Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Rant in Two Parts, with Epilogue

Back when Mr. Snarky and I were planning the trip that became our "big trip," we spent a lot of time discussing possible destinations and itineraries. One of the stops that he was adamant from the very beginning that we include was a stop in Hong Kong, timed to see their famous (in the rugby-watching world) rugby sevens tournament. We did indeed go to Hong Kong for the sevens. We had to buy the tickets and accommodation through a New Zealand travel agency, which had two consequences: (1) we were there as part of a larger group of Kiwis, with seats all in a block, and (2) this was by far the most expensive stop on our trip, because we were staying in a business hotel instead of our usual budget to mid-range accommodations.

Our trip was in 2005-2006, which was smack in the middle of the period of anti-Iraq war anger and general disgust with American aggressiveness in much of the rest of the Western world, and a couple of the Kiwis were not at all pleased to see an American in their group, and made sure I knew that, in their understated way. We'd been traveling for several months at that point, so I was neither surprised nor particularly bothered by this, and since this stop was a big (and expensive!) highlight of the trip for Mr. Snarky, I just wanted to blend in with this group and not make waves. So I did what you do when watching rugby with a group of New Zealanders: I wore black. We each got a black jersey as part of our tour package, so one day, I wore that. But it got beer spilled on it (the Hong Kong sevens are a beer-soaked event, to say the least). This meant that I had to find a different shirt to wear the next day. I chose a shirt I'd gotten at a blues bar we liked in Bangkok, called Tokyo Joe's (which is apparently no longer operating in the incarnation that we visited). The front of the shirt has a saying: "Life, like live music, is best when improvised."

But the important thing was it was black.

I do not know if I drank too much the night before, ate something that didn't agree with me, or if my lower digestive tract was just fed up with the abuse it had been subjected to during our travels, but towards the end of one of the matches, I knew that I should move quickly to the bathroom. So I got up to go, even though the match wasn't over. Before I could make it to the top of the stairs in my section (we had, I must admit, rather nice seats near the field), a man caught sight of my shirt and wanted to read it. I was in a hurry and not really in the mood to chat about blues bars in Bangkok, so I told him that I really needed to get to the bathroom, and asked him to move. He, however, stood his ground, and insisted that he be allowed to read my shirt. Why would I wear a shirt with words on it if I did not want people to read it? - he practically yelled this at me, angered that I would attempt to deprive him of his chance to read a cheesy slogan off of my chest.

So I stopped, held the shirt out to flatten the message and make it easier to read, and answered his questions as quickly as I could so that I could get to the bathroom.

All these years later, this memory is still very sharp in my mind. I can hear his indignant, insistent voice and even thinking about the story, I lean back to get away from him. I clearly remember my distress and my eventual acquiescence to his demands as the option most likely to get me to the bathroom as quickly as possible.

When the uproar about the Grantland story outing Dr. V as transgender and the uproar about Henry Gee revealing Dr. Isis' real name burst out in my Twitter feed, this is the story that came to my mind- not because it is in any way equivalent to what was done to those women- it is not, not at all, not even close- but because it shares a common theme: men think they are owed women's full stories. If there is anything we want to keep to ourselves- for whatever reason- and they want to know it, they are angered. They feel cheated. They have the right to know! Their right to know trumps our right to pursue our lives and livelihoods. It trumps our right to safety. It certainly trumps our right to comfort.

I see this in so many ways, big and small, in my life and in the lives of other women. It is exhausting, sometimes, because it means that if I have a story I do not want to share with all and sundry, I must bury it deep, and make sure no vestige of it appears on my face, lest someone notice and demand that I tell. Not ask if I am OK or if I want to talk, but demand that I explain why I am not smiling.

Many people have said much more important things about both of these events, and have written excellent posts. I encourage you to follow the links up above, but also to seek out other writing on the topics. I have nothing much to add to those discussions, which are both important. I am reading what is being written about the outing of Dr. V particularly closely, because I think that most of us cis people are fairly ignorant of the issues that impact trans* people, and I would like to learn and do better myself. Far too many transgender people are dying.

But I just felt like noting that everyone's story is their own, and we should all be allowed to choose what we share and when. And also, if I say I need to go to the bathroom right now, that trumps your interest in the cheesy slogan on my shirt. It really does.


One of the things that a story like what happened to Dr. Isis inevitably brings out is earnest discussions about the use of pseudonyms. I am, frankly, tired of this discussion. So tired, that I'm not going to round up links for it.

This lead me to make this tweet:

I suspect that actually, the answer to my question in that tweet is often a quite innocent "no." People who are not mothers are often completely unaware of the harsh judgement society focuses on mothers. Strangers have opinions on what I feed my kids, how I do their hair, how I dress them, whether or not I let them go places without a grown up, etc., etc. So of course strangers have opinions about moms who blog. For the most part, their opinion is that we should shut up because we are hurting our kids.

I am actually very selective in what I post about my kids. I refrain from telling some great stories or writing about strategies that might be useful for other parents because I do not want to create future embarrassment for my children. And yes, this is indeed one of the reasons I remain officially pseudonymous, even though I make no real attempt to hide my real world identity. I figure that the pseudonym is one more level of abstraction that a curious classmate is unlikely to navigate.

But that isn't what I want to talk about tonight. I want to talk about the absolute minefield of "do this, no do that" helpful "advice" that is directed at me- and, since I am white and cis and straight, I know damn well it is far worse for people who are not all of those things.

This led to another tweet:

Here is the thing: I know that the thing to do is to ignore the people telling me what to do and just do my own thing. I really do know that. And I try to do that. But the message that I am doing it wrong, that I am irretrievably screwing up some aspect of my life- it is constant. Believe me on this. It is not just online. It is everywhere. I cannot avoid it. To avoid it, I would have to become a hermit. And if I did that, probably some guy hermit would come by and tell me that I was doing the whole hermit thing wrong.

So I must constantly block that noise out. I must constantly tell myself that no, it is OK, I'm doing the right thing. And God help me when I do mess up, because I will beat myself up over that just to hear it from myself rather than the chorus of other people telling me it is my own damn fault.

For the most part, I do OK at ignoring this noise. If I'm feeling beat down, I tell myself to fake the confidence I wish I had and just get on with it. That has served me well. But at what cost?

When I look around at the women who have made it, and particularly at the women of color who have made it, I am a bit awestruck by their strength. Lately, I have been wondering if that is because the gauntlet we make people in the non-dominant groups run to achieve any sort of success if so grueling that the people who make it out the other end must necessarily be unusually strong and resilient.

And if that is the case, what is happening to the people who are not strong enough, or resilient enough? I think the best case scenario is that they just go do something else. I think Dr. V's story shows us the worst case scenario. What an unbelievable tragedy and waste.

I do think that straight white men run a gauntlet, too. I do not think success of any sort comes easily to almost anyone. Sadly, I think the gauntlet that straight white men must run can sometimes cloud their view of the extra challenges in the gauntlets the rest of us face. It takes a very self-aware and confident man to look back at the struggles he faced and acknowledge that it could have been worse. I have a great deal of respect for the people who manage this, and I aim to emulate it. But it is rare.

So instead, we get back to the "well, you should have done X" noise. It is so easy to look at the problems someone else faces and see the places where he or she made them worse or perhaps could have done differently, without really considering how the never-ceasing drumbeat of crap drives people to decisions that someone who never hears that crap might never make. It is hard to look and see where the game was rigged against them, particularly if you're doing OK in that game.

Which brings us back to letting people own their own stories. If someone says that, for instance, men don't take them seriously at hacker events, just believe them. Don't try to find some complicated combination of extenuating circumstances that makes it one big misunderstanding. Just believe the stories that people tell you about their experiences. When women or people of color say that insisting on real names as the ultimate mark of credibility silences them, believe them. Don't try to convince them that they are imagining the threats- instead, look at the examples they choose to share of what it is like to speak up and try to project that nastiness into your own life. Really ponder how you would respond and if you would speak if the possible consequence of your speech was such ugliness.


I think there is a common thread between my two rants, but I do not have the clarity to find it. I leave it as an exercise for the reader, I suppose.

Instead, I'd like to end with a little bit about the strategies I employ to keep plodding along, trying to reach the career and life goals I have for myself. This grew out of another Twitter exchange, between me, @seriouspony (who knows far more than I do about the risks of speaking online as a woman), and @creakyvoice.

@Seriouspony tweeted this:
And I replied about how I am struggling with this both for myself (random crap at work that drains my motivation for the job) and for my child (specifically, too many book reports draining Pumpkin's motivation to read). I mentioned that I am working to teach Pumpkin strategies to protect her motivation from the things that would kill it, but that I am finding myself a poor model of such things these days and @creakyvoice wanted to know more.

This exchange eventually led to these tweets from me:

So what is my buffer made out of? A little bit of this blog- which is why I am staying up too late tonight writing this post. But yes, also chocolate, beer, and meditation.

Back at about the same time as the big trip that landed me in Hong Kong for the sevens, I had a fairly robust mindfulness practice. For me, this works best as a combination of yoga and meditation, and a few tricks to center me in the now. (If you want to snicker about mindfulness, go right ahead, but I will say this: the times in my life when I have felt the best are the times when my practice was most robust. Really having a practice is hard. Dabbling and writing it off as bunk is easy. Snicker all you want. I know what I aim for, and I want to build my practice back up.)

@Creakyvoice wanted a blog post about the mindfulness techniques I use. This is not really that blog post, but it is probably the best I can manage right now.

First, it helps to learn about meditation, and what it is and what it isn't. My introduction was in Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living. I am sure there are others.

Here are the techniques I use, sometimes more successfully than others:

  1. A regular yoga and/or meditation practice builds my reserves and gives me more patience. I am struggling to establish this again. I know I would be better off if I could get it established, but as I said- really doing this is hard.
  2. If I have a really tough morning at home or a rough commute, I try to start my day with a short (1-2 minutes) meditation. This was easier when I had an office instead of a cubicle, but I have managed it in the cube. It helps that I am in earlier than most. There are many meditation timers online.
  3. Even on regular days, I have a tea drinking routine I do not like disrupted. It helps me transition to my work day and focus me on what I want to do during that particular day at work. I do not think the details of the routine are important. I think the fact that it is a routine is.
  4. If someone or something is making me angry, I try to call up my meditation practice and focus on my breathing until I get my anger under control. I do not always succeed. For me personally, when I know I will not succeed, the best thing to do is to just leave the room (I find this to be less damaging to my standing than crying or yelling. YMMV.)
  5. I do use chocolate and beer, but not in an "eat my sorrows" or "drown my sorrows" way. I at one point switched to eating only really good chocolate, and trying to savor it. Savoring chocolate is something that puts me in the moment and lets me slough off the random crap that accumulates in my mind. I think this is a bit of a Pavlovian response now. I'm fine with that. The great thing about really good chocolate is that it doesn't take much to satisfy. Beer is a signal that I am "off duty" and can commence relaxation. For that reason, I rarely have a beer before the kids are in bed. It is not because I do not want my kids to see me drink (the do see me drink), but because the signal is useful to me. I do not have a beer every night, but it is helpful to make the transition on particularly tough days.
I suspect this is not what @creakyvoice was looking for, but it is what I have tonight. Questions, suggestions, and ideas for improvement are welcome in the comments, as are comments on the rants. Snark about mindfulness is not.

So let's end with the song that I turn to when I need to be reminded to ignore the noise:

Remember, just because you can't beat them, that doesn't mean you should join them. Don't join them.


  1. Anonymous9:47 AM

    Powerful posts! (All three of them would have made it into our link love this week if they were separated.)

    1. Thanks! Maybe I should have run them as three separate posts. But I wanted them out of my brain. I want to be thinking about other things!

      Sadly, instead I am home with a sick kid, and am sick, too, and am not thinking about much beyond "where are those lego instructions?" and only that because the kid is insisting I find them. Bleh.

  2. Anonymous12:01 PM

    Also, here's another reminder from other cultures about why women scientists and engineers might really, really want to be anonymous..safety is not guaranteed everywhere.

  3. Daisy5:30 AM

    Thank you for this post. Sometimes we forget how to keep ourselves in a good space. I like your thoughts on getting rid of things that cause motivation to disappear, rather than just pushing to find more motivation somewhere. And it is sad to see that even such a young child as Pumpkin is being turned off something she loves to do because of the stupid book report requirements. So wrong, and so sad. Good luck!

  4. Carolina (@braziliancakes)10:06 AM

    I have so much to process after reading this post. My major question (which you probably don't have an answer to) is why the bullying, outing and subsequent suicide of Dr. V not under the scrutiny of law enforcement? Seems to me that this would fall under cyber bullying.

    I also try not to get annoyed when people tell me I'm doing things wrong. What has helped is having a good support network of people who will laugh with me when I tell them the crazy things people tell me when trying to be "helpful" or give me "advice".

    Hope you and your sick kid get better soon!

  5. So I agree with much of this. But I think the part about "just believe the stories that people tell you about their experiences" has some nuance to it. One of the things I try to argue against is the presumption that because something seems true for one person, it must be universally true, or that there is any broader conclusion to be drawn. Sometimes one person is choosing to view things in a certain way. I tend to write about this when confronted with people arguing that the life of a mother with a big job is crazy, harried, awful, maxed-out, I-don't-know-how-she-does-it, whatever. Sometimes these people are looking at certain data points, and ignoring other data points. We construct stories when we find a certain quantity of evidence. But there can be other evidence too. Maybe one day someone had to make mac-n-cheese for a screaming 2-year-old while nursing an infant. But another day, the same person was able to chill for an hour while paging through, I don't know, Martha Stewart Living. Likewise, I think that one can acknowledge that someone felt that there was sexist behavior at a hacker conference, but someone else might not have experienced this, and maybe there were other positive things going on at the conference as well. Sometimes there are lots of stories that can be simultaneously true.

    1. Anonymous5:37 PM

      It doesn't mean much though, if the only positive things going on at a conference were positive for white guys. Or perhaps that's even worse than it just being a cruddy conference for everyone.

    2. I see your point, but here's the thing: I am *constantly* expected to give the guys the benefit of the doubt and read their actions as having the best possible intentions. And they are clearly not expected to do the same for me, and read my existence in techie spaces as an indication that I know something about tech. The first few times, I was willing to give the guys the benefit of the doubt. But after 5, or 10, or 20, or frankly I've lost count how many times, I start to wonder when "giving them the benefit of the doubt" ends and when "being a sucker" begins.

      The other issue is that the fact that men in tech will default to the "let's find some perfectly innocent explanation for this behavior, no matter how unlikely" mode, it becomes impossible to talk to them about the very real problems women face, because trying to have the conversation basically just makes you feel worse. In fact, I joke with some of my (female) friends- the first rule of experiencing sexism in tech (or science) is that you never talk about experiencing sexism in tech (or science).

    3. Anonymous6:46 PM

      There are lots of stories that can be true, but when someone says "my story is one of experiencing sexism," there's not really anything productive about saying "no, it wasn't" or "well, other people didn't have a problem." This is especially the case when the stories are being told to explain what types of experiences people in marginalized groups are having that keep them from wanting to participate in certain spaces.

      I mean sure, people should use our brains with people's stories. If tech had balanced representation at every level, including the executive, then I think there would be a point to dismissing one person's account as a fluke bad personal interaction. But tech doesn't have that. Tech has a dramatic gender disparity.


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