respond to situations and lead? Well, Elaine Wherry, one of the co-founders of Meebo, tells a sobering story about how gender biases can impact even a co-founder of a company. I keep typing and erasing more about this topic, but can't make a coherent statement and "Gaaaah! People!" doesn't seem very convincing. Maybe I'll come back later and rant about this properly, because clearly I have a lot of thoughts on it. For now I'll just say that if you think simply having a certain title or position will protect a woman (or a person of color) from the impacts of bias... I'm not sure what to say to you. Go read that link and really think about it, I guess.

Staying on the gender issue for a minute: here is a good article about the fact that many women find themselves saddled with the "second shift" at work, too. This is one of the things I keep an eye on as a manager. Yes, it matters that men as well as women organize birthday outings, and that the men are charged with organizing training sessions and the like from time to time, too.

Finally, I like this article about treating a career (or for that matter, a job) as a marathon and not a sprint. I think about this as a manager, too. Finding new hires and training them in is time consuming. I'd much rather keep the people I have, and I won't keep them if I overload them. I'd rather be a little late on one project than lose a talented employee because I burned him or her out.

As always, feel free to suggest more reading in the comments!

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

How Does This Story End?

Watching the happenings in Washington D.C. lately, I have an eerie feeling like I am living through the opening premise of a post-apocalyptic novel. If I were a better writer, I think I'd take the scenario and follow it through in an imaginary world. As it is, I'm stuck watching it unfold in slow motion, in the real world.

I should probably stop reading the left-leaning press on this issue, because articles like the recent ones in Salon arguing that right-wing ideologues have staged a sort of bloodless coup and that the Civil War never really ended are not helping my state of mind. I do not want to live in a liberal echo chamber anymore than I think the folks who get all their news from Fox should live in that echo chamber of crazy. Back after the last election, I made a conscious effort to add some non-crazy Republican voices to my Twitter feed, but (1) they are getting harder to find and (2) even they are a bit alarming these days.

Luckily, Scalzi (who has the dubious distinction of having Boehner as a representative) has an analysis of the situation that is a bit less frothy, although doesn't make his representative look that good.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I have read about the shutdown was from Jonathan Chait, who characterizes this as an incipient Constitutional crisis. That is a genuinely scary thing. I finished reading that story and could almost see the back story of a Paolo Bacigalupi novel, in which America devolves into gridlock and then factional fighting and then splinters into regional fiefdoms after a Consitutional crisis that we cannot find a way to solve. And then bad things happen and we end up in a dystopian future in which Bangkok is flooded and genetic engineering is used as a weapon of corporate warfare. Or something like that.

Ah well, the signs from Washington are that we'll step back from the brink. This time. But can the sane among us find the will and political wherewithal to fix the underlying problems? Can we set aside our not at all minor policy differences to fix the structural issues of gerrymandering and overimportance of money in our elections? I genuinely do not know. I do think, however, that if we can't do that, we'll face this doomsday scenario over and over again until either we muster the will to fix the structural problems or one of the crazies drives us over a cliff.

Luckily, Elizabeth Warren gives me hope.

And this thread on github makes me laugh at it all.

Monday, October 07, 2013


Last week, the tragic death of Miriam Carey briefly put postpartum depression in the news. We still don't know what led to the events that culminated in Carey's death, and I will not speculate on that here. But it made me think again about my own experiences postpartum, and perhaps now enough time has passed that I want to write about them in more detail. Already, the details are fading into the haze of early motherhood, and I would like to be able to remember my experiences more clearly.

I did not experience anything that I would characterize as postpartum depression, although I did have a hard time making the transition to motherhood. Looking back, it is impossible to separate the effects of chronic and severe sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, and the unexpected difficulties I had navigating societal expectations about mothers. There is no denying that I was a bit of a mess, but there was a lot of joy in the day to day. I chose to write mostly about the joy here, because I (mistakenly) thought that is what I'd most want to remember. It turns out, though, that the joy has stayed sharp in my memory much more than the difficult bits have. I did post occasionally about specific problems, and I also sometimes acknowledged the fact that I found the transition to motherhood harder than many other women do. Looking back through my earlier posts, I don't find that many details about the difficult bits, though. It wasn't so much that I didn't want to write about the details of why I found that transition hard as that I didn't know how to write about it. I still don't, really.

I know enough about depression to know that whatever was going on with me in my first year of motherhood, it wasn't that. I wish we had a better way to talk about how hard the first year (or two) of motherhood can be beyond discussion of postpartum depression. PPD is too important a topic to clutter with experiences like mine, but experiences like mine should be discussed, too.

The times postpartum I came closest to depression (and perhaps was indeed experiencing depression) were during weaning. I experienced quite strong effects on my mood anytime I dropped a nursing session. For this reason, I weaned very slowly. If dropping one session made me feel depressed, I didn't want to find out what going cold turkey would do.
Pumpkin, a few months post-weaning.

Even with the gradual approach, weaning was one of the hardest parts of motherhood for me, which always felt strange, since breastfeeding was one of my favorite parts of motherhood, once the early difficulties were past. It seemed strange to be suffering so much to end something I liked, but both times, I knew it was time to wean. With Pumpkin, I weaned because I was pregnant again and nursing was making my morning sickness worse. Also, I thought it would be best to be well and truly past nursing Pumpkin before the new baby arrived. With Petunia, I weaned in part because I was afraid that if I didn't take advantage of the window of opportunity that presented itself, we'd be that outlier mother-child pair that was still nursing when the kid was 7 and in part because I needed to introduce a little more space between me and her. She always was, and continues to be, a child who prefers snuggling mommy to anyone else. Usually, that is wonderful. Sometimes, though, it feels smothering.

Anyway, for a few weeks after each dropped nursing session, I felt lethargic and ineffectual, as if I couldn't do anything "right." Little setbacks at work or at home loomed unnaturally large. I was prone to crying jags over minor things, like forgetting to buy the kids' favorite flavor of yogurt. The heightened sense of anxiety that I remembered from pregnancy returned, and I was once again playing out detailed responses to ridiculous scenarios in my head at night, like "what would I do if a car crashed through the front of my house?"

I'm not sure how I was able to have the detachment needed to diagnose the problem. I can't remember how I figured it out. I think I might have read an off-hand comment about the possibility that weaning could cause depression. It was probably in a comment on AskMoxie, but I can't remember the post. Anyway, something made me recognize what was going on, and that helped quite a bit. I felt less crazy and out of control, because I had a reason for the weird things going on in my head, and, most importantly, a reason to think that the weirdness would end.
Petunia, a few months post-weaning, with Pumpkin.
Petunia is wearing that polka dot dress now.

Even once I knew what was going on, I didn't talk about it much. I left a few comments on blog posts mentioning the problems I had, and I mentioned it here a few times. But for the most part, I didn't talk about it. Friends in real life joshed me good-naturedly about how attached to breastfeeding I was, and how I was going to have to "give it up" eventually. Those comments hurt, but I never told them so. The thought of needing to explain what was going on with me was too exhausting, so I just smiled and pretended everything was fine.

And in the end, everything was fine. My kids are weaned. My moods went back to normal. All is well.

Still, I think we would be better off as a society if we found a way to acknowledge the varied realities of new motherhood, to talk about how becoming a mother can mess with your mind in a myriad of ways, and to get all new mothers support as they work through the changes that baby brings. We need to let mothers talk about what has been hard for them without trying to convince them that it shouldn't be hard. I have no idea how to make that happen, but I am pretty sure that it would help if more people talked openly about what early motherhood was like for them. This post is my attempt to start doing that. Feel free to join in, either in the comments or in a post of your own.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Ebook Search Strategies

There's a new post up at Tungsten Hippo, about the search strategies I'm employing to find new short ebooks. It turns out that if you just search on things like "novella," you mainly find romance and erotica. I am after different sorts of books, so I've been trying out different search strategies. Click over to Tungsten Hippo to read more. And while you're there, you can check out the latest book I posted, The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland- For a Little While.


Speaking of search strategies... I think I've mentioned before that Mr. Snarky and I have divergent taste in TV shows, which primarily intersects at British mysteries and Dr. Who. We got hooked on a British mystery series about a detective named George Gently. It is set in the 60s, and is a fairly standard (but well-executed) police procedural. While searching for the next episodes in that series, we stumbled across the TV adaptation of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. We have both read (and thoroughly enjoyed) that book, so we tried it out. We're two episodes in, and it is awesome.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Weekend Reading: The More People Doing Awesome Things Edition

Thank you all for the kind comments on my work dilemma post and offers to provide offline advice and/or a platform to write a slightly more anonymous post. I've found a solution for my dilemma that works, at least for now, so the crisis is past. I may yet figure out a way to blog about the entire situation, because I think there are some aspects of it that are interesting and illustrative of the problems of being a mid-career woman in a male-dominated field... but I haven't figured that out yet.

And besides, Wednesday was Petunia's 4th birthday and Sunday is her party with her friends, so I wouldn't have had the time to write that post even if I'd figured out how to write it.

Also, thank you all for your nice comments on Tungsten Hippo, and for sharing it with others. I am thinking hard and doing research on how to spread the word about it. Marketing is not something that comes easily to me, so this should be interesting. I care enough about the project to want to give it a try, though. If you know something about marketing (particularly in the book world) and have pointers to give me, they would be much appreciated!

All of this has distracted me from gathering and thinking about links. Luckily for me, there are more people in my feeds doing awesome things, so I'll share those with you.

First up, frequent commenter Anandi is starting up a papercrafting business called The Papercraft Lab, with the mission of helping people who want beautiful handcrafted scrapbooks but don't have the time and/or interest in making them. I'm not her target audience (I am out of space for physical things!) but I think it is a great idea for a business, and I wish her luck with it.

Laura Vanderkam did a CreativeLive workshop on What the Most Successful People Do before Breakfast. We've missed the free live streaming, but if you're interested, CreativeLive sells the recorded workshop.

Bad Mom, Good Mom has a great post up about islands that spin. I never took any geology or meteorology past high school, so I always appreciate her posts explaining these things. Definitely check this one out.

Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote a good article for Slate about how the government shutdown is hurting college students, particularly those who are not wealthy and who are parents. These are the stories that make me angriest about the shutdown- and there are a lot of stories that make me angry about the shutdown. I think of the people who are acting like this shutdown is no big deal, and I get even angrier. As regular readers now, I am worried about the impact of an upcoming company move on my family's routines. The lives of even wealthy working parents like me are subject to so many constraints that a move that adds 15 minutes to a commute can be quite disruptive and stressful. Trying to problem solve through the shutdown of your day care would stress just about any parent. I can barely imagine how much more stressful that is when your job is not flexible and you don't have a financial safety net. Add in trying to squeeze in school for a parent, and my mind boggles. I cannot believe there are people who callously dismiss this as "no big deal."

Anyway, Mr. Snarky and I have been talking about making some extra donations to try to help people who are being most hurt by this shutdown. We will be making an extra donation to our local food bank, but would like to do more. I tweeted at @tressiemc, to see if she had any ideas for places to donate. She put the call out to her followers, and here were the ideas that came in:
  • Feministhulk has collected the status of the various state WIC offices. They mostly seem OK...for now. If this drags on, I will definitely come back and see if they need donations. This site also provides links to places that are helping fill the gap, organized by state.
  • Why Hunger runs a hunger hotline people can call to find resources to help them, and that hotline is funded in part by the USDA. They are accepting donations to help fill that gap and to support their other programs aimed at eliminating hunger in the US.
  • Shutdown Moms aims to match people whose day care is shutdown with people who are furloughed. 
  • I have donated to ModestNeeds in the past. Their mission is to help people who have a shortfall for some reason, to try to keep that from snowballing into something worse. They don't specifically say they'll be helping people hurt by the shutdown, but it would be inline with what they do.
If you have other ideas for me, please leave them in the comments.


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