Thursday, May 31, 2012

Achieving Work-Life Balance: It Is Easier and Harder Than You Think

Some thoughts on "work-life balance" have been bouncing around in my head, and have finally reached critical mass and coalesced into a rant that is demanding to be shared outside of my head.

The initial seed for this rant was planted by comments someone named Chris Fett made on Scalzi's follow up post to his "Lowest Difficulty Setting" post. You can go on over to the post and search on his name to find all his comments. The best I could tell, he was arguing that women have an advantage over men- perhaps are even oppressing men, it wasn't clear- because women "get" to be both involved parents and members of the workforce. Scalzi closed the thread before I could really clarify how, exactly, men are prevented from doing this, too. But perhaps that is for the best, because his comments had a distressing tendency to make my head explode.

But what has finally brought me to the keyboard is the discussion feMOMhist hosted about whether or not there is too much "mom talk" in academia. A commenter called rented life summed up the concern I have heard many times- both online and in real life- that women without kids (and, one presumes, men with and without kids!) would like the same flexibility in the workplace that working mothers want:

"Generally speaking, I want what the moms want--the flexibility for women to feel comfortable with their choices, to be able to balance work life and home life because that's what we deserve. But I'm often left out of the conversation--either because as a non-mom I can't possibly have the sense to have the right views, or because moms prefer to talk to other moms."

There are several of issues that she brings up in her comment. I'm going to focus only on the workplace flexibility aspect. That is purely for space/focus reasons, and not because the rest of her concerns aren't worthy of discussion. Maybe sometime I'll come back to discuss how surprisingly fraught I've found it to hang out in some "mixed" groups of parents and non-parents- but not tonight.

Now, I am far, far, FAR more sympathetic to the concerns rented life has raised than I am to Chris Fett's strange views. In fact, I agree with her. I argued in my Work-Life Balance for Everyone Manifesto that everyone deserves a life outside of work. "Work-life balance"should not be a working mother's issue, or even a working parent's issue. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we frame it like that, because it subtly supports the insidious stereotype that working mothers are somehow lesser employees. I think we should not only include women like rented life in our discussions about work-life balance, we should actively encourage their participation, and the participation of men.

But. There is a thread in common between Chris Fett's belief that women "get" to have some sort of work-life balance that men don't and some of the comments from non-parents who feel they don't "get" the same flexibility at work that parents do. (Which, I want to be clear, is not what rented life said- her comment just reminded me of many others I've heard. It was the catalyst for this rant, but not the underlying cause.) The thread that links these two sets of comments, at least in my mind, is the idea that working mothers are being "given" concessions that are unavailable to other people. And that just isn't true, at least not in my experience as a worker and as a boss.

Here is how I view the issue of workplace flexibility as a boss: I take people at their word about the hours they can work. I listen to what they tell me matters to them, and the boundaries they set between work and home, and I adjust my plans accordingly.

Obviously, I try to be fair without needing people to come talk to me and ask for accommodations. But what is fair? To me, it isn't a strict tit-for-tat sort of exchange. It is attempting to give each person what he or she needs and wants, and trying to make sure that when someone has to compromise on that, it isn't always the same someone.  For one person, an 8 a.m. teleconference with our vendor in France is absolutely no problem, since he's in the office at that time anyway. For someone else, being in the office at that time more than doubles the time spent on his commute. Conversely, staying late might be a disaster for the first guy because he needs to take his son to football practice, but is no problem at all for the other guy, who prefers to keep a late schedule, anyway, to avoid traffic. A weekend upgrade might be no problem for one person this weekend- annoying, because it is never fun to work on the weekend, but nothing a little comp time can't fix. For someone else, it might mean missing the premier to that big summer movie he's been looking forward to for months, and which he planned to attend (in costume!) with a large group of his friends.

As a line manager and as a project manager, my job is to take in all of this information, mix in the promises we've made to our customers and other business-related concerns, and come up with a plan for getting our goals accomplished. As I said, this is my job, and I don't mind doing it. But I can't do it properly without all the information. The workplace is no place to do the equivalent of "if he loved me, he would just know." I have 10-15 people to think about. Maybe I'll "just know" your needs, maybe I won't. To be honest, I no longer aim for that level of clairvoyance. I just aim to only have to be told of a need once.

From the boss' standpoint, I'd far rather you come talk to me about something you think is unfair rather than seething silently and then quitting abruptly in the middle of a push towards a big release. Talk to me. Tell me your concerns and define your boundaries. You get bonus points if you come to me willing to help me find a solution, by telling me, for instance, that you can take that early teleconference, but since it will make you miss your morning yoga class, you'd like to sneak out for an hour at 2 p.m. for a different class.

I know that I am just one boss, and that there are other bosses out there who aren't so enlightened. But I have also never worked for a boss who didn't appreciate this sort of honesty. I have worked for 11 bosses since finishing my PhD (I just counted). I have worked for micromanagers and bosses so hands off that I could go weeks without seeing them. I have worked for other PhD scientists and for non-scientists whose education stopped at the bachelor's level. I have worked for men and women (although mostly men). I have worked for infamous workaholics and bosses who espoused the virtues of daily meditation. Every single one of them respected the boundaries I set, and no one ever made me feel like a schedule concern I raised was a problem.

As a worker, I have always had boundaries between my work life and my home life. They have certainly become more firmly defined now that I have kids, but workplace arrangements that accommodate these boundaries weren't just granted to me automatically when I came back from maternity leave. No one came up to me during my first week back and said that now that I was a mother, I could have more flexibility at work. In general, I have either asked for the arrangements I wanted or simply taken them, assuming that I could apologize later if needed.

The only workplace flexibility that I use that was just given to me is the ability to work from home, in the form of either a laptop or the ability to connect to my work computer via VPN, and this has been granted equally to everyone at every job I have ever held.

The only accommodation I received that is not available to people without kids was the partially paid disability and family leave that I took after the birth of each baby- and if you won't grant that new mothers should have some protected time off to recover from the birth, and that new parents should have some time to adjust to the new life for which they are responsible, well, then we probably don't have enough common ground to justify having a conversation on the topic of work-life balance. You should just click away now, leaving a nasty comment first if you must.

Here are the other "special" accommodations I have used since becoming a mother, and how I came to have them:

When I came back from my first maternity leave, I worked a 35 hour work week for several months. I got this because I asked my boss for it. It was granted contingent upon me keeping my program managers happy despite the reduced hours. And my pay was reduced accordingly, of course.

I have shifted my schedule. I work from approximately 8:15 to 4:30, and I usually take only a very short lunch break (maybe 10-15 minutes of aimless web surfing while I eat). I got this because I told my boss that  this is the schedule I work. People are generally understanding, but I have to police the "early" leaving time myself, by declining invitations for later meetings and just getting up and leaving meetings that run late. And yes, I have done that, even when the meeting involves quite senior people. Now, some jobs have less flexible schedules than mine, but within the confines of the job requirements, this schedule flexibility is not contingent on my status as a mother.

When I took on an expanded role at my previous company, it required reporting to a board member who is well known in the industry for working insanely long hours and expecting similar work commitments from people who work with him. Before I accepted the role, I had a frank talk with him about my hours and the circumstances under which I would work "extra" hours. I kept my regular schedule, and my usual habit of only working extra hours as the work truly required it.

I occasionally run errands at lunch and I sometimes have to leave early to take the kids to the doctor, etc. When I do this, I catch up on work at home. As I mentioned above, the ability to work from home has just been a given at my jobs. The flexibility in hours is something I just take.

I may be forgetting something, but I think the general point is clear: the flexibility I have I either negotiated for or just took. There is absolutely nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same, whether they have kids or not. However, there are career risks associated with each accommodation. What if people viewed me as a less desirable project member when I had the reduced schedule? What if people think I am not a committed employee because I leave "early" (even though I also come in early)? Did my frank discussion of my hours make me seem more expendable when it was time for lay offs at my old company? What if people think I am slacking off because I leave for my kids' doctors appointments?

I have no evidence that any of this flexibility has had any negative impact on my career, but there is no way to know for certain. I suspect that I have not paid much, if any, penalty, for demanding flexibility because I also demand a high level of productivity from myself, and know how to get it in a "regular" work week. It probably helps that I figured that out before I had kids, and therefore had a reputation as a fairly productive person who "only" works a 40-45 work week before any stereotypes about working mothers came into play. I am also willing to give as much flexibility back to my job as I can without overstepping any of the boundaries I've set for myself- I will stay past 4:30 on occasion, particularly if I know about the need ahead of time. I will work on weekends when necessary. I suspect I have also just been lucky.

However, none of that really matters- my reasons for wanting the flexibility are important enough to me to justify the career risks that attaining that flexibility entailed. If you want the same flexibility, you can have it, kids or no, male or female. But you will also face the same risks. I have never seen any evidence that working mothers face fewer risks for insisting on workplace flexibility. Rather the opposite, in fact- there are studies showing that mothers pay a penalty in the workplace even when their work performance is the same as that of non-mothers.

Do I think that it is right that requesting and/or taking reasonable amounts of workplace flexibility to enable "work-life balance" involves taking a risk with your career? Not at all. As I said in my comment on feMOMhist's post:

"What I really want is for everyone to come together and work together to fix our work culture, which glorifies insane face time hours over productivity, even while time tracking studies consistently show very few people actually WORK that many hours, even if they are in the office. I want us to stop fighting parent vs. non-parent and just try to make the culture better."

I truly think that this idea that parents are somehow "getting" extra flexibility in the workplace stands in the way of that goal. If you don't have kids, and you think your colleagues with kids are getting more flexibility than you, stop and ask yourself whether you have made your wishes known. And then look carefully at the parents' arrangements, and ask yourself if you are willing to take the career risks those arrangements entail.  "Work-life balance" doesn't just happen for parents. It is something we have to actively pursue. The good news, though, is that the methods required for pursuing it are fairly simple: figure out what you want and ask for it (or take it). 

To my fellow working mothers, who might justifiably feel a little embattled on this issue, since we have been fighting for workplace flexibility that benefits everyone while also suffering from unfair stereotypes about our work ethic, I say: try to let that all go. If you are not embracing the efforts of your child-free colleagues to secure work-life balance, start doing so now. Include them in the conversations and don't dismiss their concerns because they are different from yours. You may think that your day care pick up is more important than a yoga class, but you don't really know. There was a time in my life (before kids, as it happens) when my weekly yoga class was all that kept my repetitive strain injury at bay. It was a crucial part of my plan to ensure that I could stay in my career. Trying to rank reasons for needing workplace flexibility is a game we all lose. Besides, the more that fathers and child-free people insist on flexibility, the less the stigma that will attach to it, the more normal it will seem, and the better we will all be.

To everyone else, I say: join us in this fight for a better workplace culture! Come on in, the water's- uh, well, the water is full of submerged hazards. But maybe if we all work together we can clear some of those out of the way.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Specific Advice Edition

I write a lot about being happy and productive, blah blah blah. But how do you actually achieve those things? I certainly don't have the secret to all that- if I did, I'd write a bestseller, not a blog post. But I have some links with some specific advice!

First up, do you know how you can sit and try for hours to solve a problem or come up with a new idea and get nowhere, and then you give up and go do something else and let your mind wander and BOOM! there's the solution? Well, this has now been shown to be the best way to come up with creative ideas. My favorite way to let my mind wander is to go out for a walk- good ideas and exercise! You can't beat that.

OK, so now you know how to come up with creative ideas. But what about the more metaphysical realm? How do you figure out what makes you happy and what matters to you in life? @Mom-101's twitter feed led me to this post that advocates writing lists to explore those questions. Lists! Of course I love it.

Also- hang out with the nerds, not the hipsters. Seriously, this is great advice. I am deeply puzzled as to why grown people want to reconstruct the worst part of high school in their adult lives by setting up hierarchies of coolness. Nerds are waaaaay more fun, because they'll tell you why something is cool, not sneer at you for not knowing already.

Got any other good links with advice about life, the universe, and everything? Leave them in the comments. But... it is my 40th birthday on Monday and I've got some plans to celebrate this weekend. So I might not be online much. See you next week!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Scanning My Renaisance Soul

Awhile back, I wrote about how I've been feeling restless at work, and how I had realized that was because I was bored. In the comments, caro pointed me to the books by Barbara Sher, and referenced someone's blog post on the topic of scanners vs. deep-divers. I'm so glad she did! This is one of the great things about blogging- I get the benefit of all of your ideas and wisdom.

Anyway, that comment led me to read a couple of books: Refuse to Choose, by Barbara Sher and The Renaissance Soul, by Margaret Lobenstine. Both books are written for people who are having a hard time building a satisfying life because they have too many interests and/or keep getting bored in jobs. Sher calls then "Scanners" and Lobenstine calls them "Renaissance Souls". Going in, I wasn't sure whether or not I would really categorize myself in this way- after all, I've managed to get a PhD and work for over ten years in the same field. But as I read, I recognized a lot of myself in their descriptions: I had a lot of disparate interests in college (the fact that the University of Chicago "made" me take extensive distribution requirements was one of the things I loved about it) and another way to describe my career arc is that I have continually shifted my focus area as I go along, always looking for the next new challenge. And there is no denying that I have been getting bored in my jobs. My husband has been teasing me about this for years. I go in all gung ho and happy, and then within  a year, I'm restless and bored. I am still not sure I'd call myself either a Scanner or a Renaissance Soul (and not just because the names are cheesy), but I found a lot of useful ideas in the books.

The most useful idea for me was Sher's honeybee metaphor. She argues that just like honeybees leave a flower when they have achieved their goal of gathering the nectar, Scanners will leave a project (or job) when they have achieved their goal. The catch is, everyone's goal is different, so to figure out how to arrange your life, you have to figure out what your "nectar" is. This may sound a little trite, but I've found it to be a really powerful way to think about my situation. I think my "nectar" is the satisfaction of having figured something out, but I'm still thinking about this and trying to really pin down what brings me the feeling of satisfaction that I have in my happiest work experiences, and what is gone once I start to get bored. As Lobenstine argues in her book, for some people, a feeling of success is based more on the challenges they have mastered than on more typical measures like money or their place in a corporate ladder. I think I may be one of those people. I certainly like having money, but that is not what makes me feel successful. I had never really thought about what does make me feel successful, beyond being happy. But what makes me happy? One thing is solving hard problems, i.e., mastering challenges.

I also found Lobenstine's idea of having multiple "focal points" in your life to be useful. She argues that Renaissance Souls need to have multiple interests at any one time, but that this can get overwhelming to the point of paralysis, particularly if you have too many interests. She thinks that most people will be happiest if they have four main interests, which may change with time. She calls the collection of interests you are pursuing at any one time your "focal point sampler." She makes an analogy to an ice cream shop, but I see a beer sampler tray in my mind's eye.

Just because I like the amber, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the porter!

I have always had multiple interests, so this wasn't a big revelation, but I liked her way of explaining it and normalizing it- she is right that some people view having multiple interests with suspicion. And although I recently came across a Harvard Business Review article that sung the praises of polymaths in the workplace, I have yet to have a job that really allows me to explore lots of different interests. I was hired to do something, and it is fine if I tinker around the edges, but I'd best get my main job done first. So Lobenstine's idea of consciously choosing a set number of interests to focus on is intriguing to me, and I think I will try it.

Both books also had several useful practical ideas, or "tools," as well. I was interested to note that there were some things I was doing already- such as having a notebook in which to capture my ideas. However, I have refined this a bit based on Sher's advice. I had a small notebook that fits in my purse, and I mostly write ideas for posts and other writing projects in that. Sher advocates setting up a "Scanner's Daybook" to capture details of all your possible projects, whether you act on them or not. I liked that idea (but hated the name), so I bought one of my favorite Moleskine notebooks and titled it "Ideas (that I may or may not act upon)." I carry it in my backpack, and like writing ideas for potential projects or businesses that come into my head. Sher is right that it is fun to do this. It is liberating to allow my brain to chase an idea down, instead of just putting it aside as something I'd never pursue. I may never do anything with the ideas in that notebook, but that's not the point. The point is just to allow my brain to stretch itself and explore new ideas.

Lobenstine advocates having a "focal point to do list" where you write the next steps for the focal points you are pursing. I'm a huge fan of lists, so it is not a surprise that I already have something similar. I keep my list in WorkFlowy. Once again, though, the book had some good tweaks that I can apply to my system. For instance, Lobenstine advocates making weekly lists that ensure that you will spend time on each of your focal points, instead of just having one big global list. The idea of writing lists for a specific period of time should have been obvious to me- I use this trick all the time at work. But I had never thought to apply it to my non-work interests. I think this may be because I don't take them seriously enough, and have subconsciously decided that they aren't worthy of inclusion on a more focused to do list. When I bring it out into the open and think about it, though, I don't really believe that only my paid work and essential chores are worthy of my to do list.  I will be adopting some of Lobenstine's ideas about having a weekly focal point to do list, but right now I think it may work better to think in terms of months not weeks, so I might change the time scale.

Other "tools" I may try out are the six year plan/calendar that Sher advocates, as a way to convince myself that I really do have time to work on all my projects and some modified version of Sher's "interest index binder" as a way to gather information relevant to projects, even if they aren't what I'm working on at this time. I had already hit on the idea of having a "five year plan," but I like Sher's ideas for mapping things out onto a calendar, to help me visualize the plan and also to keep me motivated when I'm in a patch of time that doesn't have a lot of "fun work."

I was also inspired by various suggestions in both books for how to find time for your projects, and how to arrange your work and life so that you get time to work on the things that interest you. I liked the fact that both authors acknowledge that for some people, their main job will not allow them to pursue enough interests to keep them happy, and so their life plan needs to allow time for other pursuits. They also had ideas for jobs that would provide more flexibility, but to be honest, they didn't have anything I hadn't already thought of there, except for perhaps the idea of trying to get onto the lecture circuit. That one seems a bit farfetched for me, but I guess you never know.

I liked the way both books included the option of keeping your "day job" and using it to finance your other interests. I had originally thought that this would not be a feasible solution for me, but the more I think about it, the more I think it is an option I should consider carefully. After all, I have a pretty darn good "day job" and there are definitely aspects of it I would miss if I were to just walk away and try to do something different. Also, I really like having money. This line of thinking was also reinforced by my recent reading of You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi, which includes his advice that aspiring writers should keep their day job. You can get a taste of his opinion on this subject in this old post from Whatever. (You could in fact find all of the essays in the book on Whatever, if you were patient and clever enough with the search function, but frankly, at $5 for the Kindle edition, I recommend just buying the book if you're interested.) Although he is writing abut writers, I think the advice is equally sound for a lot of other potential careers.

Sher has some good ideas for how to extend your interest in your day job, too. I particularly liked her suggestions about including teaching your area of expertise in your work plan. I am now seriously considering the idea of trying to write a book about how I manage projects. Even if the book never found much of an audience, writing it would be a new challenge. Also, I'd need to really break down my project management methods, which would probably make some of my more mundane tasks at work a little more interesting again.

I haven't figured a grand plan for my life out yet- I still have several different ideas for what I might do bouncing around in my head. To be honest, I may never come to "the" answer, because new ideas will always come up. But I have more ideas about how to proceed. I need to keep thinking about what my reward is- i.e., what is the thing I achieve that then makes me "done" with a project or interest? I want to come up with my first "focal point sampler." And my husband and I are talking about some ideas for how I can get some more uninterrupted time to work on my non-work projects. This is a particular challenge for me, because Petunia is at an age where she is very prone to interrupt me if we are both in the house. Therefore, our ideas mostly involve ways for me to get time away from the house and/or get the kids out of the house so I can get some time to concentrate. Of course, I have to balance those ideas with the fact that I also want time with my kids. Lobenstine has some interesting suggestions for how to ensure you get balance, though, which are helping me as I think about how to arrange my time. For instance, I could consider "parenting" one of the focal points on my sampler, and budget in time for that as well as my other interests. It sounds very regimented, but her suggestions actually are geared towards finding ways to organize time that also provide flexibility.

I think that if I do these things, I will be better situated to formulate a plan for any career changes I decide to make. I'm currently leaning towards going out on my own as a consultant/contractor in my current field, and using the flexibility that affords to allow me to devote enough time to one of my other interests to see if I can found a company out of it. For a variety of reasons, though, I don't think I'll want to do that for several more years- maybe not even for five years or more. In the meantime, I need to explore my interests, both for my own sanity and to help me choose an interest that could be the basis of a company. Reading these books has helped me see that there are many different ways I might stave off boredom, and not all of them require a drastic overhaul of my life. Even if I don't ever leave my "day job," I can still get what I need to be happy, and that is what matters most to me.

What do you think of the Scanner/Renaissance Soul formulation? Is it useful to make a distinction between people who have a lot of interests and people who like to specialize? Which type are you? If you are a "Scanner," do the ideas I've described in this post sound useful to you? Let me know what you think about those questions, and anything else from the post, in the comments.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Trip Story: San Antonio

The first stop on our Big Texas Vacation of 2012 was San Antonio, and in many ways, it was my favorite. Our hotel was on the edge of the "interesting" part of the Riverwalk, which turned out to be the perfect location for us. We could walk to almost everything we wanted to see, were close to the most happening part of the Riverwalk, complete with family-friendly restaurants, but it wasn't too noisy or hectic.

Also, our room was on the same floor as the pool, which was a hit with the kids. And the adults, since we landed in San Antonio during an unseasonably hot spell, with highs in the low 90s.

We arrived mid-afternoon, having missed lunch, so we stopped at an Applebee's by the airport to try to feed the kids. Who didn't really eat. Next time, we should just get ice cream in the airport and have an early dinner. Ah well, live and learn. Except, the lessons I learn on one trip aren't really applicable to the next one, because the kids keep changing the rules on me. I think they call it "growing up."

Anyway, my plan was to go to the Rainforest Cafe on the Riverwalk for our first night's dinner- not because I love their food, but because I figured it would be a good transition into eating dinners out for Petunia. I don't know if we needed the transition, but the kids both really enjoyed their meals. We'd been to a Rainforest Cafe before, in Las Vegas, and Pumpkin found the fake thunderstorm scary. Even though the real thunderstorm that happened to hit Vegas that night was deemed cool. It was a good thing I had already given up trying to understand her, or that would have made my head explode. As it was, I just chalked it up to the fact that young children like to mess with their parents' minds and moved on. This time around, she loved the fake thunderstorm and kept asking when it would come again. That is probably due to that "growing up" thing again.

We did not go to San Antonio just to eat at the Rainforest Cafe, though. We could have done that in Orange County. We went to San Antonio to see the Alamo! Not really, but once we were there, we figured we should see it.

For the record, I failed miserably at explaining the significance of the Alamo to my 5 year old. I was talking about the trip at Pumpkin's soccer lesson last Friday, and one of the other dads was teasing his wife, who apparently visited the Alamo as an adult and still managed to be confused about the sides involved, which made me feel a little better.

We also strolled through the La Villita shopping area, but the shops there were more for me of 10 years ago. Also, they were setting up for some sort of festival, which was distracting. So we headed over to HemisFair park, to play on the playground. Which had, I kid you not, a disco ball. Here is the photographic evidence:

I'm 95% sure that ball was put up for the Luminaria festival, which was starting that night. But we didn't get to see it.

We did, however, get to see this charming little parade, right after our lunch at the Guadalajara Grill, in La Villita.

I have no idea what the parade signified, but Pumpkin thought it was cool. Petunia was a little freaked out by the super big people. It reminded me of the parade I saw as part of the Festes de la Merce in Barcelona. There were a lot more people at that parade, though!

After lunch, we headed back to the hotel for a nap, followed by a swim. And then we headed out again and took the trolley down to the Blue Star Arts Complex, for dinner at the Blue Star Brewing Company. The burger was great, the beer was fine... and the walk back along the river was really peaceful. Of course, mosquitoes were savagely biting my legs the whole time, but I was oblivious to that at the time, and just enjoyed the walk. We topped off the night with ice cream by the river. It was one of the best evenings of the trip.

The next day, we did a little shopping in the morning, procuring a pink cowboy hat with built in tiara for Pumpkin and a brown felt cowboy hat silhouette on a headband for Petunia. I wish I could show you pictures to demonstrate the extreme cuteness of that second item, which Petunia insisted on wearing for the rest of the day. People could not help but smile as we passed by. It was like we had our own little goodwill ambassador with us. She brought the hat out again in Austin, to similar effect. We might put it on her anytime we are taking her somewhere where she might annoy someone. 

After we bought our ridiculous souvenirs, we took a cruise down the river on a river taxi. We had opted for a taxi ride instead of the tour because we thought the tour might be too long for the kids, and we weren't sure we could keep them quiet. But then we got confused and got on the wrong taxi and ended up cruising all the way up to the Pearl Brewery building, which meant that our ride was at least as long as the tour. Oops. Still, it was nice. And we got to see the art installations that are included on all the bridges in the "new" section of the Riverwalk. These fish were a hit with our girls.

By the time we got off the river taxi, it was time for lunch. We had lunch at Rita's, near our hotel on the "main" part of Riverwalk. We liked the food- but we didn't really try for anything fancy, just steak and chicken fajitas to share. And yummy margaritas.

Hubby's was bigger, but mine (which you can't see) had the hand-shaken froth on the top, so I think I won. Rita's is also where we read about the south Texas tradition of the ice house, which was useful when we got to dinner that night. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we napped (or Petunia and Hubby did- Pumpkin and I indulged in one of her favorite vacation activities: watching the Disney channel. For some reason, she has not questioned us about why she never gets to watch shows like Austin and Ally at home).  After our sleep/Disney break, we headed out to Brackenridge Park to visit the Witte Museum. We spent the entire visit (about an hour) in the Science Treehouse, which was a huge hit with Pumpkin. It was Sunday, so they closed fairly early. Once they booted us out, we drove on to the Japanese Sunken Gardens, and as I mentioned in my awards show recap of the trip, that was a unexpected highlight for pretty much the entire family. The unusual construction of the main pavilion was cool.

And the gardens themselves were very pretty, and almost irresistible to explore, even in the heat.

There were a lot of people taking graduation photos there, and we could understand why.

As I mentioned, we had dinner at an ice house. According to what I read (which, let's be honest, came from questionable sources such as restaurant menus), ice houses began as a way to keep milk cold- the standard delivery to the porch idea didn't work so well in the heat, I guess. And then someone had the bright idea of adding beer, and they became laid back gathering places for the whole neighborhood. The one we visited (The Friendly Spot) is apparently a "revival" one- i.e., not one of the original ones in San Antonio. But it was in a convenient location and it had a playground, so I'm not going to worry too much about historical authenticity. It had some decent bar food and beers, too.

After dinner, we went straight back to the hotel. We did some laundry, and packed up for the next day's drive to Houston. I wished we had one more day, just to hang out some more on the Riverwalk or try another one of the kid-friendly restaurants I'd picked out as options (there is one that has an outdoor play area and a laundromat!) but I suppose it is better to feel we left a little too soon than a little too late, so I consider it a successful stay.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

In Which the Cloud Household Catches a Lucky Break

I was planning to write up my trip story post about San Antonio tonight, but we've got some news that I just have to share.

Pumpkin will be starting kindergarten in the fall. You may or may not remember, but back in January and February, I wrote a couple of posts about our choices for Pumpkin's school. We really want her to get the chance to learn a language in her early years, so after visiting several local public schools, we decided to try to get her into the Spanish language immersion magnet school- which happens to be two blocks from our house. Of course, that actually worked against us in terms of getting into this school, since our neighborhood is in the zone that gets the fewest kids into the school. (For the record, I have absolutely no problem with that: the priority goes to kids in zones where most people have less money and therefore less opportunity to buy their way to a good eduction. I think it is right and good that priority for programs like this go to those kids.)

Anyway, we filled out our form back in February, and then we waited. We'd been told that the decision would be made in April, so as May ticked by, I began to resign myself to our plan C, which was to go to our (really quite good) neighborhood school and arrange some sort of after school Spanish program. I didn't mind the extra expense this would entail. After all, when we looked at private schools that include language instruction, the cheapest was about $11,000 per year. That would buy a lot of after school enrichment! But setting up a new after school program would be a hassle, to put it mildly. I was going to have to research and choose a program, work with the school to set up, and then figure out how in the world to handle the money- we were planning to put up whatever was required to guarantee the program would happen, but would then want other parents to pay for the class, too, if they could afford it. To be honest, I have no idea how we were going to arrange that. Still, we figured we couldn't complain, since other than the lack of foreign language instruction, our local school is pretty good.

But tonight, we caught a break. The magnet officer from the Spanish immersion program called, and we have a spot! We weren't on the first list of people from our zone, but enough of those people decided to go elsewhere to open up a spot for us. We're in! No more worrying about setting up an afterschool program. The location could hardly be more convenient. Their start time is even good (one of the other schools on our list had a scarily early start time). I feel a bit like we've won the lottery. And that would be because we have. Spots are assigned by random drawing.

And yes, we do plan to give some of the money we're saving by not going to private school or paying for an after school Spanish program to our new school. As a Title 1 school, it won't have the rich PTA that our neighborhood school has. We may also find a way to donate more generally to local schools without rich PTAs. That is a much easier problem to solve, I think, than the Spanish class funding problem. I suspect I just need to call the school district and ask to whom I should write the check.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Work-Life Balance Edition

I feel sure I've had a "work-life balance" edition of weekend links before, but I'm too lazy to either find out or come up with a new name. And I have a whole bevy of links on the topic this week!

First up, Andie Fox, who writes the Blue Milk blog had a great article in Daily Life about work-life balance and Sheryl Sandberg leaving work at 5:30 for dinner with her kids. And then she posted a follow up on her blog about an awesome reaction one boss had to it.

Sheryl Sandberg's work schedule seems to be irresistible blog and article fodder, really. Cal Newport at Study Hacks also posted about her schedule, but he takes a different lesson from it, and argues that it is an example of using a fixed schedule to increase productivity. (If you don't know about fixed schedules and productivity, he explains more about them in a different article.)

Reading these two articles and their comments made me think two things:

1. Why must some commenter always come along and argue that Ms. Sandberg is surely putting in more hours at night? I'm sure she does sometimes, but I suspect if she did it as part of her regular schedule, she'd have said so. And so what if she does? It doesn't really detract from her original message. I don't have any evidence to back me up, but I wonder whether people always try to poke this particular hole in the story because the idea that someone could be as successful as Sandberg is while working a more sane schedule than theirs makes them feel inadequate or threatened, and so they try to tear her down. Personally, I'd rather try to learn from her techniques.

2. The two articles both argue for similar changes in behavior and work place expectations, but from different perspectives. I agree with the arguments in both of those articles, but, the awesome boss in the Blue Milk post aside, I think the productivity argument is more likely to carry the day in the work place. And it neatly sidesteps those tiresome arguments about how parents are slacking off and taking advantage of the workers who don't have kids and therefore "don't get to" leave early or what not. For any new readers- I've explained my opinion on this before, but in nutshell, I think everyone deserves a life outside work, and if parents are the ones who seem to be "getting" it, it is actually that we are taking it, because we have something that is worth risking the career repercussions for, namely our kids.

With that said, though, people seem to really struggle with the idea of fixed schedule productivity- see, for instance, a recent article from Leslie Perlow at the Harvard Business School, which describes the resistance to the idea of not being always "on" and a way to overcome it. For some reason, academics seems to struggle with this even more than most. The science-blogosophere was discussing work-life balance recently, spurred on by another round of ridiculous comments someone made on the subject. I found the discussion via Dr. O's post on the subject. Prof-life substance makes some good points in his post- although I don't think of it as dropping balls, I do agree that the key to "balance" is recognizing that you'll have to make compromises, and trying to find the compromises that will let you get to all of end goals you want (e.g., doing a good job raising kids, having a satisfying career....) Regardless, his refutation of this particular round of spectacularly bad advice is pretty funny.

Drug Monkey also has a good post about how to have a life while having a career (hint: don't be willing to sacrifice everything else in your life to your career.

I think it is great that there are male scientists who are blogging about these things now. It would be even more great if there wasn't such a double standard for men and women on this topic, but since I suspect that the only way to kill that double standard is to normalize the idea of everyone having a life outside the lab.... I'm glad there are men willing to speak up on this. (But do you think we'd all be talking about it if instead of Sheryl Sandberg saying she leaves work at 5:30 to have dinner with her kids, Mark Zuckerberg said he leaves at 5:30 to go surf or do something like that? I doubt it, but I'd be happy to be wrong about that.)

Female Science Professor had the funniest work-life balance posts, though- she looked at the images used to illustrate the concept and then made some better ones.

A lot of the blogs and sites I read focus on making space for the "life" side of the work-life balance equation, but it is worth reminding ourselves that the "work" side is important, too. Different people want different things- and given how sensitive everyone is on this topic right now, I feel I need to make it clear that if your personal ideal for work-life balance is to put paid work aside for awhile, that's great and if you're happy with the arrangement, I'm happy for you. But for a long time, women, and mothers in particular, were encouraged to put aside any dreams they had for work outside the home in favor of other people's dreams, and that wasn't always a happy arrangement for them. Along those lines, Cali Williams Yost had a beautiful tribute to her mother, and how her mother taught her to dream. I found it via Laura Vandkerkam's twitter feed.

So... lots of links this week. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

There's Nothing Safe About This Life

I'm a bit hesitant to write this post, because the main story is not mine to tell, and believe me, I know it is not about me at all. But I think I need to write the post, so here goes.

On Monday, I found out that one of my colleagues had died over the weekend. I do not know many more details, and if I did, I would not feel it was right to share them here. All I'll say is that his death was completely unexpected and was from a medical cause, not trauma. And he was not old. I am not sure I can say "he was young." I want to, because he was only a year or two older than me. But that makes him at least a decade older than the colleagues we truly consider young- I will be 40 at the end of the month. We're not the kids anymore. The bands whose concerts we saw in our youth are playing the casino circuit now. (Literally- I heard an ad for Howard Jones at Sycuan Casino on my way home today. Howard Jones was the first performer I ever saw in concert.)

At least at this job, I am not in charge of IT. A colleague died suddenly at my last job, too. In that case, the authorities were looking for a piece of information they thought might be in her email, and I, as the senior person in the IT department, had to read through her email looking for it. That was probably the hardest day in my professional life.

I didn't know the man who died last weekend well, but I had worked with him on a few things, and obviously a death like this is tragic whether you know the person well or not. There are people at the company who did know him very well, and had known him for years- it is the nature of the San Diego biotech community to find yourself working with the same people at multiple companies. So the atmosphere at work is somber, and yet weirdly unchanged, as we all go about our jobs. I'm sure there will be some sort of memorial once we hear more from the family, and judging from my experience the last time, that will be cathartic.

But in the meantime, everyone is dealing with it on their own, in their own way. I've been distracting myself with work, which is easy to do, since I'm just back from vacation and therefore behind. And I've been hugging my kids a little harder when I pick them up at the end of the day, and snuggling them a little longer at bedtime.  What else can I do, really?

The title of this post is from this song:

It is not one of my favorite Neil Finn songs, but the sentiment in the chorus is spot on, and explains why there is more than a little bit of "live for the moment" in my own personal philosophy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Some Thoughts on Privilege

One of the things that I thought about a bit while on vacation was how lucky we are that we can just go on vacations. I don't mean this exclusively in the usual "we can afford it" sense, or even in the "my kids are good travelers" sense. I also mean it in the sense that we can just pick a place in the US (or most of the world, really) that we want to visit and go, without ever worrying about whether our family will be welcome there.  We're white, and my husband and I are (obviously) a heterosexual couple. Really, other than the occasional hotel clerk who feels the need to comment on the fact that my last name doesn't match my husband's, we're pretty lucky in this regard.

Or, to use a more charged word, we have a lot of privilege.

So perhaps I was in a particularly receptive mood when I saw Scalzi's post today on how being a straight white male is like playing the game Real Life at the easiest difficulty level. But regardless, it is a brilliant metaphor. If you haven't read the post, you should go read it now. Really.

Predictably, the comments (which are well-moderated, as usual for Scalzi's site) are full of straight white men pointing out that they, too, have had to overcome things in life. And work hard for what they have. Etc., etc. One of the problems people seem to have with the privilege concept is they think that acknowledging the extra hurdles someone in a less advantaged group has to overcome somehow negates the hurdles they themselves have faced. That is not the case at all, and I've never actually come across someone who argues that it is- just a lot of people who think that is what is being argued.

But I can also understand how this misconception comes about, because when you're experiencing something as a struggle, it can be hard to hear that it could be even more of a struggle. I think about it like parenting. I suspect that just about every parent on the planet has thought at one time or another that their particular parenting gig is as hard as they can stand, and that it couldn't possibly get any harder without causing the parent to lose his or her mind.

And I suspect that we all quickly realize what bunk that is, because it is pretty easy to think of ways your parenting gig could get harder.

Take, for instance, the first year of Pumpkin's life, when sleep was a rare and much sought after commodity in our house, particularly for me. I was existing on way too little sleep. I lost my cool about this repeatedly, and often dramatically. I still look back on that year as one of the physically hardest things I've ever done.

And yet- I can easily see how it could have been harder. Leave aside the fact that I got pregnant easily and had a fairly uncomplicated pregnancy and birth experience. Start from when I brought my daughter home. First of all, there was only one of her. When I was pregnant with Petunia, the wife of one of my colleagues was pregnant with triplets. That would certainly up the difficulty level! I had a supportive partner and extended family. Heck, my parents came over occasionally and spent the night with Pumpkin so that my husband and I could go somewhere else and sleep. I had a job in which I could easily pump, and which allowed me flexible hours. I could go on and on.

The fact that the first year of Pumpkin's life could have been harder for me doesn't at all detract from the fact that it was in fact hard, and that I am actually reasonably proud of how we handled it.

Even now, there are times when parenting seems unbelievably hard. I'm tired and I want someone to give me a cookie and tell me I'm doing a good job... and no one does, because my husband (the most likely source of cookies and praise) is also tired and finding things hard. But objectively, things could be a lot harder for us. One of our kids could have special needs. One of us could have a job that has very rigid hours. One of us could be trying to do this all alone without the other one. Etc., etc.

And again, none of that detracts from the parenting job we're doing. It is still good, and valuable, and worthy of respect (assuming that we're not totally screwing things up, and I don't think we are).

Similarly, the fact that I had to deal with a baby with difficult sleep patterns doesn't make me a better mother than someone who didn't. It just means we faced a different hurdles as we tried to accomplish our parenting goals.

To me, the same thing applies in the case of acknowledging privilege. I can acknowledge the fact that a minority or a gay person faces hurdles I do not face without at all detracting from what I have accomplished. My accomplishments are still good, and valuable, and worthy of respect even if I acknowledge the role that random accidents of birth played in helping me achieve them.

Another objection to privilege that I don't really understand is the objection that it is just "white liberal guilt" or that it is a concept "owned" by the left-leaning side of the political spectrum. I don't see why that should be the case. Acknowledging that privilege exists should be a matter of acknowledging some basic facts about the world. What you think we should do about those facts is where your political leanings come in- or at least that's where I think the should come in if we were all discussing things rationally.

But... I also think that sometimes we take the privilege thing to far. I ranted on this a tiny bit in my Don't Lean Back Ahead of Time rant.  When the concept of privilege gets used to completely dismiss the experiences of people who have it,  then it is doing more harm than good- at least if the goal is to have a productive discussion involving people from different backgrounds and with different viewpoints. And I still think that the best thing to do when you come across someone whose success is at least partly due to privilege is to look at that, break it down into its component parts,  and then try to figure out how to extend the benefits of that privilege to more people. Take the fact that I am a happy mother in the workforce, for instance. Part of the reason I am happy is that I have excellent day care. I have excellent day care because I have the money to pay for it- i.e., I have a certain amount of class privilege. It helps no one to dismiss my experience of being a happy mom in the workforce because of that privilege. It would help a lot of people if we figured out how to make the benefit that privilege bought me- the excellent day care- and make it available to more families.

What do you think? Is this all obvious? Or crazy? Or somewhere in between? Do I suck at coming up with titles for my posts or what?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Big Texas Vacation 2012 - The Award Show Version

I had so much fun writing the award show version of last year's California car trip that I decided to do it again this vacation. As I mentioned in my last post, we visited San Antonio, Houston, and Austin, in that order. We drove between San Antonio and Houston via Shiner (home of Shiner Bock beer) and between Houston and Austin via Brenham (home of Blue Bell ice cream).

Best hotel: The DoubleTree Suites in Houston. Our suite was really big, and I was the randomly chosen "guest of the day" so breakfast and internet access were free. It is located very close to the Galleria shopping mall, so we were able to walk over for dinner on our first night, when the thought of driving any more was thoroughly unattractive. The pool was really nice. And, like all DoubleTrees, they greeted us with warm cookies, which were yummy and much appreciated by the kids.

But really, all of our hotels were good. We stayed at the Drury Inn and Suites Riverwalk in San Antonio, and that had a great location and the breakfast and internet are free for everyone, not just one lucky guest per day. Their pool was nice, too, and located on the rooftop, which amused Pumpkin. The bathroom was a cramped for a family of four, though.

We stayed at the Embassy Suites in downtown Austin. That had a good location- walking distance to Threadgills and the bat viewing bridge, but our room had a shower, not a bath, which was annoying for Petunia and anyone who tried to wash her. The pool had waterfalls, though, and that was deemed very cool.

Favorite dining experience: Woodrow's in Houston. We drove down to Galveston after our outing to the Space Center, and had originally planned to stay in Galveston for dinner. But the kids got weird about the beach and didn't want to stay there, and it was hot and nothing else sounded that interesting to us... so we drove back to Houston, planning to walk over to the mall again for another chain dinner. But on our way back to the hotel, I saw Woodrow's, and on a whim, we stopped. That was a good decision. It was more bar than restaurant, but they welcomed us and our two kids warmly, found the one high chair they owned for Petunia to sit in, and brought us a pitcher of Shiner for $6. I had to drink far more than my fair share so that Hubby could safely drive to the hotel... that was as buzzed as I got on this trip, and it certainly made the rest of the evening happier.

We had yummy hush puppies to start. I followed with a chicken and sausage jambalaya, and Hubby followed with a crawfish etouffee, and I don't think it was just the beer that made us think the food was good. But the best part of the experience was the feeling that we'd stumbled onto a local favorite (the place was packed).

Most surprisingly good meal: Rita's in San Antonio. I picked it for lunch because it was close to our hotel and therefore provided an easy return for naptime after a hard morning spent cruising the river. But the fajitas were really quite decent. And the margaritas were my favorite of the trip until....

Best margarita: The La Condessa Margarita at La Condessa in Austin. Their regular margarita was really good. The La Condessa was awesome. This was another lunch stop, after a walking trip to the state capitol. It was a higher class restaurant than we usually attempt with the kids- they didn't even have a kid's menu. But they happily welcomed our kids (and they had high chairs), and the kids happily ate plain tortillas and colored while the adults happily consumed their margaritas and food, so everyone was happy.

Best hamburger: The Blue Star Brewing Company in San Antonio. It was juicy and delicious and... yummmmm. The beer wasn't bad, either, and Hubby enjoyed the smoked vegetables. They just tasted like vegetable to me, but he raved about the smokiness, and since vegetables don't normally taste terrible to him, I'd go with his opinion over mine.

Best local beer sampled: Hubby picks the St. Arnold's Elissa IPA. I pick the Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale. But really, this wasn't a great beer trip. Luckily, the margaritas made up for that.
Most disappointing meal (Mommy): Lupe Tortilla in Houston- not for the food, which was fairly good Tex-Mex, or the margaritas, which were good enough, but for the fact that our guidebook had said there was a playground for the kids, and there was not. They still did fine with their lunches, though, so it was not a bad experience. It just wasn't the awesome, "sip my margarita while the kids play" experience I was expecting.

Most disappointing meal (Daddy): Dickey's BBQ in Austin. Our kids don't eat BBQ and BBQ places don't tend to have kid's menus. Hubby searched and searched and found one that did... and it turned out to be a fast food like chain with good but not great BBQ. The staff were super friendly and I did get to experience a Texas-sized baked potato loaded with brisket, though, so again, it wasn't a bad experience. But in retrospect, we should have just gone to a real BBQ place and hoped our kids would eat the rolls.

Best ice cream: Pumpkin would probably pick the Birthday Cake ice cream at La Condessa, or possibly the vanilla with fudge concoction I had at the Blue Bell creamery in Brenham. I'd pick the French Silk ice cream at The Chocolate Bar in Houston, but I was also really enjoying that vanilla/fudge ice cream before Pumpkin decided it was nicer than the rainbow sherbet she'd picked and convinced me to swap with her. So maybe that is the consensus choice.

Best tourist attraction: The Space Center in Houston. Standing next to the Apollo 18 rocket (it was built but never used) really was awe-inspiring, except perhaps for Petunia. But she did at least enjoy saying "rocket" over and over while I carried her down the hall.

Most disappointing tourist attraction: The bat fly-out in Austin. Perhaps we were disappointed because it took us three nights to actually get to see it- we were rained out the first night and about five minutes too late the second- and therefore over-hyped the experience. But we could hardly see any bats, which annoyed Pumpkin, confused Petunia, and made Hubby and me reminisce about more spectacular bat fly-out spotting expeditions in Brisbane and Bundaberg.

Best parenting moment (Mommy): Noticing the Spanish rice on the Threadgill's menu the first night in Austin, correctly guessing that I'd be able to get it past the owie in Petunia's mouth, and then carefully feeding an entire serving to her- getting her a real meal for the first time in three days. She and I were both much happier after that.

A close runner up was my brilliant plan to get Petunia to watch Pumpkin take a shower that night, thereby convincing Petunia to take a shower without protest and sparing us from having to move rooms (and possibly hotels) on the second night in Austin. Unfortunately, the experience didn't stick, and Petunia screamed through her showers the next two days (we did a lot of swimming, so we couldn't just let her skip the wash). But at the time, I felt like a parenting genius.

Best parenting moment (Daddy): Conveying the excitement of the Space Center to Pumpkin, and hearing her proclaim that she wants to be an astronaut, at least on weekends. (This also didn't stick, but it was nice while it lasted.)

Best kid moment (Pumpkin): Taking photos of... just about everything, but particularly of Petunia. Petunia smiles best for Pumpkin. Pumpkin also took pictures of unusual little details we might otherwise have missed, like the grillwork on the fountain we walked past on the Riverwalk.

Best kid moment (Petunia): Announcing as we entered just about any restaurant that she wanted "shicken an' fies... AN' KESSUP". (Chicken and fries... and ketchup, with special emphasis on the last part provided by a dramatic pause and a finger held up and waggled at the nearest adult.)

Worst packing error: We forgot to bring a bottle opener for our post-bedtime beers. Which meant that we had to buy one in San Antonio. You guessed it, we now own a bottle opener that says "Don't Mess With Texas".

Most unexpectedly cool thing: The sunken Japanese garden in San Antonio. The main building alone was worth the excursion.

Concept most missing in San Diego: The big shady patio with a playground, beer, some food, and a very laid back atmosphere. Apparently, this is called an "icehouse". We experienced it at The Friendly Spot in San Antonio. The closest thing we have in San Diego is The Station, which is great, but not quite the same. And nowhere near as shady. (Hubby correctly points out that good shade trees are harder to come by in San Diego, but surely someone can solve that problem!)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Triumphant Return Wouldn't Involve This Much Laundry

We're just back from our Big Texas Vacation. If you sent me an email or a direct message last week and I didn't answer it yet... now you know why! I'll try to catch up this week, but the other reasons for the predicted sparseness of my online presence in May continue unabated, so please be patient. Also, despite the fact that we did laundry twice- TWICE!- on the trip, we had three overfull loads to do today, and have two more waiting. I'm not sure how that happened. I think some fundamental laws of physics have been violated.

Anyway. We spent two days each in San Antonio, Houston, and Austin, and two travel days in between, and we had a great time. Our biggest problem was the fact that Petunia bit her cheek about halfway through the vacation, and cried big heartbreaking sobs every time she tried to eat for the next three days. She was otherwise reasonably happy, and we had no trouble getting her to drink milk and juice- so really, it was no big deal- and, per my rules for happy traveling with children, this particular suckiness could equally well have happened at home. But it did stress me out a bit, because, you know, she's my baby and she was sad and not eating. I kept trying to buy ice cream for her, which she kept refusing to eat, despite the fact that we'd had ice cream one night in San Antonio, before the mouth-biting incident, and she'd loved it. Pumpkin and I enjoyed our windfall of extra ice cream, though.

Other than Petunia's mouth pain issue, the kids did great. They saved their meltdowns for times when we were in private or could easily remove them to someplace away from people (i.e., not on the airplane rides). Petunia was cute and Pumpkin was for the most part polite and charming to strangers. Bedtimes were a bit of a struggle, but they aren't always a piece of cake at home, so again I don't hold that against the vacation.

We got to see some cool things, but we missed a lot, too- the only live music we saw in Austin was some dude playing guitar and harmonica in the park next to the kiddie train tracks, and despite being in San Antonio for Cinco de Mayo and the big Luminaria arts festival our big nightlife event there involved eating ice cream by the river. I was feeling a little sorry for myself in San Antonio, when we couldn't convince Pumpkin that she wanted to go see that arts festival on our way back from dinner. But then I remembered that I'd just eaten an unbelievably good hamburger (really- I had no idea a hamburger could be that good), accompanied by a decent locally brewed beer and followed by scrumptious pecan pie and a stroll back to our hotel along a beautiful river. Sure, we would have enjoyed the nightlife in San Antonio more if we'd been there without kids, but we still enjoyed what we did get to see. I think I need an addendum to my tips for happy travel with kids: don't compare your trip to what it would be like without the kids along. Compare it to what it would be like not to take any trip at all. That's just a special case of my philosophy about only allowing comparisons to real options, I suppose.

Regardless of what we didn't do, the trip was fun. We saw some fun and interesting things, ate too much good food and drank some truly awesome margaritas. The kids also really enjoyed the pools in the hotels. Because of this, and the unseasonably warm weather (90 degrees and humid!) at the beginning of the trip, we fell into a pattern of showering in the evenings. This did wonders for getting us down to breakfast before Petunia melted down- she is used to eating mere seconds after she opens her eyes, so really, waiting for everyone to get dressed showed quite a bit of patience on her part- but it didn't do much for my hair style. People of Texas, let me assure you that my hair does not normally look so dorky. OK, that is a lie. My hair often looks dorky. But it does not normally have quite so many cowlicks in it.

We really enjoyed all of the cities we visited, but I came home happier than ever that I live in San Diego. This isn't because of the weather (although it was a glorious day in San Diego today) or the politics (although my husband has a funny story about someone at the Space Center in Houston kvetching to him about the fact that the retired space shuttles all went to the blue states), or even the proximity to the ocean. It is the lack of mosquitoes.  You see, I am a veritable mosquito magnet. If there is a mosquito anywhere in the general vicinity, it will bite me. By the time we left San Antonio, I had 8 or 9 mosquito bites on my legs. No one else in the family had a single one. The bites are still there, albeit less itchy now. Whenever I am packing for a trip to some place likely to have mosquitoes, I somehow manage to forget about my special mosquito attracting qualities, and never remember to bring mosquito repellant with me. I have therefore amassed quite a collection of the stuff. I bought some more on our way out of San Antonio, along with some cream to make the existing bites itch less. The cream may or may not have helped, but I didn't get any more bites, so I'd say the repellant did its job.

I plan to write several posts with more stories from our trip, but for now, I think I'd better sign off. We mostly kept to our California schedule while in Texas- but it did shift a bit, so I am anticipating an early wake up tomorrow morning.  And there is a truly ginormous pile of laundry on my bed, waiting to be folded before I can go to sleep. Someone should come study how that happened. Perhaps our laundry-generating energy could be harnessed and put to use to enable warp speed space travel or something like that.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Geeky Edition

Everyone else will have Mother's Day links for you... and oh yay! Time Magazine has stirred up another motherhood shitstorm on the internet. I'm going to ignore all that. Instead, I've got some links for the geek in you.

First, via my husband, the most awesome Star Wars-Star Trek mash up ever:

Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror reminds us all about email security. My husband has made the switch to two part authentication. I'm considering it and will probably make the switch soon, but have at least moved my important passwords to pass phrases.

Also via @CodingHorror- this comic pretty much sums up how I accomplish anything technical these days.

I really liked this xkcd cartoon. One of the day care Dads did the Mentos and Diet Coke thing for the kids recently, and I can confirm that watching someone see it for the first time is fun. Watching ~10 5 year olds see if for the first time is downright awesome. But more on topic- I like the idea of seeing the chance to tell someone something new as more fun than the usual cynical response.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Stuff and Nonsense

In their recent deliberately controversial post about chores, Nicoleandmaggie argue that cleanliness is not necessarily as important as we sometimes make it out to be. In the comments, there was a discussion of "tschotkes" and whether or not they are worth keeping. Nicoleandmaggie make a good point that more stuff just means more stuff to clean, but.... I love my stuff!

In thinking about why, and which stuff, exactly, it is that I love, I realized that I usually hold on to things primarily because they remind me of something happy. There are the things that were given to me by people I care about, obviously, but I was somewhat surprised to discover that the things that matter most to me- i.e., that I would be least willing to give away- are things I've collected on my travels. One of the things I really enjoy when I'm traveling is looking for the "perfect" souvenir. Some of my favorites are absolutely useless but quirkily perfect for me, such as this large ceramic rabbit I bought in Orvieto, Italy, and then lugged back home.

We were in Italy (primarily Rome) for the period between Christmas and New Year's, 2001, traveling back home in early 2002. Everyone was still noticeably jittery about airplane security, so security was ultra-tight. The rabbit, wrapped carefully for transport, was x-rayed twice at the Rome airport, and I was sure they were going to unwrap the entire thing. But they just asked us what it was, nodded when I said "a ceramic rabbit" as if that was the most normal thing in the world for someone to be transporting in their carry-on luggage, and let us through. I smile every time I see it on our bookshelf: at the absurdity of the object itself, my memory of the pleasant day trip we took to Orvieto with my in-laws, and at the difficulty of transporting the thing back home.

Other things are decorative in the more usual sense, such as this buffalo hide carving of an elephant, which is hanging in our living room, next to another buffalo hide carving of traditional Thai dancers.

We bought the carvings at the weekend market in Bangkok, while on our big trip. The market is huge, and we spent several hours wandering around, looking at the stalls. We bought several things, too. These hide carvings were definitely the most expensive. I think the two of them set us back about $35, but I can't remember for certain. They were also among the last things to arrive home. We sent ourselves packages at various times on our trip, with souvenirs we'd bought and a CD copy of the pictures we'd taken since the last package, as a backup. These carvings were rolled up in a large tube. Even though it was sent roughly halfway through the four month trip, it didn't arrive at our home until weeks after we did. That was a nerve-wracking wait! We had told ourselves we were prepared to lose a package, but when faced with the possibility that we might actually lose one, we were quite sad. Luckily, it made it. Looking at those carvings reminds me of the wonderful times we had in Thailand, of the craziness that was the market, and of that slightly stressful wait.

Then there is our ukelele. My husband does actually know how to play the ukelele, but ours primarily hangs on our office wall.

It was a wedding gift from our best man, who is from the Cook Islands (where we got married). It was made by one of the people on his home island, and it is beautiful. Looking at it reminds me of our wedding, of course, but also of our good friend and his beautiful homeland.

There are more things, of course... the prints of pastels of clouds that we bought in New Mexico from local artist Kathleen O'Bryan (who, by a weird coincidence, had also spent time in the Cooks). The decorative plate I bought in Barcelona. Our pint glasses from Powell's Books in Portland. The tea set from Japan. The awesome little rabbit sculpture I picked up in Bath... Each one makes me happy to look at. But I will admit that we work to find the right balance between displaying the things we've picked up on our travels and keeping our house from being a cluttered mess.

Maybe that is why I particularly like finding interesting and unusual jewelry when I travel. It is small and almost practical! My all time favorite find may be the rabbit necklace charm from Ireland.

It is made from a piece of their old money- I think this one was money that was used before they went decimal (but still kept the Irish punt). So it is at least two iterations out of date by now, although it was only one step removed from legal tender when I bought the necklace. I thought the idea of turning unusable coins into jewelry was brilliant. And it was a rabbit, too! (Yes, I do have a thing for rabbits- but that is a story for a different post).

Another favorite is the braided leather and silver bracelet I bought when I spent a couple of months in Sweden during graduate school.

It is from the Sami people, who live in the Arctic region of Sweden and several other countries. I didn't make it to the northern part of Sweden at all, but a couple of the museums I visited had good sections explaining their culture. I think I bought this bracelet at a shop in Stockholm. It reminds me of my first big international travel, which I did solo. I flew into Stockholm and had to get myself to the train station and on a train for Lund, which is in the south of Sweden. I didn't understand how everything worked, and made several mistakes on that trip. But it all worked out, and I look back on that trip as one that gave me a lot of confidence in myself as a traveler.

I have other favorite jewelry from my travels, too: shell earrings from Easter Island, a greenstone necklace from New Zealand... none of it is worth much money, but they are all very dear to me.

I think this pattern started very early for me. There are specific items I had as a kid that were special because of where they came from, not what they were. Now that Pumpkin is old enough to ask for souvenirs when we travel, I see her doing something similar. She has started picking out pins, and putting them on her backpack. She has a couple of other "important" souvenirs, too. As much as I grumble about finding all of her precious things homes when we're picking up her room before the cleaner comes, I can't really begrudge her these souvenirs, because I have my own souvenirs, too. The cheap plastic toys that we get in favor bags and refuse to throw out... well, those are another story, and have been known to mysteriously disappear. Soon, she'll be old enough to make that distinction herself, I think. It will be interesting to see what things she holds most precious.

Do you buy souvenirs when you travel? What things are most precious to you? Bonus points if you catch the reference in the title of this post!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Writing Edition

This week, I've got some links for you about writing- blogging and otherwise.

First, Nicoleandmaggie explain why they blog. (I wrote my answer to this last year. It is still largely accurate.)

Some people blog for money. I think that by and large, they are disappointed, and this post from Anandi explains why- blogging doesn't pay well. Anyway, my experience with earning money from my blog has been similar to Anandi's. But then, I haven't really tried to make much money from this blog. To the extent that I've played around with monetization, it has been to see how the options play out, as research for another website idea I have (and may someday act upon, if I ever figure out how to either make enough money to make it worthwhile or stop caring about making enough money to make it worthwhile.)

Although I don't have any plans to try to turn this blog into a money-making machine, I have been thinking about trying to make some money from writing. I've even taken some steps towards making that happen, which I'll definitely talk more about when it is appropriate to do so. So when Nicoleandmaggie wrote a post about freelancing and referenced a book on writing by John Scalzi, whose Whatever blog I really enjoy, my interest was piqued. I did some Googling and turned up a couple of good, old posts of his on the topic of writing: John Scalzi's Utterly Useless Writing Advice and Unasked-for Advice to New Writers about Money. I particularly liked this quote from the second one: "Writing part-time does not lessen the work; the work is its own thing." It dovetails nicely with some thoughts I've been having lately about how to solve my recent motivational slump. I'll no doubt have more to say on that topic soon, too, but my thoughts aren't quite ready for sharing yet.

But I got tired of Googling, so I've shelled out the $5 and will be reading You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop on my Kindle, instead. I'll try to remember to let you know what I think when I finish reading it.

Along those same lines, Laura Vanderkam posted some advice for new freelance writers. I am not a freelance writer, and I am not aiming to be one- but I could still stand to take some of her advice. Particularly this: "Write tight. Omit needless words! Buy Strunk & White’s Elements of Style."

Because, as most of you have probably noticed, brevity isn't my strong point. But I do own Elements of Style!

Anyone have any other good posts about writing, for pay or otherwise? Leave them in the comments.