Monday, July 30, 2012


When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy and a fair amount of science fiction. I loved the glimpse into different worlds, and the feats of imagination of the authors who created those worlds. I fell out of the habit at some point, probably in college when I spent my reading time reading whatever my non-science classes assigned, namely a lot of philosophy and social sciences, and a few novels heavy on meaning. Not that I'm complaining- I am glad to have the foundation in philosophy, and I discovered some authors I might not have found otherwise, such as Nagib Mahfouz, whose Palace Walk was a true delight, and was, in its own way, a glimpse into a world completely different than mine.

I don't know why I didn't pick up with sci-fi and fantasy again once I got to graduate school. I can't actually remember much of what I read in graduate school at all. I was dating a man from Ireland, and I remember reading some fine Irish books. Strangely, the one that sticks out the most is Finbar's Hotel, a novel in which each chapter was written by a different author. It is great fun.

Anyway, it wasn't until my husband moved in with me that I rekindled my interest in sci-fi. He is a huge William Gibson fan, and so one of the things I did was read the Gibson I hadn't already read, which I think was everything except Neuromancer, which I distinctly remember reading at my parent's house, perhaps during my stay there between college and graduate school.

I've gotten behind on my Gibson again, for no reason I can pinpoint other than being busy and being in a book club that doesn't read sci-fi (except we're about to read The Hunger Games, so maybe the rule is that we don't read much sci-fi). The last book of Gibson's that I read was Pattern Recognition, which I read not long after it came out. I remember liking it, but have only a vague recollection of the plot now. I remember three things very strongly, though: the "he took a duck in the face at 250 knots" quote, his description of mirror worlds (which I riffed on previously), and Cayce Pollard's clothing preferences, which are so strong that they are essentially a uniform.

For those who haven't read the book, one of the quirks of the main character Cayce Pollard is that she has a strong reaction, almost like an allergy, to commercial brands. Therefore, she favors plain t-shirts and Levi's with the branding removed. She also wears only black, gray, and white.

Cayce's sartorial quirks have stuck with me, perhaps because on some level, I am jealous of them. Think of how easy getting dressed would be! Obviously, there is nothing preventing me from adopting a similar uniform, but I don't really want to do so. I like color.

In uniform
I have realized, though, that I have a bit of a uniform, too. I prefer t-shirts in a solid color, with a v-neck and a slightly fitted drape, not so loose as to be boxy, not so tight as to show off my less than perfectly fit abs (or to make me self-conscious of my large chest).  I don't mind a bit of decoration at the neckline, and will occasionally vary to a scoop neck t-shirt or a polo shirt. Every once and awhile, my husband talks me into buying a shirt with a print, but this has mixed success. Sometimes I end up really liking the shirt, sometimes I end up feeling that it is too loud for me.

I've really struggled to find the perfect source of shirts. I don't really enjoy shopping these days, and would rather find something I can order online with confidence. Nordstroms had great t-shirts for awhile, but the trends have moved on and I find their shirts less flattering now.  They do carry a brand called Glima, with which I've had quite a bit of luck- but not enough luck to be able to just order them online without trying each new style on. I tried L.L Bean, since their online store is quite nice, but find their shirts don't have the right fit for me. If the shirt is big enough through the chest, then it is too big and baggy around the waist. I just received my first order from Eddie Bauer, and it looks like their shirts may be more what I like, but it is too soon to say how they'll wear.

On the bottom, I wear almost exclusively solid colors, and at work, almost exclusively pants. My office is too air conditioned to make skirts comfortable. Also, I need pockets, since I need to carry my cell phone with me at work (in case day care calls- a not infrequent occurrence, given Petunia's propensity towards fevers), and most of my skirts don't have them. Finding the perfect pair of pants is even harder than finding a good shirt. The Gap used to have some great ones, but either my body changed or their cut changed, and now I can't find anything that fits properly there. The best fitting pair of trousers in my closet right now came from New York and Co, but when I bought the same trousers in the same size but a different fabric, I got something that doesn't fit at all. Shandra explained why in a comment on an earlier post, but the result is that I can't just go online and order more of the same. Very frustrating. I am seriously considering splurging on getting some pants custom tailored, but figure I should wait until I am happy with my weight- I am currently in an active weight loss period (I'm down two pounds so far. I go slow).

So, even with a uniform of sorts, finding clothes is not as easy as I'd like. And finding good books to read is apparently too easy, since Gibson's later books are still in my "to read" queue!

What about you? Do you have a uniform? How do you find new clothes? Any books (or genres) you aren't reading and don't know why?

Guest Post at A Gai Shan Life

I have a guest post up over at A Gai Shan Life. Revanche saw some of my earlier posts about working motherhood and asked me to write a guest post with some advice for a 20-something like herself. I am always a little intimidated by being asked for advice- all I can say is what worked for me (or, more accurately, what I think worked for me), and I know that there are many different paths to happiness in this life.

But anyway, my post is up. Go check it out, and while you're there, check out some of Revanche's other posts- she's got a great attitude towards life.

If you're clicking over from Revanche's place, welcome! You are probably most interested in my working motherhood posts, but you could also check out my Guided Tour of My Blog or 2011's Year in Review post for a flavor of what my blog covers.

My regular readers may remember that I said just last week that I wanted to take a break from work-life balance/working mom posts.  I'm not doing such a great job of that, am I? Well, I swear I meant it. My next post is going to be about clothes. You'll see.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trip Story: Austin

I think I'd better finish writing up our Great Texas Trip of 2012 before the last stop fades from my memory- the trip was over two months ago now.

Our last stop was Austin. True to its reputation, it has a very different vibe than San Antonio or Houston- but we couldn't really appreciate the nightlife for which the city is famous, since we were traveling with our kids. We still had a good time, but of the three cities, it is the one where I most felt like we were missing something because we had kids with us. Namely, we missed out on Austin's legendary nightlife and music scene.

We did make it to Threadgill's- we went there for dinner the first night we were in town- but we didn't stay for the music. Instead, we headed down to the bridge over the river, to try to catch the bat flyout. It started out as a beautiful evening...

... but it started to rain before the bats came out, so we headed back to the hotel without seeing the bats.

The next day, we walked up to see the capitol (my husband has a thing about seeing state capitols, and I've just given in to it).

Note the Yellow Rose

It was a pleasant walk up one of the main streets of Austin, which gave us a flavor for the town. We even stopped at a funky little coffee shop for snack. It was basically a refurbished shipping container, with a nice garden out front- and sadly, its name is already gone from my memory.

We had lunch at La Condesa, which was our least kid-oriented meal of the trip (which is saying something, given that we basically ate in a bar our last night in Houston). The restaurant was more inline with our pre-kids tastes. I was a little nervous when we walked in, saw how stylish it was, and noted the lack of a kids menu (or other kids). But the staff were really welcoming, the kids did great, and the margaritas were awesome. I'm glad we stepped a little outside our comfort zone.

We went from sublime to... well, a little less than sublime for dinner. Hubby really wanted some BBQ, but we had a hard time finding a BBQ place that had anything on the menu that our kids might eat. He did some Googling during naptime and found a place called Dickey's. He also found a park near to the restaurant, so we had our plans set. The park was great- it is fun seeing the different playground equipment in different cities. This park had a cool standup twirling toy. It looked a bit like the sail on a windsurfing board, and was leaned at a slight angle, so that it was easy to spin on. The whole family had fun with that.

Dickey's turned out to be more like a fast food chain than a BBQ restaurant, but the food wasn't bad, and the staff were unbelievably friendly, even giving Pumpkin a second roll after she finished her first one. Hubby went for a full BBQ plate, but after the excess at lunch, I thought I'd go for something lighter and just ordered a stuffed baked potato. I had neglected to allow for the Texas-sizing of things: the potato I received was roughly the size of a football, and was smothered with cheese, bacon, and BBQ pork.

The next day, we decided to head to Zilker Park. I wanted to check out the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, but it wasn't open in the morning, so we just went to the playground and rode on the train, instead. On the plus side, we did finally see some live music:

After the train ride, we headed over to the botanic garden, to see the dinosaur tracks. The tracks turned out to be a bit of a disappointment- they were from a small dinosaur, so weren't as impressive as any of us anticipated.

But the rest of the gardens were very nice, and we enjoyed them.

We had lunch at the Shady Grove, but were too hungry to wait for a table on the big shady patio, and ate inside instead. It was good, but not up to the standard we had set the previous day.

It was our last night in Austin, so we made sure to get down to the river for the bat fly out... only to be a bit disappointed by the spectacle. The kids could hardly see the bats, and even the grown ups had a hard time finding them. I think that if we ever try for the fly out again, we'll do it from the water- I suspect it is more impressive to have the bats fly over you rather than under you.

Despite the slight disappointment at the end, we had a great time in Austin, and on the trip as a whole. Thanks for a great time, Texas! 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Weekend Reading: The I Wasn't Going to Talk about Work-Life Balance Edition

I was all set to take a little break from the ongoing work-life balance/can we really "have it all" discussion. I'm frankly a little exhausted by the subject and by the effort it is taking to not take offense at some of the comments and posts that imply that women like me are bad mothers who haven't really bonded with their kids or losers whose careers are tanking or other such nonsense. So I only clicked on links from reliable sources, so to speak, and even then I didn't delve into many comments threads.

But then I stumbled across such good links on the topic this week! And I wasn't even looking! So I have to share.

First, Oilandgarlic has two excellent posts. One was on work-life balance at career levels below the stratosphere occupied by Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, and even below the lower troposphere where middle managers like me live and work. I agree that the almost exclusive focus on the possibility of combing a high-powered career with motherhood is wrong, excludes the majority of working mothers, and misses a big part of the story of mothers in the workforce. The second was on how sometimes a little imbalance is the right thing. This one really resonated with me- people will sometimes feel sorry for me for not having more time for "me" and my interests outside career and family. But I don't want to pursue those interests more than I want to spend my time on career and family, and I've found a "me" hobby that fits in around the edges (writing), so I'm happy.

Next, I think I found this article about the trade offs we make and how that relates to the discussions of Slaughter and Mayer via TheMamaBee's twitter feed. It is a really good article, and I particularly like how the author frames decisions about career in terms of whether the reward is worth the trade offs, whatever those may be.

Then, Bad Mom, Good Mom had a couple of really thoughtful (and thought-provoking) posts on "the nanny issue". Go read both for some more thoughts on the work-life arrangements of those of us working below the upper levels.

Bad Mom, Good Mom references some research on work-life balance in her posts. Nicoleandmaggie have an interesting post up on some related research: they answer a question I asked about a paper on the impact of fertility timing on career outcomes, which made a bit of a splash when it came out. (Thanks for answering!)

Andie Fox, who writes the Blue Milk blog, had a good article offering an explanation for why some mothers reacted so strongly to Mayer's plans for a short maternity leave. I think she has some very good insights, but I have to say: I've been feeling more than a little squeezed by the way the conversation has evolved. And a little sickened by the way so many of the women in the various comments sections seem to be rooting for Mayer to fail. Are they rooting for me to fail, too?

Finally, I was struck by the contrast in the reactions in the comments to AskMoxie's posts about Marissa Mayer and Janet Evans (particularly given SarcastiCarrie's comment on the second thread about the volleyball player who got back into serious volleyball training 2 months post-partum). Granted, Janet Evans got back into swimming when her kids were much older than Mayer's child will be when she is planning to get back to work, but it still struck me that people seem much more comfortable with mothers getting back into sports, even at elite levels where training is essentially a fulltime job, than they are with women getting back into the corporate world. On the second post, people seemed to mostly agree that mothers- even of very young babies- deserved some interests of their own, their own "thing". Well, my "thing" is my work.  (Incidentally, I feel a little bad for not leaving this comment on Moxie's thread, but I needed to cut myself off from that thread, because once I noticed this dichotomy it made me want to scream. Which isn't to say that I found anything offensive about either of Moxie's posts or SarcastiCarrie's comment- far from it. They were positive posts. It was the difference in responses from other people that jumped out at me.)

And continuing my slide into the more depressing links... I also really feel the need to share a few posts that really highlight the atmosphere in the tech/geek world that I mentioned in my post about Marissa Mayer:

First, there is an Ask Slahsdot post that is stunning in its ignorance and blithe assumption that casual harassment of a female team member is unavoidable. Apparently, some men think they need silly little games to remind themselves not to be assholes. Imagine how receptive the men in this department would be to a woman who publicly identifies as a feminist. The comment thread is one of the more depressing ones I've read in recent memory, although there are also some good smackdowns of the stupidity of the original question, from both men and women.

There was also a stunningly sexist article up on CNN about "fake geek girls," which I refuse to reward with a link. Scalzi has a good smackdown of that, but it is depressing that what he says still needs to be said, and it is depressing that if you read the comments on his thread, even some other women assume that typically attractive women need to prove their geek cred. Liz Argall, a women affected by this attitude wrote a very good post on the subject.

I'm sorry to end on a downer, but that actually feels appropriate given the cultural atmosphere on "women's issues" lately. It is clear that we've made a lot of progress. But we still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Judging Judgment

On my lunchtime walk the other day, I was passed by a group of joggers. One of the men was wearing a bright orange tank top, a plaid kilt, and no shoes. My eyebrows went up behind my shades, and that judgmental little voice in my head snarked "hmmm. He must be a bit of an attention seeker, no?"

Then I told the little voice in my head to shut up, because it was no business of mine if some dude wants to go running in a kilt and no shoes, and anyway, I generally think men look good in kilts, so why would I go around judging men for wearing them? And hey, maybe running shorts bunch up annoyingly between his legs, too, and whereas my solution is to go for a different type of shorts, he chose to try a kilt. Or maybe he just likes kilts. Or maybe he lost a bet. Who knows?

My lunchtime walks are my time to let my mind wander, and this little internal exchange led me to think a bit more about judgment. I think the urge to judge is almost instinctual for us. I don't think I'll ever be able to silence that judgmental little voice in my head. But I have gotten much more thoughtful about what I do when it speaks up. I ask myself, what is the impact of this judgment, and why am I making it?

In the case of the kilted runner, the impact of judging- even if I'd yelled my snarky little thought out after him, or written an impassioned blog post about the correlation of kilt-wearing and attention seeking in non-Scottish men- would be pretty small. It is not like there are people out policing our sidewalks and impeding access to them for men in kilts. But in other cases, the impact of judging can be much larger. It can add to a culture that silences or marginalizes entire groups of people. It can contribute to unnecessary guilt people feel about just living their life in the way that makes them happiest. It can shame people into hiding, or even denying, their true selves.

And then there is the question of what I'm trying to accomplish by judging. Do I feel judged myself, and am therefore striking back, trying to establish that my way of life is a valid one? I've come to think that this is pointless, counterproductive even, particularly since many times when I take a step back and reread whatever it was that made me feel judged, there is an interpretation that is more generous. So these days, I consciously try to choose to take that interpretation. As I wrote in my declaration of neutrality in the Mommy Wars, that does not mean I have to be silent about my life and my opinions. But I try to write from the standpoint of "here's what my life is like, so if you hear people saying that living my way is impossible, or will inevitably make you miserable, let me be your counter-example" or "hey, here's what I think, what do you think?" (It is in the latter spirit that I'm writing this post, so if you read this and think I'm judging you for judging others, I am not. My opinion on this subject does not make me a better person than anyone else. It is just my opinion, and an argument for us to all think about the impact of judging other people as opposed to just disagreeing with their opinions.)

In general, if someone writes about their life from a standpoint of "this is possible, and here's how I do it" I am 100% behind that, for pretty much all legal things that someone might want to prove possible. In fact, if there is anyone reading out there who has configured his or her life completely differently from how I've configured mine, and wants a platform to share that, I'll enthusiastically provide that. Just email me and ask about doing a guest post.

If someone writes about their life from a standpoint of "I did this thing, and maybe you CAN do it, too- here's some ideas about how" I am also 100% behind that, but I start to get a little nervous, because it is easy to veer into the "...and you SHOULD do it, too" territory, which I don't much like. That is where judgment comes in, and we rarely know enough about other peoples' lives to really judge whether or not they SHOULD do something. And even if we do, they aren't our lives to live, so why are we judging? The interest area of mine where this most often comes up is healthy eating. I go searching for ideas about how to eat healthier despite the strong picky eating tendencies in my kids and myself, and it seems those ideas always come with a giant side serving of judgment. It drives me crazy. The people writing those posts and comments generally have no idea about the issues underlying true picky eating. Just give me the ideas and keep your judgment of people like me to yourself, please! The end result isn't that I am shamed into not being a picky eater- that isn't really possible. It is that I stop looking for ideas, and these people who feel so passionately about healthy eating have lost someone from their audience.
Of course, there are the cases where someone is writing with judgment, and doing so purposefully, because he or she really thinks that the judgment is deserved. The writer doesn't just disagree with someone else's opinion, they think that people who hold that opposing opinion are bad in some way. There are certainly cases where that is true, where the action being judged truly deserves condemnation and the person writing the judgment hopes his or her words will cause someone to change their behavior, or convince other people not to go that route. I, for instance, really do think that people who raise their kids to hate other people are doing something bad. There may be mitigating factors that explain why they are doing it, but I still judge the behavior.

Still, I think we should tread carefully here, because when we start judging groups of people, we run a high risk of inflicting a lot of collateral damage, as overlapping groups will feel the sting, too. And sometimes, when we learn more about the situation, we realize that our judgment wasn't warranted at all, and just caused unnecessary pain to the people on the receiving end- think, for instance, of the judgment that used to be heaped on the mothers of autistic kids, when the prevailing explanation for that condition was that the mother had not been sufficiently loving. So I try to save this judgment for cases where clear harm is being done to someone else.

Which brings me back to the Mommy Wars that have raged this summer. Perhaps some of the generals in these wars think that there are true grounds for judgment of those on the "other side, " but I think that most of the rest of us realize that is not true. We all roll our eyes at the wars and blame the media for perpetuating them, and that is fair... to a certain extent. Except we are the foot soldiers in these wars. We're buying the war bonds with our clicks and our outrage. 
The Mommy Wars will stop when we lay down our weapons and go home, and deprive the generals of our lives to use as cannon fodder. They will stop when we refuse to sit in judgment on other mothers. They will stop when we say to the people worrying about Marissa Mayer and her still unborn child that no, in fact, we shouldn't draw any conclusions about maternity leave in general from this case, which is really about how one specific family is choosing to handle the very unusual circumstance of having the woman receive an offer of a top leadership role when she was already pregnant. Do you want to discuss what maternity leave in the US should be? Great, let's do that! But leave Mayer out of it- she is irrelevant to the discussion. They will stop when we refuse to say that a mother who has decided to leave the workforce is somehow "wasting" her education. Aren't parents their kids' first teachers? Well, I'm all for teachers who have good educations. They will stop when we tell Ann Romney and her supporters that they will score no political points from their misinterpretations of Hilary Rosen's statements. Just about everyone recognizes that taking care of children is actual work- certainly those of us in the workforce do, since we pay someone else to do that work for some number of hours every day. If you find someone who doesn't recognize that fact, deal with that person rather than igniting unnecessary battles by willfully misinterpreting the comments of someone who clearly does. They will stop when we tell those well-meaning left-leaning commenters that while there are indeed profound problems with race and class in our society that impact access to childcare and with how we value the labor of childcare, it is hugely unfair to lay those problems at the feet of one mother- no matter how rich- or even a group of mothers, unless they happen to also be the President and the leaders of Congress. In short, the Mommy Wars will stop when we make them stop by rising about the instinct to judge even when judging seems to further our own beliefs and desires.

The Mommy Wars show the risks we run when we allow our judgment to run unchecked. We're so busy feeling outraged and secretly (or not so secretly) judging other mothers that we don't seem to have any energy left to try to actually solve some of the problems and improve the situation. We've created an environment where it is entirely reasonable to expect to be judged for even the most mundane parenting decision, and I suspect that is why we're so quick to take offense and why it is so hard to have the sort of open, honest discussions we'd need to engage in to find policies that would really work.

So I say, let the kilt-wearing runners be! Maybe we can't keep those snarky little voices in our heads from making judgments. But we can engage the rest of our brains to decide if that judgment deserves to take up anymore space. What purpose is it serving? Chances are, none. Who is it hurting? Quite possibly, no one more than ourselves.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Beach Days, Early Days, These Days

Yesterday, we took the kids to the beach. We packed the girls into the car and made it to our "usual" spot at Bonita Cove before 10:30- the time we'd said we'd meet some friends- without trouble. I remember when we first started taking Pumpkin to the beach that we struggled to get everything together, and always seemed to arrive later than we said we would. Now, packing for the beach is a fairly standard routine.

Still, it is a far bigger production than it was back in our early days in San Diego, when Hubby and I would just decide to go to the beach, change into our togs (as Hubby calls them), pack our books, a couple of water bottles, our IDs, and a little cash into my beach bag, swing our towels around our necks (the only way to carry them, according to Hubby), and walk out the door. In those days, we were living in an apartment in Pacific Beach, and could easily walk to the beach. We had to walk a particular route, because Hubby had a favorite block- Bayard, just north of Loring reminded him of New Zealand beach holidays. We'd hang out at the beach for an hour or two- reading, listening to the waves, occasionally going for a swim, and then we'd head home. We almost always stopped by our local pub and had a beer or two and some peanuts before heading home. Sometimes, we'd get so lost in conversation that we'd end up having more beer than was sensible, and eating a crappy frozen pizza heated up in the bar's toaster oven for dinner. (That bar has a proper kitchen now- it is perhaps good that it didn't back in those days, or we'd have spent far too many lazy Saturday evenings sitting on our stools, eating bar food, drinking a beer or two too many, talking and talking....)

Our beach trip yesterday was nowhere near that relaxed. Perhaps the years living walking distance to the beach, without dependents have spoiled the beach for me. But then again, maybe not. Pumpkin and Petunia built elaborate sand castles- with moats!- with Hubby and the two friends of Pumpkin's who also came. Petunia absolutely loved being towed around on a boogie board. She sat upright, balancing almost effortlessly and grinning with a joy purer than anything most adults can remember. There were meltdowns (mostly Pumpkin's, this time, but that is really just luck of the draw), but there was also fun. Even for the grown ups.

I guess the jury's out on the beach day thing.

We forgot to take our camera, which is a shame, because I doubt I'll be able to really remember that grin on Petunia's face for more than another day or two. Also, it left me with no photos with which to illustrate this post. So I opened up my photo library, thinking that perhaps I'd find a photo from one of those carefree beach days of my youth. No luck. This is as close as I got.

It is from a different sort of beach visit- from the other pictures taken at the same time, I can tell that it is near sunset, and we were probably heading down to the main part of Pacific Beach for dinner and decided to just stop and watch the sunset. That casual attitude towards when dinner needs to happen is another thing that has disappeared from our lives along with quick trips to the beach.

Something made me keep paging through my photos. It was weird to look at photos of me and Hubby from 10 years ago. We looked so young! It was also weird to realize that I still own many of the clothes I was photographed in almost ten years ago, and that they aren't even the oldest things in my closet.
My husband really wanted me to raise my right hand, but I refused.
I really should clean out my closet, but I think I'd keep that skirt. It still fits, mostly because it was a little loose back then.

I was feeling a little nostalgic for the travel we did before we had kids- the picture above isn't even from our "real" vacation that year! And then I got to 2007, when Pumpkin was born.

She slept like this for weeks. Even the nurses at the hospital couldn't keep her arms in a swaddle.
She was a skinny little bundle of wonder and sleeplessness. Don't let the many pictures of her sleeping fool you, this baby was one of the ones who make parents laugh a deranged sort of laugh at the phrase "sleep like a baby."
She's 6 weeks old here. It is my 35th birthday. I am exhausted and will soon dissolve into tears at the park we visited to celebrate my birthday.
The pictures gloss over the rough parts, mostly. There is a series taken when I took her out to the Law Street park above the beach. Pumpkin is about 3 months old. The sky is a cloudless blue, and the ocean shimmers in the background. Pumpkin is laying tummy down on her blanket, her little head up and looking around- she developed those muscles early, because even then, she wanted to see everything. She's in my favorite pants from that age, which had little colored dots that made me think of microarrays and a waistband with stripes that made me think of gels, so I called them her "DNA pants." It looks like I'm a confident mom, taking my baby out exploring. In reality, I was barely holding myself together through most of my maternity leave, which was coming to an end. I rarely took Pumpkin on outings like this, because I was so desperate for sleep that I was obsessive about trying to be home for naptimes, and trying to get her to sleep on her own so that I could sleep, too. It rarely worked. And she was a high strung little baby, prone to inexplicable screaming fits that I seemed powerless to stop. I think if I could go back and give myself advice, I'd say: "Give up. She isn't going to sleep. And so what if she screams- she'll scream at home, too. Just go out and try to do things."

The strangest series of photos, though, are the ones from just a couple weeks after she was born. My husband flew back to New Zealand to be in a wedding of a very good friend (with my blessing) and my parents came over to help me out. Our photos are organized by date, so photos he took are interlaced with photos my parents and I took at home. One photo shows the luxurious room he had at the wedding, the next shows Pumpkin's first nap in the Moses basket my Mom and I bought after hearing someone at breastfeeding support group say that her baby slept better in her basket than her crib. A few photos later, my husband is on the golf course with the groom-to-be, playing his signature style of crappy golf. Then there's me with Pumpkin in her sling and an exhausted look on my face. I remember that morning. It was the day after I'd finally realized that I needed to cut dairy out of my diet, and I was trying to eat my cereal with rice milk. Blech. I soon switched to oatmeal (which I still eat for breakfast, now unable to fall back to cold cereal because Petunia expects to share my oatmeal with me).

That series of photos is unfair to my husband, who was fully involved in the night parenting before and after that trip, and was soon just as sleep deprived as I was. Or almost- he would occasionally hit a wall and just sleep through Pumpkin's cries, which is something I never could do. Still can't. Pumpkin, who usually sleeps through the night these days, woke up last night, and cried for Daddy. He went in, but I had to elbow him awake first.

Still, I found myself looking at those early photos of Pumpkin and turning into a cliche. I marveled at how such a little baby has turned into the big, tall (but still skinny) 5 year old of today, who reads and tonight asked me how to spell "asthma" because she thought maybe that was what the notice on the Play-Doh container was saying. (It wasn't. It was saying that the Play-Doh conformed to some ASTM standards.)

And I realized, I am looking forward to showing New York, Easter Island, and all the other cool places of this world to Pumpkin and Petunia, and that is better than being able to get ready for the beach in less than 10 minutes.

I've been feeling a little unmoored lately. I can't put my finger on why, and certainly haven't figured out the solution. I feel like I'm drifting through my life, not engaging enough to really direct it. But maybe I should just give in and go where the current takes me. I think that perhaps I gave up control when Pumpkin was born, and I just never realized it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Assorted Comments on CEOs and Maternity Leaves and The Like

I've decided to gather up a few comments I've left around the place about Marissa Mayer, maternity leave, and all that. Then I want to drop the topic for awhile- I'm interested in returning to musings sparked by my recent "Closer to Free" post. I have a book review I want to write. And I'll no doubt come up with random other things to blather on about. This is not because I don't have more related topics bouncing around in my head. I'd love to write up what my ideal first year or so post-baby work/life arrangement would be. I still plan to start writing posts based on things I've learned from reading Mother Nature, though, and I've got that much delayed guest post for A Gai Shan Life drafted, and will no doubt feel the need to talk a bit about work, life, kids, and the whole shebang once I get that finalized and it is posted. So if you're only coming here to read about working motherhood issues, don't worry, the dry spell probably won't last too long. I just need a little break right now.

Anyway... here are some things I've said in comment sections that I'd like to pull up to the level of a blog post- I'm not sure why, since they all come from active comments sections. Maybe I just don't want to think about the news right now, despite the thoughtful posts about it that are piling up in my blog reader, and am looking to distract myself. And it is my blog, so I can do whatever I want! I'll post them in the order in which they were written.


First, from Anandi's post on the topic, I had a comment replying to the idea that the Swedish model of maternity leave would solve all of these problems, which had been hinted at by one of the other comments:

The problem with the Sweden model is that it essentially forces all women to take long leave- if there is a powerful social stigma against going back to work in less than a year, like Susan mentions above, then it would take a very strong first time mom to buck that expectation and expose herself to a bunch of judgment and go back earlier. Plus, since "no one" does that, she'd probably have to scramble to find infant care.

Now, I think that is better than the current US scenario where most women don't get as much leave as they want, but I do want to point out that it isn't utopia, either. For me personally, being out an entire year would have been the wrong choice. I'd probably have needed professional psychiatric help the first time around. Going back to work really, really helped me adjust to motherhood. It just did. Both times, I was out for 3 months, and worked part time for the 4th month. I don't know what my ideal would be. Maybe 4-5 months off- because why do we insist on sending moms back to work right when growth spurts hit (6 wks, 3 months) or right in the middle of the big separation anxiety phase (9-12 months)?- followed by 3 or so months working part time. But I would have wanted to keep some contact with the office in those 4-5 months, like I did during my 3 month leaves.

(And, for what its worth, neither of my kids slept through the night in their first year. My husband and I were still up multiple times per night with the first one well into the second year- until she suddenly just started sleeping through the night at about 2 years old. My second was up less often in the first two years, but still doesn't sleep through at 2.5. There is no amount of maternity leave that will guarantee you won't have to figure out how to work while also dealing with a child who doesn't sleep through the night. But... back in the really rough early days with baby #1, when my husband and I were both working part time, the person who was staying home with the baby the next day was the one who got to get a little more sleep. We thought that was harder than either of our jobs.)

In my perfect world, we all really, truly accept that different arrangements will be right for different families, and set up our institutions to handle that. Some families will want the mom or dad to take a year off. Some families will want to split time between mom and dad. Some families will want both parents to go back to work within that first year, and will want to use outside help to make that possible. Some families will want one of the parents to stay home until the kids start school. Some families will want one or both parents to work part time. Etc., etc. All of these are valid choices. Each choice presents problems. The best approach isn't to pick one option and "bless" that by making society work around that. The best approach is to recognize the diversity of needs and wants, and try to set up society to provide the basic building blocks that families need to build their own solutions. So, good, quality child care at prices everyone can afford (probably a sliding scale). A protected right to pump. Maternity leave options that make it possible for a new mom to stay home a year if she wants, which requires better temporary labor markets (i.e., ones that don't deprive the temps of benefits). Better "on ramps" for people coming back in after multiple years off.  Heck, we're dreaming, so why not make it possible/more accepted to bring babies into the workplace and/or have better asynchronous work from home options?

And while we're in my perfect world... yeah, Marissa Mayer can be one type of role model. And someone who took 5 years off and then came back in and went on to a great career could be another type of role model. And someone else (like  you, Anandi!) who worked part time for awhile and still had a great career could be yet another type. And so on and so on. There is not one path to a successful life- heck, there isn't even one definition of what a successful life is. The problem for women is that there are so few role models in the public eye, so each new prominent woman is elevated to an impossible pedestal of being THE role model. That is BS.


Next, in the comments on my own post, an exchange with an anonymous commenter who also works in tech and with Nicoleandmaggie helped me clarify my position about whether or not it matters that Mayer does not identify as a feminist (edited to fix an egregious mistake in which I mixed Larry Page and Sergey Brin into a single "Larry Brin"):

@Anonymous- I have no idea whether Mayer secretly considers herself a feminist and is strategically hiding that or if she has internalized the culture in which she works and the antifeminist backlash nonsense that was prevalent during her formative years (and mine) and just doesn't realize the huge overlap between the things she says she believes and the cause she says she doesn't identify with. I don't think it matters.

My point is this: identifying strongly a feminist is a very real risk in the environment in which she has made her career. I do not think we get to tell other people what risks they "have" to take and which battles they "need" to fight.

If we insist that all powerful women must also choose to fight the antifeminist backlash, we are asking them to add an extra battle to their list. We are asking them to take on yet one more thing that their male peers do not have to deal with.

Let's ask Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Tim Cook if they consider themselves feminists. Let's ask them what they've done to encourage more women to get into tech. And then let's be scandalized if they say something clueless in response. When/if Mark Zuckerberg's wife gets pregnant, let's ask HIM how on earth he thinks he'll be able to run his company with a newborn to care for. Doesn't he know how sleep deprived he'll be? Then let's judge him for not taking the full leave he is allowed by law (which, incidentally, is the same as Mayer is allowed- FMLA in California is open to both parents), and wonder what sort of example HE'S setting for his employees.

[Edit: in fact, Mayer isn't guaranteed ANY leave by law, since she will not have been in the job for at least a year when she gives birth. Welcome to the sucky parental leave situation in the US, folks!]

I think there are two ways women advance the cause, one is by being an activist, forcing the issues, and insisting on change. The other is by being willing to swallow the indignities and injustices and persevere and prove that women can do whatever it is that everyone says we can't. We need people to do both things. Different women will be naturally inclined to approach the problem in different ways- and that is OK. We don't do ourselves any good by trying to insist that every woman fight every battle. No one can do that and succeed.

@Nicoleandmaggie- I have no idea why Time would call Fiorina a top woman in tech. As far as I know, she's not doing anything tech-related right now. Probably because there aren't enough other viable candidates or because they were too lazy to really go looking, and both options are sad. I find Fiorina's politics and political campaign noxious, and I did not vote for her. I don't care if she fades into irrelevance. But I remember the comments on the tech sites and the articles written about her during her tenure at HP, and they were indeed vicious and often included incredibly misogynistic comments. I remember thinking that it would be almost impossible for anyone to succeed as CEO in that environment. Everyone- both inside and outside of HP- seemed to be rooting for her to fail. If I were Mayer, I would definitely be studying what went wrong in Fiorina's case so that I could try to avoid it. I wouldn't care that everyone knows that Yahoo is failing- I wouldn't have taken the CEO job if I didn't think I could turn it around and I would care deeply about succeeding at that, both for myself and for the employees of Yahoo. And yes, I'd probably care more about that than about fighting the tech culture on whether or not it is OK to call yourself a feminist. Me being who I am, I'd probably eventually say something that dragged me into that fight, anyway. But then again, my penchant for doing that may be holding me back now. Who knows?

All I'm saying is that we should let Mayer prioritize her battles for herself. If she succeeds as CEO, she will have won a huge victory for feminists, whether she considers herself one or not.


Finally, a short comment over on Moxie's post, responding to the idea raised in the comments that the example Mayer is setting by not taking a long leave will make it easier for bosses to deny their employees' leave requests:

Look, if some asshole boss holds up what a CEO worth millions of dollars does as a reason for denying leave to one of his or her employees... blame the asshole boss, not the CEO who is presumably just making the decision that is right for her and her family given an unusual set of circumstances- namely the fact that the job of a lifetime came up for her when she was already pregnant.

[I would add: this is why we need LAWS about leave. Whether or not you get adequate parental leave should not come down to whether or not your boss is an asshole.]


I'll also note that Hush! has an interesting post on the topic, with a perspective I haven't seen laid out so clearly elsewhere that we should hate the game that many of our institutions make us play rather than blaming Mayer for how she's choosing to play it. Spot on, I think.

So, feel free to comment on any of my comments... or just roll your eyes and turn away in boredom with the topic. Posts on other topics coming soon! But now, I need to go do the dishes. Because I am not worth millions of dollars and do not have someone to do them for me. Perhaps I can ponder whether or not I would actually spend some of my millions on household staff to do my dishes if I were to ever find myself that wealthy. An interesting question that I will leave for another post!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Weekend Reading: Cool Science (and Scientists) Edition

I've got science links for you this week! And they're cool ones, I promise.

First, though, I have to tell you a funny story about my husband, which I may or may not have told you before- but if I did, it was a long time ago and a lot of you weren't here yet. So I'm telling it again. Anyway, not long after he moved over here from New Zealand, he was doing laundry one night in our apartment laundry room, which you got to by going out our front door, down some stairs, and into a little room off the carport. He came back in after getting a load going, looking a little freaked out but clearly trying to look calm and not at all worried. "I don't want to alarm you, " he said, "but there is a giant rat on the steps outside."

Now, I just had to see the giant rat, so I got up and went outside with him, and there, sitting on the steps leading up to our upstairs neighbors' apartments was an opossum.

I burst out laughing, which first annoyed him, and then puzzled him, until I managed to stop laughing long enough to tell him what we were looking at. And then he burst out laughing, because he finally understood why the idea of someone importing possums into a country like New Zealand for their fur seemed so strange to me.

For those of you who don't know, here is an American possum, aka opossum:

Image source:
Note the mangy looking fur.

Here is an Australian possum, which is what was introduced into New Zealand to disastrous effect:

Image source: I don't know, could be me, could be my husband. Odds are it was him.

Note the fluffy looking fur.

OK, on to the first link, which is about... possums! The American kind. Apparently, you can't poison them.

The next link needs a little story, too, I think. I had a roommate in college who delighted in making what she called "magic putt" or something like that- which was corn starch mixed with water. Have you ever done this? If not, go do it now. I'll wait.

If you make this mix, and hit it with your finger, it will feel solid. But if you put your finger in slowly, it will feel like a liquid. It is a pretty cool effect, and I look forward to showing it to my kids some day.

And now, some physicists have worked out why it behaves like this. Pretty cool.

Finally, a reader sent me a link to this post with suggestions from some prominent female scientists in the UK about how to get more women in STEM careers there.  Also pretty cool.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In Defense of Marissa Mayer

Perhaps you've heard by now that Marissa Mayer, Google's 20th employee and first female engineer, is Yahoo's new CEO and she's pregnant. Maybe you've also heard that she says she doesn't really identify as a feminist and that she's only planning on taking a few weeks' maternity leave, during which time she will continue to do some work.

Given those two statements, it is perhaps not surprising that both feminists and advocates for better maternity benefits and better work-life balance in general are expressing some displeasure and/or concern.

This may come as a surprise, since I consider myself both a feminist and an advocate for better work-life balance, but I think we should all lay off Mayer.

First, to the feminists annoyed with her, I say- I get it. It is really, really annoying to have so many women who have clearly benefited from feminism disavow the movement. It is damaging, even. I get that.

But try to see the situation from Mayer's vantage point. She is a woman in an incredibly male dominated culture, and furthermore it is a culture that to a large extent really, truly believes itself to be a pure meritocracy (it is not- but that doesn't matter here, what matters is that the mythology of tech culture is one of meritocracy). It is not out of the tech world mainstream at all to believe that the reason there aren't more women in the field is that they lack either the aptitude or the skill. There is a strong undercurrent of distrust of even the whiff of a suggestion that someone should be hired or promoted based on anything other than pure merit. If you don't believe me on this point, I suggest you go to a general tech site- slashdot or gizmodo or some place like that, find an article about the gender imbalance in tech fields, and read the comments. You may want to get yourself a good, stiff drink first, though- it will be pretty depressing reading.

You know and I know that feminism isn't about insisting on quotas or promoting less qualified women over more qualified men. It is about removing the structural roadblocks that stand in the way of qualified women and that work against the development of more qualified women. Heck, Mayer may even know that. But that is not how it is viewed by a lot of male geeks. Even male geeks who otherwise seem like normal, logical guys, which can make speaking about this issue in the tech world a really fraught experience- you don't really know who will speak up as an ally and who will pile on and belittle you. As a women in this environment, choosing to identify strongly and publicly as a feminist isn't a simple tribute to the women whose battles blazed a path for you to follow. It is quite literally picking a fight with some of the very people who will decide whether to hire you or promote you. Even as a CEO, Mayer cannot just choose to challenge this culture. She needs the respect of her (largely male) engineering staff as she leads them through difficult times. She does not need them whispering about whether or not their female colleagues are "affirmative action hires," or speculating about whether she "gets" the people she is leading.

Is it really so surprising that a woman in her position might decide to distance herself from feminism, either consciously or unconsciously? It is not a choice I have made, or even one I agree with, but I can certainly understand it. And hey, objectively, she is way more successful than I am, so who am I to judge her strategy? And to be honest, it isn't like I loudly proclaim my feminism at work. In fact, when a topic close to feminism comes up, I usually try to steer the conversation elsewhere. I don't really want to probe what my male colleagues think on this subject too deeply, and I certainly don't want to have to tell them what I think.  Judge me on that if you want, but at least acknowledge that having in depth discussions about feminism in a hugely male dominated culture such as the one in which I work is not exactly a risk free proposition. There are many, many battles involved in trying to be successful as a woman in a male dominated field. Do we really want to get into judging which ones individual women choose to fight?

Personally, I just aim to leave the environment a little more welcoming than I found it, and to get to continue my career in my chosen field. Sometimes, continuing that career involves some compromises. That is life in the real world. I wonder if Mayer had proclaimed herself a feminist, and embraced the mantle of being a "geek girl" instead of insisting she is just a "geek", would she have gotten as far as she has? Maybe, maybe not. Do you really blame her for not wanting to find out?

Next, to the topic of work-life balance and Mayer's statement about her plans for her maternity leave. On this one, I have to say- what do people expect she'll say? "Oh yeah, a few months after I start this incredibly challenging job of turning around a floundering tech company with thousands of employees, I plan to go on leave for several months, and I expect that no one will bother me with work concerns while I'm out?" Really, folks?

Here's what I think happened: the opportunity of a lifetime landed in Mayer's lap at a less than ideal time. She decided to go for it, and Yahoo's board- to their immense credit- decided to let her. She has figured out how she's going to try to make it all work, and since Yahoo is a publicly traded company, she probably needed to say something about her plans. She is a smart woman. She almost certainly knows that what she's going to attempt to do is very difficult, and she probably also realizes that there is a lot that she doesn't know about how it will all eventually play out. But can you imagine the reaction of investors if she came out and said "you know, becoming a mother is a huge deal, and I don't really know how I'll handle it?"

Who knows if she will really only be out of the office for a few weeks, and will really work through those initial weeks. To the people saying- rather snarkily- that it can't be done, I say "bullshit." It can be done, and I know that because I know women who have done it. (And their kids are doing just fine.)

For that matter, I took phone calls and replied to emails during both of my (3 month) maternity leaves. I suspect a lot of women do- caring for my newborn did not mean that I no longer cared about what happened with my team at work. Newborns can be very demanding little creatures, but even with my first- who pretty much wanted to be either held or in motion 24/7-  I managed to do other things during her early weeks. Granted, I usually arranged to make any work phone calls I needed to make during nap time, which was accomplished by taking Pumpkin for a walk while I talked. But even as sleep deprived and frankly overwhelmed as I was, I was able to have useful work-related conversations. And here is a dirty little secret- they may have helped me get through that tough period, by reminding me that I was, in fact, a competent person, even if I was completely incapable of getting my daughter to take a nap in her crib.

This short, working maternity leave may or may not be how Mayer would have arranged her maternity leave if she were staying at Google or if the Yahoo board had called a year ago, and she were already well-established in her role as the Yahoo CEO. But realistically, what were her options? Turn down the chance to be CEO of a major tech company- a chance that may never come again? Go out on leave before she has even had a chance to establish herself in her new job? Wave a magic wand and instantly create a better world in which a CEO going on a multi-month maternity leave within months of starting the job will cause no problems whatsoever?

As some people are pointing out, being a CEO will give her the power to arrange her schedule and work environment however works best for her. I think those people are right, and I agree that having that power is a huge benefit for a mother in the workplace. I will also point out that I didn't see a lot of people worrying about whether or not Thora Arnorsdottir could handle being the premier of Iceland as well as a new mother, which was another recent high profile story of combing motherhood and power. (Yeah, I know, she didn't win- but my point is about how her run was covered by the English-speaking media.) Why are people so much more concerned about whether or not Ms. Mayer can do it? Surely running a country is at least as challenging as running a struggling tech company?

Look, there is no doubt that Mayer has a lot of big challenges ahead of her. It would be awesome if she could turn Yahoo around while also loudly championing feminist causes and demonstrating by example that women can take reasonable maternity leaves without harming their careers. But that is not in the cards. From what I can tell, she has made a point of reaching out to encourage other women in tech and she has a management style that affords her employees a fair amount of flexibility. That is enough for me. It seems that she is doing a pretty stellar job of fighting the battles she's chosen. Someone else can fight the other battles. It is hugely unfair of us to expect one woman to fight them all.


Here are some other articles and posts about this topic that I like:
  • Sarah Green in The Harvard Business Review on how being pregnant is the least of Marissa Mayer's problems. This is my favorite- if you only read one, make it this one.
  • Joan Walsh in Salon has some good points, particularly about the pregnancy angle. And I love this quote: " urge young women to read Slaughter and Sandberg and then make their own choices."
  • Hanna Rosin (I know! I am as surprised as anyone to find myself agreeing with Hanna Rosin!) has two pieces in Slate. The piece on the pregnancy aspect of the story doesn't say much, but her piece on the feminism part comes closer than anything else I've read in the mainstream media to getting what I think the truth is in how women like Mayer respond to sexism in their industry: "These women are not blind, or stupid. It’s more that they will themselves to ignore it so they can get their work done. They think of sexism in the same way people in London must think about bad weather: It’s an omnipresent and unpleasant fact of life, but it shouldn’t keep you from going about your business."
Now tell me what you think, or leave me links to other articles you think have good points. As always, I welcome discussion, and just want everyone to be civil and keep to arguing the points, not belittling the people making them. I can't moderate or even reply much during the work day, but I will come back and stomp any trolls or gratuitously mean people, and reply to the excellent comments I know you all will have!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Closer to Free

I was driving to work the other day, and the BoDeans "Closer to Free" came on the radio.

Three thoughts came into my head:

1. Although I am much less well informed since I've switched to listening to the music station on my commute, I am also no longer arriving at work already despondent about my fellow humans and their ability to get along. And sometimes a song I really like comes on and I actually arrive at work in a better mood than I was in when I left home. So overall, I think the decision to postpone my edification about the world's events to a lunchtime online news break has been a good one.

2. The technological advances just since my grad school days (when this song came out) are astounding. I remember the first time I heard this song. I was out to dinner with my then boyfriend. We were heading back to the car and this song came on the radio station that the shopping center was playing. It struck me immediately, and I made my boyfriend stop and listen to the entire thing. But they segued directly to another song without naming the song or the artist. So I cajoled my boyfriend into calling the station to find out what it was. I hate making phone calls, but I really wanted to know what the song was. Nowadays, there's an app for that. It seems like a trivial thing, but it is actually really cool and amazing that you can hold your phone up to capture the ambient music and it can tell you what the song is. Of course, I don't have a smart phone, so I'd still have to enlist help... but you get the idea.

3. OMG, the BoDeans are right. I just want to be closer to free.

OK, let me explain that last one. The memory that popped into my head to go with that line was from the first stop on our big trip, which was in French Polynesia. We had booked into a little fare in Moorea, right on the beach. We were finding French Polynesia less idyllic than we'd anticipated- basically our experiences in the Cook Islands had set the bar a bit too high. Moorea was beautiful, but we were there in December, whereas we'd always gone to the Cooks on the shoulder seasons, so it wasn't so hot and humid. Neither of us is particularly fluent in French. We prefer beer to wine, and it being French Polynesia, wine was far more prevalent (and cheaper). We'd had some hiccups getting to our lodgings, and once there discovered that we weren't close to much. Except the beach.

The view from our patio
Luckily, it was a lovely beach, next to the sort of beautiful shallow lagoon that I associate with Polynesian islands. So we weren't really complaining, but we were still definitely adjusting to the realities of the sort of travel we had undertaken- i.e., on a tighter budget than our usual shorter trips, in which we for once might prioritize saving money over saving time. 

On our first full afternoon, we went for a swim in what was essentially our private patch of lagoon. According to the diary I kept at the time, the snorkeling was underwhelming. I don't actually remember that, but I have a very clear memory of floating in the warm water next to Hubby and thinking "we have four more months of this" and getting an incredible, almost transcendent feeling of freedom. (I did not, incidentally, record that thought in my diary, which just shows how sometimes the most memorable part of traveling is not what you think is important at the time.)

In actuality, we did not spend the next four months swimming carefree in various bodies of water. That wasn't really what I was thinking about, anyway. We had four months to do with what we pleased, and that level of freedom was intoxicating at that moment.

I don't remember any other moments like that from that trip. But I can remember one other time in my adult life in which I've felt that same transcendent freedom. It was when I left the East coast town that was home to my first post-PhD job to come back to San Diego. I can't remember exactly how much time I had between jobs- maybe 4 weeks? My sister drove across country with me, and I remember how wonderfully free I felt as we drove out of town in my sporty (but practical!) little car, with the sun roof open and U2's Joshua Tree blaring from the stereo.

One of the things I love about travel, even now with kids in tow, is the way it lets me taste a bit of that freedom. Heading out for a one or two week vacation isn't as liberating as taking a four month leave of absence or driving across country in between jobs, but it still gives me the thrill of stepping outside of our usual routine, and it still offers up the possibility of doing what we want to do and not what we have to do for awhile.

This raises the obvious question of why I don't try to make my entire life more free. In one sense, I do- as I tried to explain in my much misunderstood post about buying happiness, one of the most satisfying things I do with my money is buy freedom, in that having a hefty buffer in the bank makes me feel less tethered to my job.

But I'd be lying if I said that I feel anything close to transcendent freedom on a day to day basis. I am not sure if that is even possible- perhaps having a routine to disrupt is part of the basis for the feeling. Any fabulously wealthy (or fabulously frugal) people who do not have to work want to weigh in on that?

Regardless, I'd still like to try to feel a little closer to free every day, and I've been thinking about that a lot as I think about my ideal life configuration. Obviously, choosing to have kids has restricted my freedom somewhat, as has buying a house. But if I think about what makes me feel the most trapped these days, it is not anything to do with the kids- paradoxically, they often trigger a feeling of freedom, because their fresh perspective jolts me into seeing the everyday wonderfulness of our lives. Nor is it the fact that I need to work to help support my family. I actually like working and can't imagine living a life in which I wasn't trying to create something most days. The choice of the word "create" may surprise you, but I consider informatics (and science, for that matter) to be intensely creative endeavors. I am trying to create systems that will help other scientists create knowledge.

No, what makes me feel trapped is my interactions with other people- and not all other people, just some of them. The ones who don't play well with others, to be precise. If I reduce it to essentials, I am tired of dealing with other people's immense egos, and working around other people's inflexiblities.

Of course, unless I decide to switch to a career as a hermit philosopher, I'm unlikely to get away from these problems. But when I think back on the times that I've been happiest at work, one of two scenarios was in play: either I was working with a really tight team, who all pulled together for a common goal and among whom mutual respect was a given, or I was working as a contractor. Apparently, if I am paid by the hour I have much more patience for long meetings to negotiate an agreement that any sane person would have given me in 20 seconds, even when my negotiation partner is treating me with an obvious lack of respect. When I put it like that, I'm not sure why that realization surprised me, but it did.

The other thing that makes me feel trapped is the expectations of the modern work place in terms of how I work: when, where, in what environment. I wish I could just arrange my work life in the way that I find most productive and enjoyable, but I have to make compromises with what my colleagues need from me and what work culture expects.

I'm not sure what these realizations will mean in terms of my emerging life plan. But each little realization about what makes me happy and what I want moves me a step or two closer to figuring out how my puzzle pieces best go together, and that in itself makes me happy.

And in the meantime, I think I'll keep the car radio tuned to the music station.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Trip Story: The Road to Austin

We had several options for how to drive between Houston and Austin. I had a friend I wanted to visit who lives near the route that goes through Brenham, though, so we settled on taking US-290. The stop in Brenham was great. It was nice to see my friend and her husband, and how could I not love the fact that the coffee shop we met at was called the Mobius Strip?

And of course, we made the pilgrimage to the Blue Bell factory. We skipped the tour, because our timing wasn't right. But Pumpkin and I enjoyed an ice cream, and Pumpkin and Petunia enjoyed the souvenir shop. Petunia picked out a pen that smells like ice cream. Strangely, it is often the only pen I can find in the kitchen. It works well, but the sweet scent always takes me by surprise. Pumpkin picked out an ice cream scoop with a bottom shaped like a cow's udder. It also works well, and amuses Pumpkin and her father.

But the highlight of the drive was actually this road sign, which we passed not long after leaving Houston:

To understand why, I have to take you to Singapore, and our decision to try cooking for ourselves one night, in the apartment of the friend we were staying with. He was off on a long weekend to Indonesia with his girlfriend, but gave us directions to the nearest shops likely to stock things we recognized. We bought pasta and various other ingredients. My husband found a six pack of Tiger beer. And I found Kickapoo Joy Juice.

It delighted me, not so much for the taste- a bit like Mountain Dew- but for the ridiculousness of the name. So, of course, coming across a Kickapoo Road almost 10,000 miles away delighted me, too. Of course, the Kickapoo are a Native American tribe in Texas and Oklahoma, so the road name makes far more sense than the soda name.

Still, this is one of the things I like about travel- the unexpected connections. My husband has a tendency to look around some new place and saying how it reminds him of some other place, because of various reasons that always seem a bit of a stretch to me. This drives me a bit batty, to be honest, but I understand the underlying impulse. You travel the world, thinking the point is to see how different the various places are. But as you go, you realize that seeing the similarities is one of the rewards of travel, too.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Thoughts on Books and Publishing Edition

I came across several things related to writing and publishing books this week. The fact that there are parts of all of these things that I agree really captures how I haven't really formed a coherent set of opinions about books and publishing!

First up, Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror has turned a bunch of his most popular blog posts about programming into an eBook... but he still thinks writing a book is a waste of time. (He is writing specifically about technical books- I don't know what he thinks about other types of books.) He has some really good points about how people get technical information and the relative pay off of writing a book versus, say, writing code.

Another blogger I read is also writing a book- Moxie of AskMoxie (the first parenting blog I read regularly, and still an oasis of "different approaches for different kids and families" sanity in a sea of judgmental obnoxiousness) is going to put out a parenting book. I'm sure she will draw on old posts, but it also seems like she's doing a lot of writing just for the book. This week, she had a post with her planned table of contents and one explaining why she's self-publishing. It looks like I'll be past the parenting time period she's writing about by the time the book comes out, but I may buy it anyway, as a way to pay her back for all of the support and sanity-saving venting and advice I got from her site in the early years. I don't always agree with her on everything- most notably on homeopathic remedies and various chemical related health scares- but on the core parenting advice, her site is a great resource, because she gives her opinion and then hosts a great discussion with lots of other opinions and ideas.

Next, Ginger at Ramble Ramble has a short plea about how to really help authors you love. Back when I put up a weekend reading post with links to short eBooks I'd enjoyed, Calee (who runs Xist Publishing - the company that published the kids eBooks I reviewed back when I first got my Kindle Fire) suggested I post some of the same comments I had on those books on Amazon. I am ashamed to say I still haven't done that... although it is on my list of things to do! In my defense, I can tell from my Amazon Associates stats that my post led to the sale of several copies of each of the books I mentioned.

Speaking of Xist Publishing, they are running a promotion around signing up for their email newsletter. And now is a good time to disclose that I'm going to have a book coming out Xist Publishing at some point- they've accepted the story I tell Pumpkin at bedtime, and it is with an illustrator now. I decided to go with a small publishing company like Xist for several reasons: (1) I didn't want to have to go the usual "find an agent, send my story off to a lot of big companies route." Not for any philosophical reasons, but because I don't have the time. If Calee hadn't liked the story, it probably would just stay something I tell my kids! (2) I like the production quality of the books Xist puts out. Frankly, I think it is better than what a lot of the big houses are doing for their kids books, and it is certainly better than what I would have done on my own. (3) Even if I could have found an illustrator on my own (a big if, and believe me, there was no way I could have actually illustrated the book myself), I liked the idea of having someone to run the marketing, etc. Marketing is not my strong suite, and even if it were, it isn't something I enjoy and want to spend my "spare" time on.

Basically, I agree with Scalzi on the value of specialization and having people do the things they are good at. Except, as Moxie described in her post... sometimes that leads to good stuff not getting published, and I'm all for good stuff being published.

But speaking of Scalzi (and his traditional publisher, Tor)... he's got a serialized eBook coming out soon, which I think is a really interesting idea. I think we'll see more of this sort of innovation in the future. Or at least I hope we do.

So I guess if you put all of this together I think that there is space for a lot of different approaches in publishing, at least for the time being. What about you? Do you have a coherent opinion on publishing these days? Or even an incoherent one? Tell me about it in the comments.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Not Necessarily California Dreaming

I've had a lot of work/career things going on this week, none of which I can blog about, but which are combining to consume most of my mental space- which is why I've sort of been AWOL here.  But in amongst all the practical and operational thoughts, I found some thoughts about what I really want out of life sneaking in, and this thought popped into my head: when my girls are older (i.e., old enough to really appreciate travel), I'd like to take a month off every summer and travel with them. It'd be ideal if my husband could come, too, but not absolutely required. Maybe he'd only be able to join us for part of the time.

This obviously raises some interesting questions about how to be able to afford both the time off and the expense of the trips.

So I started thinking about how I could make it happen. Remember, this would be something I'd do starting in about 5-7 years. Here is the list I came up with:
  1. I could downsize the dream to two weeks per year- that'd be no problem
  2. I could negotiate the right to take time off w/o pay and to take such a long vacation with my boss
  3. I could be an independent contractor in my current field, and try to arrange my projects to give me a month off every summer
  4. I could make a career switch into a more flexible career- i.e., something that I could do from hotel rooms in the evenings during my month of travel (assuming my kids aren't staying up super late by then). This would probably require accepting a smaller income, but that should be manageable once the kids are both out of day care.
  5. I could move to a country where a four week holiday is the norm, not a wild dream
  6. I could start my own business and staff it with the goal of everyone being able to take a month off every year. (This would also require a career change- I don't think I'm likely to start a biotech. But then again... I have a friend who did, so never say never!)
What do you think? Have I missed an option? Do you have any sort of wild, almost achievable dreams like this?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Don't Be Afraid of Plan C

Yes, that's me
My twitter feed on Sunday was awash with references to the Washington Post article about the difficulties many young scientists are having finding jobs. Several people agreed with underemployed industry scientist quoted at the end, saying they will also steer their children away from careers in science:

"Haas, the former drug company chemist, has even harsher words. She plans to “get out of Jersey and get out of science” when her daughter graduates from high school in two years. “She’s very good at everything, very smart,” Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”"

It made me stop and think: what would I tell my daughters?

There is no denying that the scientific job market is incredibly tough right now. The assumption that many scientists of my generation had- that if you were good enough, an academic position could be yours- is now completely false. The statistic quoted in the article, that only 14 % of bioscientists land professorships within 5 years of completing their PhD, makes that clear. To be honest, the assumption was already wrong when I was leaving grad school almost 15 year ago, but I think the situation has gotten worse over the years.

There is also no denying the fact that the industry job market has been shedding jobs at an astounding rate lately. I have obviously never bought into the idea that an industry career was a lesser option than an academic one, but I do think that having a strong industrial job market helped absorb some of the pressure produced by the incredibly tough academic one- and that strong job market is gone, replaced by a much different one, more prone to booms and busts. This has hit a lot of fields hard, but I think it has hit chemists like the one quoted in the article especially hard. They were once at the top of the pharma totem pole, with a well-paying, stable job practically considered a given if you got your PhD from the "right" place and were willing to relocate to New Jersey. They now face a reality in which pharma is contracting, biologics are siphoning away a growing slice of the resources, and a lot of chemistry work is being outsourced to China and India.

So I agree, the scientific job market is grim. As I mentioned in my post with advice about how to break into industry, right now, you can do everything "right" and still struggle to find a job. I do not blame young scientists at all for feeling like they have been left holding the bill after the collapse of a giant Ponzi scheme.

But there is also no denying that for me, getting a PhD in science was a great move. I like the career I have now, and that career would not have been possible without the PhD, even though many of the positions I've held did not really need me to have that level of training. Others did, and for others still the PhD was required to be hired, if not to do the work. I also look back on my experience in graduate school as a mainly positive one, which expanded my knowledge and built up my confidence. Even if I'd never held a job that used the skills I acquired during my graduate studies, I do not think I'd regret the time I spent getting my PhD. Certainly, if I eventually decide to make a career change and leave science (something I am considering, for reasons unrelated to the job market situation) I will still feel like having a PhD helped me get to where I want to be in life.

I am not sure where people like me fit into stories such as the one in the Washington Post. I am no longer doing scientific research, but I often use the scientific knowledge and solid reasoning skills I built up during my graduate work and in subsequent positions. I do not run a research group, but I do run a group. Strictly speaking, I am not doing the work I trained to do, but I view my current work as a reasonable (and satisfying) progression from my training.

However, I am also not convinced that my current career path will carry me through until retirement, which is at least 25 years away. I haven't decided what that means to me, but I think that I've picked up plenty of transferable skills along the way, starting back in graduate school, so the fact that I may need to reinvent myself sooner or later doesn't really bother me. I also don't think that the situation would be much different in most other careers. We live in interesting times, at least from a job market standpoint, in which a lot of the things that previous generations could count on are changing.

I can understand why all of this bothers other people, though, particularly younger people who have not had a chance to build up the career experience and bank account that I have. There is a reason that "may you live in interesting times" is considered a curse, not a blessing. I don't know what the solution is. I've heard suggestions for more permanent staff positions in academic research, and those suggestions sound reasonable, although I do not think that we should kid ourselves: professorships will still be seen as the ultimate goal, and those who want one and don't get one will probably still feel the sting, even if they get a stable position with decent pay and benefits.

I have no clear solutions for industry, either. Our system for paying for the development of new drugs is in a bit of a shambles, and there is enough blame in that to cover all the major players: investors who demand unrealistic growth from such an inherently risky industry, pharma executives who chase that growth in destructive ways, venture capitalists who follow fads in biotech, biotech executives and founders who don't know what they don't know about running a business and fritter away millions in venture dollars, industry scientists who don't like the realities of being in industry and help to fritter away those millions of dollars, governments who refuse to come to terms with the health care costs associated with our aging populations and unhealthy lifestyles, and the general public that expects miracle drugs but seems offended by the idea that someone will have to pay for them. I don't have personal knowledge of other science-heavy industries, but I suspect that those who do could tell similar stories. These are complex industries, run by fallible human beings. Of course they aren't perfect.

Is the answer to shrink the supply of scientists? I don't know. I am uncomfortable with a free society trying to dictate career paths to its members. But I do think we need to be more honest early in the education process about the odds of landing a true "scientist" job, while also purging the silly and outdated judgment that having a science PhD (or M.S. or B.S.) but a non-scientist job is somehow a failure. Someone with an English Literature degree who goes on to do well in a completely unrelated field is considered a success. Why do we insist on viewing science degrees differently? Academic scientists at all levels need to resist any temptation to sugar coat the situation in the interest of recruiting more hands for their labs. And industry scientists- and "sort of scientists" like me- need to be more open to retraining people rather than just moaning about how we can't find the candidate with the exactly perfect combination of skills and background.

Students pursuing or considering degrees in science are, by and large, quite smart people. Given the full and honest story, they will probably be able to work out for themselves whether or not they think a particular course of study is worth their time. The article mentions that physicists have a lower unemployment rate than other scientists. I can remember when that was not the case. It is certainly not the case now because there are more positions in physics than in chemistry or the biosciences. I strongly suspect that it is because the bottom dropped out of the physics job market many years ago, and the supply of physicists has adjusted itself accordingly. I'm sure that if you asked someone doing a physics post doc during that contraction what he or she thought about it all, you would have heard a story of angst, anger, and confusion similar to the ones we're hearing from chemists and biologists now. For that matter, I personally witnessed the initial impact of the boom in offshoring in IT and software engineering. I listened to many a rant about the disappearance of supposedly guaranteed jobs, and strategized with many friends- including the one who is now my husband- about how to stay employable in the new environment. Major changes in job markets suck to live through, no doubt about it.

So what will I tell my kids if they show an interest in pursing a career in science? They are young enough now that the only thing I can say with confidence about the job market they will face is that it will be different from the one we have now. But I doubt the days of stable jobs in unchanging industries will come back. I think I will tell them to pursue whatever subjects interest them, but to keep an eye on the market for the skills they are learning, and to always be open to the possibility that they will need a plan B. Or even a plan C and D. I think that if you told the idealistic young woman I was when I headed off to graduate school what I am doing now, she would say that I'm on plan C- maybe even plan D. But I have a great life, and no regrets. So go ahead and get that PhD if you enjoy the work, but don't do it with an expectation of a guaranteed job in your field at the end of it. Those days are gone and unlikely to return- although you might get lucky, like I did. You won't know if you don't try, and there is no harm in trying if you enjoy the journey and not just the outcome, and can block out the internal and external voices telling you that changing careers after getting a PhD means that you failed.

But that is advice for kids who are 2 and 5 right now. I'm not sure I have any advice for the people caught in the churn right now, other than to keep your chin up. The struggles you are facing aren't saying anything about your scientific skills or intelligence. And don't be afraid of plan C. It might be a pretty sweet plan.