Friday, September 28, 2012

Weekend Reading: Things I Liked Edition

I'm in the eye of the storm at work... Pumpkin is doing much better with school. (No more tears! Kindergarten is fun!) We completed specification on one project (phew) and have finished preparations for the big vendor visit to install customizations they did for us (major phew).

But the vendors arrive on Monday and are here all week with a very busy schedule, and then the following week we release version 2.0 for another project. Oh, and next Tuesday is Petunia's birthday, Wednesday is our "back to school" night where we get to actually speak to her teacher in English, and next Sunday is her party.

All of which is my excuse for why the links I have for you this week are just a random mishmash of things I've liked recently. In no particular order (except maybe the order in which I found these things... and I wouldn't swear to that):

First, I really liked this review of Redshirts, even though I am completely non-religious. Warning, though- there is a GIANT spoiler in the first comment.

Second, how cool is it that Google has implemented an algorithm to calculate an actor's Bacon number?

Third, I love this post from Bad Mom Good Mom, which I just find wonderfully eclectic. It also makes me want to read Little Brother.

Fourth, Oil and Garlic had an awesome mini-rant about useless financial advice and the fundamental wrongness of expecting people to bargain hunt on health care in a crisis situation.

Fifth, Hush had a thought-provoking post about whether or not yelling at your kids is really the terrible thing it is sometimes made out to be. As I say over there, I remember getting yelled at from time to time as a child, and do not think it did me any harm whatsoever. Which is a good thing, because, uh, there's been some yelling here lately while all members of the family try to find their way back to equilibrium in the new routine.

Sixth, my friend Steve had a great post about being a Taker. If only there were more Takers like him out there. Really, go read his post.

Seventh, The Mama Bee has a post decrying the lack of working mother mentors out in the public sphere. I agree that there is a dearth of specific advice out there. But I wonder if part of that is because getting specific gets you backlash, and seems to open up your life and your advice to be scrutinized for evidence of imperfection. I have at various times been told that my career isn't "big" enough to make my advice useful, that my husband is too unusually involved to make my advice relevant, and that my life is so overscheduled that I must be miserable and be lying when I say I am happy. And that is just writing on a little personal blog. Imagine if I published my advice on a larger stage!

I'll also own up to finding things I liked in the Slaughter piece about not being able to have it all and in the piece The Mama Bee links to about not trying to be perfect. They're neither of them perfect, but then maybe that is part of the point. I guess I can live with imperfect writing about being a working mother, although I really like The Mama Bee's point about how these pieces are all coming from women who have already reached the top of their professions, which lends a certain oddness to their words.

I also can't help thinking as I read these pieces about how limited the various solutions on offer are, and how much better we could make things if we could really shake off the constraints imposed on our imaginations by centuries of patriarchal culture. Reading Mother Nature gave me some ideas about what we could do differently if we started from a more inclusive place. I really should get around to writing up my thoughts about that... but not until things calm down a little bit on either the work or home front!

Finally, my husband is on a quest to keep me up on the latest memes... and the best parodies of said memes.

Enjoy! Posting may be light to non-existent next week while I wait for the second half of the storm to blow through.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Luring Me Physical

A good friend of mine from college came through town last weekend, which was awesome- and not just because we accidentally double-booked the weekend and Mr. Snarky resolved the problem by taking the girls on the promised camping trip with our day care buddies while I got to stay home and hang out with my friend. (That was pretty awesome, though.)

My friend is an expert in commercial real estate, and at one point, we ended up discussing what it takes to get people like me to go to physical stores. Apparently, relatively wealthy mothers like myself are a much sought-after demographic. I laughed and said that I spent much more time in stores back in my single days, but she pointed out that one of the things we did with my kid-and-husband free time was run an errand at Target. Fair point. We'd gone to Target because I needed to get things for Petunia's upcoming birthday party and a gift for one of her friends' birthdays. I could probably have found the party plates and favors online, but I like to get kids' gifts at a physical store, for the ease of returns. I don't know what the other kid likes, already has, etc., etc., and I don't want to hand some other family the chore of packaging up my gift and shipping it back to Amazon.

And that started us talking about what it takes to get someone like me into a physical store. Here is my list of things I prefer to buy at a physical store, along with my reasons:
  • Gifts for other people's kids (so that they can have easy returns)
  • Clothes for me (so that I can try them on)
  • Shoes for me (same thing)
  • Groceries (no idea why- I guess because of the delivery timing problem
  • Technical books (I like to scan through these before I buy- but with the advent of things like StackOverflow and other online tech resources, and with my transition into management, I buy very few tech books these days.)
  • Furniture (so I can see it and examine the quality)
And that's about it. I do sometimes buy other things in a physical store, but only if that works out to be more convenient than ordering online. I suspect my days of just ordering things for Pumpkin are going to come to an end relatively soon- she is starting to have some strong opinions about what sort of clothes she wants. So far, though, I haven't seen a need to try her clothes on before we buy them, so we can still order online, I just need to have her sitting next to me when I'm browsing.

My friend and I talked some more about my idea clothing store, too. I would love to find a store that stocked an invariant core of staple clothing (I guess the industry calls these "classics"), and just had a varying range of fashionable things around that core. I hate how hard it is to find a shirt that fits right, and that even if a shirt from one store fit one year, I can't count on it having the same cut the next year. And don't get me started about finding pants that fit!

After thinking some more, I thought that a store that had some clothes for me, some clothes for my kids, and a train table and a bunch of books to distract my kids while I shopped would get a lot of return business from me, particularly if they also had the core staples I want. I could see going in to pick up a new pair of black pants, for instance, and letting the kids play for a short time while I browsed through the fashionable tops. Somehow, I never have enough tops. I'd probably end up buying whatever the kids needed at the time, too, rather than ordering it online. (This only works if the prices aren't outrageous- they don't have to be cheaper than the discount places, but they can't be in the "only for the independently wealthy" range, either. Maybe $10-$20 for kids items, and Nordstrom level pricing for me.)

Of course, no such store exists, at least not here in San Diego. Old Navy is the closest, and their clothes just don't work for me. Also, the store is too big and chaotic for me to shop while letting my kids play. So I'll stick with my current infrequent clothes shopping schedule- and I'll probably continue to try to buy some of my clothes online, even though I have a pretty poor success rate with that approach. I'd say that about half the time I'm really happy with what I ordered, and half the time I'm not. I am rarely unhappy enough to bother with the return, though, so I guess the online retailers are winning- except that I do eventually learn and give up on a particular store/brand.

What about you? What things do you prefer to buy in a physical store? And why? What would a store need to do to compete with the online retailers and get your business on merit? I'm less interested in people choosing to shop local on principle- that's cool, but there are a lot of principles competing for my time, if you know what I mean. You can, of course, argue with me about that in the comments, too!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Project Managing Happiness

A while back, Gretchen Rubin offered me an advance copy of her new book, Happier at Home. I'd read her original Happiness Project, and found it interesting, so I said "sure, send me a copy."

Like the earlier book, Happier at Home is a quick and easy read. And like the earlier book, it made me think about what I could do to increase my happiness.  I think happiness is worth working for, so I enjoy the parts of her books where she argues that happiness is an important goal, and that we can make a conscious decision to do things that will actually increase our happiness. This seems so obvious to me, but I know that a lot of people disagree.

To a certain extent, the naysayers have science on their side- there are studies that show that people have differing baseline levels of happiness, and generally happy people will stay generally happy even when bad things happen, while generally unhappy people will stay generally unhappy even when good things happen. But I also think that we can change our baseline happiness level, at least to a certain extent. I once read an article in a yoga magazine that argued that you could get in mental ruts, and meditation could help you break out of them. I thought all of the mechanisms proposed in that article were complete bunk, but it made me think about the fact that in my experience, I could get into emotional ruts. I thought about what we know about how we learn and form memories, and how the brain has mechanisms that are basically set up to strengthen the memories we use most often. And I ended up deciding that I do actually believe that we can get in unhealthy emotional ruts, and that making a consicious effort to break out of a rut would actually have a good chance of being successful, because doing so would help weaken the synapses that encode the unhelpful memories that form the "rut" while strengthening synapses that encode better memories. (If you want to know more about the mechanism I'm talking about, search for information on brain plasticity. I also want to emphasize that this assumes a healthy starting state- I'm not talking about depression, which involves changes in how the brain functions. )

So anyway, that is a long-winded way of saying that I am sympathetic to Gretchen's basic premise. As I read Happier at Home, I realized that a lot of her techniques to improve her happiness and keep herself on track are classic project management techniques- break down the larger goal (being happier) into smaller component tasks, track progress, recognize and reward intermediate milestones, etc. When I think about it, I use a lot of project management techniques in my non-work life, too. There's to do lists, of course, which are really the same thing as an action item list. But I also define projects, and break them down into smaller tasks, and track progress against those tasks- even for things as amorphous as "enjoy the summer more". (I should write a post about our "fun to do list for summer 2012" sometime- we made a pretty good showing at crossing things off that list, and it did make us enjoy our summer more.)

And that is a long-winded way of saying that I'm also sympathetic to Gretchen's approach. Given that, it isn't really surprising that I enjoyed reading the book. I picked up some concrete ideas of things to try, like the after school adventures I may try with the kids and the decorating for breakfast idea that I tried to cheer up Pumpkin. It also made me think about what little tweaks I could make to our household processes that would boost happiness, and what larger projects I might try to do the same. It has also made me think about the idea of project managing my own happiness, and I suspect that I'll get some useful ideas from that line of thought. So far, I'm thinking that maybe I should try identifying some intermediate milestones for some of my own happiness-related projects, but I need to let the idea rattle around in my brain for awhile longer before I settle on any concrete actions.

A few people have asked me whether they should read this book if they'd already read The Happiness Project. My answer is that it depends. If you disliked The Happiness Project, you'll dislike this book, too. If you liked the Happiness Project, you'll probably like this one, and the question becomes whether it has enough new insights and ideas to be worth your time. I didn't think there were any big new insights, but second book had more specific ideas that seemed directly useful to me, and the fact that it made me think about the subject again was actually pretty useful- it arrived at a hectic time, and I'd lost sight of how to keep myself feeling happy. I appreciated the reminder, and you might, too.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Work and Productivity Edition

As I've mentioned before, I'm in the midst of a crunch time at work. I've been dutifully tracking my time through it, and when I get a chance to sit down and analyze the results, I may have some interesting things to say about work and productivity. (Spoiler alert: even in this crunch time, my total hours of actual work per week has hovered at about 40.) But for right now, I will instead give you links to other people saying interesting things about work and productivity:

First, here's a nice article from Inc that agrees with what I argued in my post about a project manager's view on long hours: that long hours are counterproductive, and something a good manager should try to avoid, not demand from his or her team.

 Next, it turns out that my proclivity for wearing a "uniform" and eating the same breakfast and lunch most days is a good thing, at least from the standpoint of allowing me to make good decisions in other areas.

Having recently watched a couple of people spectacularly fail at The Second Test, I find Rands' post on the second test new members of a team face to be completely spot on.

I really like this idea from Cal Newport about the productivity benefit of working in a novel place. I wish I could try it out more often in my life! Sadly, my current job does not easily accommodate this approach, although we do have developers who do something similar, and it generally works well for them.

I found this article about the importance of feeling stupid via nicoleandmaggie's links post last week. I don't do research anymore, but there are analogous situations in the tech space I occupy now. Sometimes, feeling stupid is a necessary first step to understanding and solving a problem. It took me a while, but I finally realized that the panicky "I don't know how I'm going to get this project done" feeling doesn't mean I'm not qualified to do the project. It is the necessary first step to tackling a really novel problem.

And also via Nicoleandmaggie, I've been hearing a lot about Boice and his research into productivity, specifically writing productivity. I looked into buying the books they recommend, but they are either not available for Kindle (my preferred reading method these days) or are clearly priced for people buying on grant money (it was the first time I've seen a Kindle edition priced at $85). I did a little googling, and found this re-analysis of some of Boice's data, which I thought had some interesting ideas about writing and the generation of creative ideas.

Laura Vanderkam has a good post about the benefits of making slow and steady progress on large projects. I'm generally quite comfortable with this technique- I even advocate explicitly breaking big projects down into smaller tasks on your to do lists. But I have a project I need to apply this approach to right now. I want to do it, and it is stalled out because I keep telling myself the fiction that I need a big chunk of uninterrupted time to make any progress. That just isn't true. Unfortunately, I'm so swamped with other stuff that I haven't found even the small amounts of time it would take. Soon, soon.

I'll be taking most of the weekend off- I have a good friend in town and that trumps work. It even trumps blogging. Have a happy weekend everyone!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Building a Life

Laura Vanderkam and Anandi at House of Peanut both had posts up last week about working and parenting, and the way this plays out in couples. The posts got me thinking about why I work, and I realized that I couldn't easily articulate my reasons. Sure, I work to help support my family, and the fact that I work means that my husband doesn't ever have to feel trapped by his job, just like they discuss. And I have been known to use the fact that I make more money than my husband to shutdown questions about why I don't stay home with the kids. If I'm completely honest, though, none of that really explains why I work. If I didn't want to work, we could arrange our lives to make that possible.

So I work because I want to. By why do I want to? I work because working is necessary to my vision of what I want my life to be. In fact, the money part is not actually necessary to that vision- I aspire to arrange my finances such that I do not feel that my choices about what work to do are quite so constrained by my need to bring in money to help support my family.

As I rocked Petunia toward sleep tonight, I thought more about my life and what I want it to be. Like most people, my life is a mishmash of different pieces, which I try to arrange in a meaningful way. I think my building blocks fall into three main categories:
Relationships. It is important to me that I do right by the other people in my life. Unsurprisingly, this is an area that has gathered a lot more blocks since I've had kids, but it was always an important area to me. I was never going to be someone who subordinated her personal relationships to some grand enterprise, even if that enterprise would do wonderful things for the rest of the world.

Joy. I really do think that being happy is one of the most important things I can aim for in my life. If I am not enjoying my life, I think about why and try to fix it. I've recently realized that for me, a big part of feeling happy is feeling free, and I'm still working through what I think that means to me and the life I've built.

If I'm honest, this aspect of my life has taken a bit of a hit since having kids, even though the kids themselves bring a lot of joy to me. I think the reason for that is that we have allowed the kids to constrain some of the other things, big and small, that bring me joy: travel, eating out, reading. I'm working to fix that, to the extent that we can, and I have made peace with the fact that I need to do that work. Having kids was a major change to my life and to my sense of identity. It shouldn't really be surprising that it has taken me a few years to find my equilibrium again.

Meaning. This is where work comes in. I want to leave the world a little better than I found it. I want to create things that touch other people. If I didn't try to do these things, I would feel a big hole in my life.

I've written about my struggles to find the "right" work for me and how I've been feeling restless in my career. The more I've thought about it, the more I realize that this isn't because I am fundamentally unhappy with the work I am doing now. It is because I am having a hard time figuring out in which way I can best contribute. Here is a list of the things I care about, in no particular order:
  1. Improving the way other scientists organize their data, with the idea that doing so will help them get more value from that data and the information it provides. This is a major component of my current job, and I still care about it. It bothers me that we do so much better at organizing our shopping data than our scientific data.
  2. Contributing to drug discovery. There are so many unmet medical needs out there- too many cancer diagnoses are essentially death sentences, we have so little to offer people with mental illnesses, infectious diseases still kill people, etc., etc. I know that a lot of people disparage the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, and believe me, I do not think my industry is perfect. But we are still the ones trying to meet those unmet needs. I like being a part of that.
  3. Getting more women and minorities into science and technology. I think these are the fields that find solutions to a lot of problems, and I want as much diversity in these fields as possible, to increase the odds that we solve the most important problems. Also, there are some great and rewarding jobs in these fields (see point 2), and I want those jobs to be open to everyone.
  4. Convincing people that you can have a meaningful and successful career without subsuming your entire life to it- even in science and technology. I think this is closely related to the diversity problem. I also think that getting rid of the "real scientists and engineers will do whatever the work requires" stereotype would lead to more productivity and creativity, not less. Not to mention happier scientists and engineers.
  5. Providing equal education to all kids, regardless of income and location. In my view, education is the path to a happier life, because it is a path to a life with more choices (or freedom, if you will). It is the path out of poverty, and it is so, so unfair of us to propagate a narrative in which "anyone" can succeed while at the same time stacking the deck against the kids whose parents don't make enough money to buy their way to a good education. I know that the solution to poverty and the achievement gap is not as simple as just providing equal education... but I still think it would be a great start.
I'm probably not going to build something this grand
There are probably other things I'm forgetting now, but the fact that those came to mind first indicates that they may be what matter most to me. But I haven't figured out how to best allocate my energy. Should I focus on 1 and 2, hope that I make some small impact on 3 and 4 by example, and just throw my spare money at 5? This is my current configuration. Or should I try to change my focus to something else- maybe 3 or 4?- throw money at 2 as well as 5, and figure I've made as much contribution as I'm going to make towards 1? And if I did that, what would be the most effective way to make an impact?

I don't know the answers. I haven't even figured out how to try to find them. I've been reading various books (and I have some more on my list to read), and doing a lot of thinking, but I'm not making much progress. I feel like I have dumped out all my blocks and divided them up by color, but haven't figured out what I want to build. All I know for certain is that I can't build something that pleases me without using my full range of blocks. So I won't be giving up work anytime soon- if I ever do.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Keep Calm and Muddle On

Remember back in late June and early July, when I said that my work and life were ganging up on me? Well, it is happening again. I've got eight projects running at work right now, which is about twice what I think a project manager should try to handle. Two of them are hitting major inflection points in the next 2-3 weeks, another couple have just exited the proof of concept phase and are rolling into full development phase, another one is just wrapping up technical specification and will also be under active development soon. We're going to try out a new programming framework on that one. That should be... interesting. I've transferred the management of another project to a team member who wants to learn how to be a project manager, and the other two I'm pretty much ignoring right now, checking in on progress weekly at best.

Oh, and I'm also running my group. I have a quarterly report to turn in, and a couple of reasonably big software purchases to watch over (thankfully, someone else is actually negotiating the details of those). I'm lucky I have such good employees and contractors- they don't need a lot of "people management." But still, "hectic" is a charitable description of my work days right now.

Meanwhile, at home, Pumpkin started Kindergarten and Petunia's about to turn three.

Mr. Snarky and I have divided up the Petunia birthday party planning tasks, and since we're old pros at this by now, that isn't actually stressing us out too much- it is just adding items to our to do list.

But the Kindergarten honeymoon period ended on Wednesday last week, and Pumpkin apparently spent a good part of that day in tears. I think that it finally sunk in that her teacher really is only going to speak Spanish to her. She cried a bit before bed and in the morning for the rest of the week. She says Kindergarten is harder than she thought it would be, and she misses her friends from day care. I tried various things to cheer her up, with mixed success. The idea that she should wear the Hello Kitty watch my sister brought back from China for her- which I pulled out in desperation when she was crying Thursday morning and saying she didn't want to go to school- was a surprisingly good one. She says it reminds her of all the people who love her, and she wears it every day now. The idea of decorating the breakfast table, which I borrowed from Gretchen Rubin's Happier at Home, amused her and Petunia, but didn't really help. To be fair, the idea in the book is to have special holiday breakfasts on the "minor holidays" like St. Patrick's Day- but I was grasping for ideas, so I ran out at lunch on Thursday and bought a bunch of fall decorations and some stickers at the nearest drug store.

My idea for getting Pumpkin off to school without too many tears this morning was to go out on the weekend and buy some new clothes. We hadn't really done any back to school shopping, and I wondered if having some new clothes would make her excited to go to school. We'd also discovered that her backpack was too small to easily hold the folders that get sent from school, so we bought a new backpack. Pumpkin picked out a Hello Kitty backpack. And a Hello Kitty shirt. And some Hello Kitty shoes. And a Hello Kitty hat. Noticing a theme? But hey- I would have bought every single Hello Kitty item at Target if it would help Pumpkin get through this period at Kindergarten where she doesn't have a lot of friends and can't fully understand her teacher. I think I got off easy. Anyway, it worked. Pumpkin was excited to wear all her new Hello Kitty gear to school, and didn't cry this morning.

Pumpkin and I also had a talk Friday after school, and I asked her what she thought we could do to help her be happier at school. She thought about it, and said she thought we should study Spanish over the weekend, so that she would understand more of what her teacher says. So we did that, too. She pulled out a Spanish workbook my uncle had given her over the summer, and worked on it. I found some better Spanish flashcard apps for my Kindle Fire, which she liked. We watched some Pocoyo in Spanish on my computer. Pumpkin always begs to watch video on my Fire, too, so I searched and found Rock 'N Learn: Spanish, which I find unbelievably cheesy but Pumpkin loves. We listened to my "listen and learn" Spanish CDs whenever we drove anywhere. And, best of all, my parents sent her a Spanish-English Picture Dictionary, which arrived on Saturday. She was thrilled to discover she already knows quite a few of the words, and loves to be quizzed on the words on a page. (There are helpful pronunciation guides for her monoglot quizzmasters.)

Either the cramming helped, or things are just starting to click from the immersion program, because she said tonight that she understood almost everything the teacher said. This is probably an exaggeration, and she said she was still a bit sad at school, but she didn't cry tonight, or at least she didn't cry about school. There were some tears shed when her mean, mean father made her go brush her teeth.

There are a lot of other things going on, too. Pumpkin really wanted to start gymnastics, and of course, the session started Saturday, and it took roughly a gazillion emails and phone calls to get signed up for that. Petunia had a fever a couple weeks ago, and she has a snotty nose and a cough now, and both of the fever and the cough mess with her sleep, and by extension, my sleep. At times, things still seem to be teetering on the edge of collapse, both at work and at home. But I'm learning to handle that better, and live with organization that falls far short of my usual standards, but still somehow seems to be good enough. At one of my project meetings last week, I said something about how we'd come back and improve our build and deploy process in a few weeks, when the lead programmer has time to tighten things up, but in the meantime, we'd just muddle on. That made me think of the British slogan from WWII- "keep calm and carry on." So that night, I grabbed an image of that poster and doctored it with what I think will be my slogan for the next little while: keep calm and muddle on. Perhaps I should have t-shirts made.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Brave New Cultural World Edition

Long-time readers of this blog probably know that I am fascinated by how the internet and mobile technologies are changing people's lives, particularly with regard to how content and data are generated and consumed (and paid for). This week's links all touch on that topic.

First, a fascinating post about "big data" and some of the ethical questions it raises.  As an old school relational database geek, I initially had a hard time with his assertion that "you decide what data is about the moment you define its schema," because I have always tried to make schemas that accurately capture the full meaning of the data I'm storing- that gives you more flexibility in the queries you can later support, i.e., does exactly what he is arguing is new about big data. However, I do give a lot of attention to defining the scope, and leaving something out of scope would mean that you couldn't easily ask a question of the data about it later. Also as databases get really big, you often flatten out relationships and optimize at least a set of summary tables for fast queries, and in doing that you must choose what sorts of queries you're going to optimize. So in the end, I decided I agreed with his argument.

The above post links to a post on OKtrends about racial differences in preferences, based on an analysis of how people of different races describe themselves in online data profiles. This is also a fascinating post. Really, most of the posts on OKtrends are, in an almost creepy, "should I really be able to see this data?" sort of way.

Next, in a completely different vein, I found an interesting excerpt from a book by Mark Frauenfelder about how the fast-paced, daily posting environment of professional online media can cause problems. (Unsurprisingly, Irin Carmon, the blogger/journalist Frauenfelder excoriates, disagrees with his characterization of her work.) I think blogging and online media have really enabled more diverse stories to be told- but I also worry about how the need to drive clicks and the advertising-based payment model skews what gets written and how it gets spun.

I'll end on a happier note: as this post from Scalzi shows, new media can lead to some fun things, too.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Hidden Cost of Acceptance

I'm not really into politics. I have my opinions, and some of them are actually pretty strong. I always vote, and I try very hard to make sure my vote is an educated one. But I don't enjoy the game of politics, so I mostly tune out during election season. I hate the point-scoring and spin and all that nonsense- I am not so naive as to not understand why it happens, but it frustrates me, because it all seems to stand in the way of what I really want, which is for our leaders to come together and have rational discussions, grounded in facts and our best understanding of likely outcomes, with a goal of actually solving problems.

Given all that, it is no surprise that I didn't watch either convention, and I haven't even gone and watched the recorded version of any of the speeches. I did, however, read the text of several of them. I find that I have been thinking a lot about Ann Romney's speech, and specifically the way she seemed to just accept- embrace even-  the inequalities women still face. This didn't really surprise me- she was hardly going to get up and deliver a feminist call to arms. Whatever she actually thinks, that would torpedo her husband's chances of election. But still. Like a lot of the commentary I've seen on her speech, I am frustrated by this almost retro acceptance of sexism as being just the way things are.

I couldn't really explain why I was so frustrated, given my incredibly low expectations for the speech, but recent events at work have helped me figure it out. I am frustrated because she seemed to be shrugging her shoulders and trivializing the extra work I have to do in comparison to my male colleagues. She seemed to be saying, "Yeah, things aren't really fair, but oh well! We're strong and we can handle it, so it is no big deal. Don't make a fuss."

And well, I don't generally make a fuss, primarily because doing so would actually decrease my chances of achieving the things I want to achieve. I know there are women who face far bigger problems than I do. But damn it, the extra weight around my ankles is a big deal.

The events at work that are rankling on me right now are, on their own, pretty trivial. I do not want to give specifics here, but the broad outlines are this: there is a guy who is not treating me with the respect my experience and demonstrated expertise (and his relative lack of experience and expertise) in a particular area warrant. It is a subtle thing, but noticeable, and I am certainly not the only one who has noticed it. In this particular case, I will "win," but I find the experience wearying. Is this problem a gender thing? Or a generational thing (I'm about 10 years older than he is)? Or is he just an ass? It is hard to say.

And that's the thing. In any one case, it is usually hard to say. But these experiences add up over the course of a career, and they wear you down. Where my male colleagues are just walking along a path, I'm walking along wearing those stupid ankle weights that were popular in the 80s. Sure, I've adjusted, and I've done really well. But damn, I'm tired.

Worse than that, these little insults accumulate in the dark corners of my consciousness, and are there to poke at me when I'm having a rough day. Because I can't point at them and definitively say "that was sexism!" it is far too easy to fall into thinking that they happen because I am less competent or knowledgeable than others. They make it easier to get discouraged, and convince myself that I'm not making a difference, that my work isn't important, and that maybe I should throw in the towel and go do something else.

So here I am, solidly mid-career in a pretty good career, but feeling restless. Feeling like maybe this thing I'm doing isn't the best use of my time, because I seem to always be swallowing some possible insult, or pushing past some obstacle that may or may not be there for women only. Maybe those obstacles are real, and maybe they're going to keep me from realizing my goals in this field. I've got other ideas, other things I could devote my energy to. Maybe I should pursue those.

But I know all about imposter syndrome, and I know that there is nothing I am interested in doing that won't be touched by sexism- in fact there are a lot of people who say that mothers can't do the other things I'm interested in, either. So maybe I am just looking over at a different path and imaging that I wouldn't have ankle weights on if I were over there, but in fact, if I went over there, I'd discover that the ankle weights women wear on that path are 10 lb weights instead of 3. So maybe I should stay here and keep walking. Maybe the summit is just around the corner.

The view I would have missed
Many years ago, before we had kids, Mr. Snarky and I hiked San Jacinto with a friend. We took the tram from Palm Springs up to its station, and then hiked the rest of the way. I was fitter than I was now, so this was not as crazy as it would be if I did it now. But it is still a pretty intense hike for an occasional hiker. At one point, after hiking for several hours, I stopped. I said I would not go any further. Mr. Snarky shoved cookies into me and pointed out that the summit was literally right around the corner and I could make it. And I did, and I'm glad I did. I'm afraid that the feeling I have now is like the feeling I had on that hike- I am low on energy, and I don't want to go any further, but if I turn back now I'll miss out on an awesome summit.

So I don't know what I should do. I am fortunate to be in the position to have this internal debate, but it isn't without cost. It isn't no big deal. It isn't something we should shrug away and just accept. I don't know how to change it and make those ankle weights go away, but I'm pretty sure that giving speeches where you almost revel in it isn't the way.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kindergarten Progress Report

I have a couple of serious posts half-written in my drafts folder, but I feel like writing something happier today. So I'm going to give you a progress report on how we're all doing with the transition to Kindergarten. The short version is: we're doing well.

Everyone was excited on the first day of school last week. Pumpkin could hardly wait to put her backpack on and head out to school. She insisted I take this picture, showing her backpack:
She also decided to get he hair cut shorter right before school started. She looks so big now!
Petunia was excited, too, and insisted on putting on her "pa-pack" and walking along with Pumpkin- she didn't want to get in the stroller for over a block.

First block of the first day walk. Not sure why it looks like I'm running. I wasn't!
We deposited Pumpkin in her spot in line on the playground. I hung out next to her for awhile, and watched as she met the two girls on either side of her in the line. Then I gave her a big hug and retreated to the sidelines to watch the scene and blink back tears until it was time for the kids to go into their classrooms.

I left work early that day, excited to go hear about Pumpkin's day. She had done great. She didn't seem too concerned by the fact that she couldn't understand everything the teacher said. For the most part, that has continued, although Sunday night during bath she said she wished she went to a school where the teacher spoke English. We talked a bit about why we're going to this school, and she moved on to other subjects. Yesterday, she was excited to go to school, just like usual.

She brought home her first stack of worked papers yesterday, and she is doing well with the writing practice, coloring, and basic numbers work- which isn't surprising, because she knows her numbers well and likes to write and color. There are several papers with Spanish words on them, which we'll practice at home, both to help her and because we want to learn Spanish along with her as much as we can. I've also put "listen and learn" Spanish CDs in both cars, and now spend my morning commutes repeating Spanish words rather than listening to news or music. I spend my afternoon commutes listening to whatever music Petunia picks out.

Petunia has had no problem adjusting to going to day care without Pumpkin. She got a new teacher at about the same time as Pumpkin started school. The previous teacher in her room had left to go care for her elderly mother. Petunia has really taken to her new teacher, who has lots of interesting new activities for the kids. I am more determined than ever that we should keep Petunia in this day care, even when my company moves to new offices in a less convenient location. I have a lot of thinking to do about how we'll make that happen and how I'll respond to the upcoming office move, but the move is at least a year away, so I can postpone that for now.

Mr. Snarky and I are probably the ones struggling the most with the transition. The school's schedules things at mildly inappropriate times- a back to school picnic by the bay started at 4:30. We left work early and got there at 5:30. The open house night, which will be our only chance to talk to Pumpkin's teacher in English*, starts at 5:30, which will also require leaving work a little early. Having talked to our coworkers with older kids, though, we feel fortunate- a lot of schools start things like this at wildly inappropriate times for working families.

We're slowly finding new routines. It turns out that picking just Petunia up from day care is much faster than picking both girls up was. I haven't really been able to pinpoint why, but the net result is that I think I can still get home in time to make dinner at the usual time, even with the double pick up. The double drop off is harder, and the morning commute for the parent doing drop off now takes at least 45 minutes, sometimes an hour. Mr. Snarky is getting up 15 minutes earlier, and we're all working hard to get him out the door by 7:45, so that he can be in his office for his 8:45 morning meeting. I am trying not to schedule anything before 9:30 on Thursdays, which is the day I have to do drop off.

The hardest thing, though, has been absorbing the extra chores into our evenings. The paperwork from school will stop soon, I hope. But I'm now packing a lunch and snack for Pumpkin everyday. I do as much as I can during evening snack the night before, and then make the sandwich in the morning. Pumpkin likes butter, strawberry jam, and gouda cheese in a pita pocket, and that doesn't really keep well overnight in the fridge. It took quite a bit of effort this summer to find a combination that was acceptable to her, though, so mostly I'm just happy that I have a reasonably healthy lunch I can pack for her. I've signed up for the system that lets her buy lunches some days, but so far, she hasn't wanted to try it.

So all in all, the transition is going well. Pumpkin is happy at her new school and learning Spanish. Petunia is still happy at day care, even without her big sister there. Mr. Snarky and I are figuring out the new routines, and hanging in OK.

And now I had better go get started on that new morning routine. How has back to school gone for you?


*All the teachers are fully bilingual, but the K-2 teachers do not speak English in front of the kids- this helps with the immersion program.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Perfectly Described Edition

Well, we've all survived the first week of Kindergarten. I will undoubtedly have more to say about the transition to Kindergarten soon. I may even decide to post an update to my logistics detail post. But we are still settling into our new routine. It is too soon to write about it. And besides, I'm fairly drained from this week- the transition went well (really well, even), but transitions are hard and a little bit stressful. So, I'll give you this week's links, instead. They are all posts that I think perfectly capture some experience or emotion.

First up, Antropologa has an awesome post on being an expat and expressing yourself in a foreign language. I've never lived for long in a country in which English is not the native language, but I have spent enough time for this post to really resonate.

Next, Julie at A Little Pregnant perfectly captures the desperation and despair of having a low sleep needs kid. My kids aren't as low sleep needs as her Charlie, but I have felt what she describes.

Staying on motherhood topics, AskMoxie had a beautiful post about how motherhood is a relationship not a job- and how you can be great at the relationship even if you don't love all the jobs. Or even if you don't do all the jobs.

The next post captures another aspect of parenthood- or peoplehood, really: the realization of how important health insurance is. I don't often get political here, and by linking to this post I'm not saying that I think the Obama administration's health reform was the only way to approach this problem, or even the best way. But I am saying that I think this problem needed to be tackled. It really, really did- both because having something as random as a bug bite have the power to wipe out a family's savings is just wrong, and because the fear of this is keeping a lot of people I know from striking out on their own and trying to create their own businesses, and that strikes me as wrong, too.

Finally, I came across a post that took me back to my college years, being a young woman riding public transit and just wanting to be left alone... but not getting that. And the calculations you make in your mind as you try to figure out the best, safest response to a situation, and how heartily tired you get of it, and how angry you get, but how you know that expressing that anger is NOT the best, safest response. Honestly, the fact that this sort of crap almost never happens to me now is one of the consolations of aging.

And on that sort of sour note... happy weekend! Leave me any good links you've found in the comments.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Enjoying the Long Days

As I mentioned in my last weekend reading post, I took Friday off for a special day with Pumpkin, who is starting Kindergarten tomorrow. We had her Kindergarten orientation at 1 p.m. and had told my sister we'd drop her at the airport at about 8:30, but other than that, we had nothing specific to do.

After dropping my sister at the airport, we headed to one of Pumpkin's favorite parks, down by Mission Bay. It is a little out of the way for us, so we don't get there often- which makes a visit to that park a treat. Pumpkin played for about an hour, and then she said she was hungry, so we drove to a nearby coffee shop and split a gigantic cookie.
Not pictured: Me carrying her to the plane so she wouldn't get sand in her shoes.
Next, we went to our local toy store, because I'd promised her we could go and pick out a special toy. She'd been talking for days about how she was going to get a Barbie. Sure enough, she headed straight to the Barbie section and spent ages looking at all the options before she settled on one. But then, as we headed to the Lego section (to buy a gift for a birthday party we had this weekend), she saw the bike baskets, and remembered that she really wanted a new basket like she'd seen on one of her friend's bikes. To my surprise, she decided to put her Barbie back, and picked out a Barbie basket for her bike instead. It came with tassels, which was a huge bonus.

The upgraded bike
We went home and installed the new basket and tassels, then took the bike for a short ride. Then we had lunch and rested until it was time for orientation.

After orientation, we had a few school supplies to go buy, and Pumpkin really wanted to go find some flip flops without a strap, too. Luckily, there is an office supply store in Pacific Beach, the beach neighborhood nearest to us. So we went to that store to get our supplies, and then went down to the tourist shops near the beach to find the flip flops. We found a pair, and then it was snack time again, so we walked to a nearby convenience store and bought a fruit and cereal bar, some crackers, and some strawberry milk and had snack on a bench looking out at the ocean.

My California girl.
Before we knew it, it was time to head home. We'd had a great special day. I couldn't believe that the little baby who'd turned my world upside down five and a half years ago was so big, and so ready for kindergarten. I thought of the saying "the days are long but the years are short," which had struck me as so unbelievably profound when I first came across it as a parent, but I have now seen so many places that I almost roll my eyes when I come across it.

This weekend, though, I'm living that saying. The shortness of the years is hard to miss, with Pumpkin getting ready to start Kindergarten.  But the days are still long- Petunia woke me up in the middle of the night two of the last three nights, both kids threw a massive fit when Mr. Snarky* tried to give them their bath, I've tripped over and put away the same pair of shoes three times this weekend (the kids keep getting them out to play with them).

I've been trying lately to look past the hard parts more, and enjoy the long days. Back in June, we made a list of fun things to do this summer, and we hit five of the eight things on the list, plus several other fun things that we hadn't thought to list. My favorite item on that list is probably "eat outside more," because it has led to some really delightful evenings, where Mr. Snarky and I sit in our plastic Adirondack chairs and watch the girls run around the yard and play. We had two of those just this weekend, although one did end in the aforementioned fit about bathtime.

Perhaps because of this intention to look past the hard parts and enjoy the long days, parts of the parenthood chapter of Gretchen Rubin's new book Happier at Home** really resonated with me. One of her resolutions for the month in which she focused on parenthood was to "go on Wednesday adventures" with her oldest daughter. She picked her daughter up for school and then went on an outing. She and her daughter alternated weeks choosing the destination, and the only hard and fast rule was that they had to be home by six.

I really like the idea of having special outings with the kids- both individually and together, However, my job is not quite as flexible as Gretchen's, so a weekly outing is out of the question. Instead, I'm toying with the idea of leaving early once per month. One month, I could do an outing with Pumpkin, the next with Petunia, and then maybe a family outing. And finally I could do something for me. We'd cycle through each of these things three times per year. I know it is possible, because we've done two such family outings this summer- once to go to the county fair and once to go to the Zoo at Night. I do not have a writer's level of flexibility in my job, but I have the ability to take off early now and then. Once per month is infrequent enough that no one would be likely to notice, let alone comment. I can catch up on work at home. As Gretchen points out in her book, that flexibility does me no good if I don't take advantage of it.

Still... I'm not sure I'll end up doing this. There is a guilt factor to get past, but I think I could squash any guilt by tracking my time and demonstrating to myself that I am not, in fact, slacking. The problem is more that I'm feeling terribly overloaded already, both with the changes to our routine that kindergarten will bring and with far too many projects to juggle at work. Balls are starting to drop both at home and at work. Today, we went to a birthday party for one of Pumpkin's old day care classmates. It was at an indoor bouncy place. We drove to the one we've gone to several times before for other parties, only to discover that this particular party was at the company's other site, about 15-20 minutes away. Oops. That information was in the invite. There was even a map on the web page I visited this morning to print out a waiver to sign. I just didn't check. I was doing too many things at once, with several other things queued up in my mind.

We made it to the party about 30 minutes late. The kids had plenty of time to jump. At least four other families made the same mistake. But it is not the sort of mistake I usually make. I know that it is a symptom of the larger problem I've been feeling, of having too many things to keep active in my short term memory. My usual processes aren't keeping up, and I haven't been able to find new processes that work better. I want to enjoy these days, but even fun outings with my kids won't add to my enjoyment if they come at the price of my sanity. So I'll stay on the fence about this for awhile more, until I see how we settle into our new routine and whether I'm able to find someone to hire to help me better distribute the load at work. The years may be fast, but I think I can spare a month or two.

We'll keep eating outside, though, and maybe that is enough for now.


 *Typing out "my husband" every time bores me. I asked him if he'd rather be called "Hubby" or "Mr. Cloud" and he said he wanted to be "Tubby." He is in much better shape than I am, so I refuse to call him that. Given the penchant for snark that the above comment exemplifies, I've decided Mr. Snarky is the most appropriate name for him.

**Gretchen sent me a free advance copy of the book. There were no strings attached, and there was no compensation beyond the free book. As always, any opinions I express about the book are my true opinions. I may or may not write a full review of the book, but my usual book review policy applies, anyway.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Surprisingly Profound Kid's Art: Camping in Space

That's our tent, surrounded by stars and shooting stars.

Camping in Space
Artist: Pumpkin, age 5