Thursday, September 14, 2017

Incipient invisibility

Did you know that I have an invisibility cloak?

I don't know where it came from, and I haven't figured out how to control it. I'm never sure when it's actually working, so I haven't gotten too bold with it yet, but I'm getting bolder every day.

It arrived somewhere between my 40th and 50th years, around the same time my hair started to go gray. In that time I've also gotten more tired and gained a few pounds. Happens to everyone, right?

Well, it turns out that the same people who used to make unsolicited comments to me in my younger, thinner years now can't see me at all. I've gone from uncomfortably noticed to uncomfortably overlooked, and I'm not sure which is worse. A trip to Home Depot is an exercise in futility now that I have to practically throw myself at a salesperson (if I can find one) to have a question answered.

It continues at work. Where my job used to put me in the middle of things, now I am occasionally notified when things happen that affect my work, but more often I hear things through the grapevine. I am not consulted about areas of my expertise, and my boss has no idea what I do all day. Nor does he want to know. I am baffled by this.

I feel like I should take advantage of this and just take off for the afternoon to see if anyone notices. Or shoplift, just to see what would happen. I might even be able to pull off a bank robbery.

With my luck, that would be the only time my cloak would fail me.

Dumbing Down

The feedback I keep getting in my job is that I need to communicate better.

I'm told that I explain things too much, that my emails are too long and detailed, that I need to "consider my audience" when I write things.

Here's what I actually do when I write things: I think about what my audience needs to know, I express my opinions, and I back up my opinions with facts and best practices I've learned about from other schools. I learned a long time ago that my opinions will not be taken seriously if I don't back them up with evidence from other places -- it is not enough for me to think something.

I know that I'm not good on my feet. When I go to meetings, I sometimes stutter and over-explain myself. I ask a lot of questions to try to really understand what's being discussed. I know I annoy people when I do those things, but I feel like I'm not doing my job if I don't fully understand something that affects my work. I've seen some technical people gloss over a detail that will affect the non-techies in the room, and I ask questions to clarify. A mixed blessing of this is that I don't get invited to a whole lot of meetings.

So I prefer to write. Emails, memos, documentation -- I can order my thoughts and, most importantly, go back and edit what I say before anyone can see it. I can't do that when I run my mouth. I write out what I'm going to say on my outgoing voicemail message, for crying out loud.

When I write, I try to hew to the middle of a broad spectrum of understanding. I try to back up what I'm saying without getting too far into the weeds, but I also don't want to insult anyone's intelligence by getting too simplistic. We are all adults here, after all. I feel like anyone can extract what they need from my writing and leave the rest, but I don't want to miss anything. The feedback I'm getting, though, is that I'm not making things simple enough. I'm making people read too much.

I'm willing to dumb-down my writing only to a point. For better or for worse, I will continue to demand a certain level of attention to what I have to say, at least from the people who are allegedly my supervisors. If I can't talk about my work in great detail with the people who stand in judgement of my performance, then I don't see how either of us can be effective. Currently, I work for and with people who are not technical, so I have no one with whom I can really talk about my work. This is incredibly isolating and frustrating.

I remember a long time ago, listening to Slate's Culture Gabfest, when they got correspondence from a listener who said they should stop using so many big words. They got a good chuckle out of that, said, "Yeah, that's not happening," and moved on to the next missive. Suddenly I realized that there are workplaces (outside academia) where using big words and explaining things in detail are considered good, perhaps even encouraged.

Unfortunately, despite the Rise of the Nerd, most of the world is still like junior high, where it's not cool to be smart, and no one wants to hear any interesting words. I just can't believe it took me this long to realize that.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

On the upside of the U curve

I haven't posted here since, it seems, 2009, although I wrote several unpublished posts in the interim. I have reached the age where news of death outnumbers news of births and marriages, and some of that has touched me deeply. My father died in 2012 after a brief war on lung cancer, and I lost my pseudo-brother suddenly and inexplicably last fall. The silver lining for the latter -- and I fight desperately every day to find one -- has been a strengthening of my relationship with his sister, my "pseudo-sister", who now finds herself an only child like me.

Despite these huge events, I find myself embarking on the upswing of the U curve cited by research on happiness among adults. Happiness, however they define it, reaches its nadir in the 40s, then begins an upward trend. One can't help correlating the curve with the age of offspring, with the nadir coinciding with the kids' teen years. Ok, I can't help it.

My life is more orderly now with two kids in college and the third in high school. The youngster is determined to give me a run for my money, but he's also very sweet, teetering on the fence between the little boy who still needs me and the capable young man who doesn't want to. They are all right where they should be, with all the angst that comes along for that ride.

Now my husband and I begin to become ourselves again. A grain of our youth remains, but we lack the physical energy to do all the things we imagine. We have purchased that large piece of land that we plan to leave alone as a refuge for ourselves as well as for wildlife. We can't wait to live there, but there is much to be done first, so it is an exercise in patience. But it has given us a new project, something to look forward to.

But it has also made it unbearably clear just how much -- or how little -- our children are still engaged in our lives. Our son is beyond excited about this property, full of plans and ideas, ready to spend every summer day there. Our oldest is too busy living her life to even visit very much; while she is living at home, she spends her time with her boyfriend and her friends, assembling her tribe. Our middle daughter is struggling with belonging somewhere; life isn't the same as it was in high school, so she's grieving a loss that none of us can quite put a finger on. As always, each of our children has had a very different reaction to this change: one highly positive, one negative (well, a don't care, really), and one in between. As it has always been, for everything.

What surprises me is how sanguine we all are about moving out of the house in which we have lived for almost 25 years. We spent our honeymoon there; the kids have grown up there; we have laughed and cried there. We are thoroughly done with it and ready to move on to our new adventure. I wonder if that will still be the case when the time comes to hand over the keys to another family.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Opting out.... and going back

I've written here in the past about my choice to opt out of my career. I spent five years as a full-time mom, but I wasn't happy. In July 2007, right around the time I stopped writing new posts, I went back to work.

I was cautious at first. I went back only part time working about half the day. I liked it, though, liked using my brain, being rewarded -- even praised -- for it. Praise! I hadn't heard that in far too long!

I worked part time doing a full-time job for about 19 months, underpaid but enjoying most of the work. Then I was hired "for real" to do the job I'd been doing for so long. I'm still underpaid, but not as heinously as I was before. I was able to negotiate a full-time position with benefits that still gets me home by 3:00 most days.

So I'm back in my career, sort of, but with a very different attitude, and still not sure it's right for us. It's good to have the extra income -- we now have college funds for all the kids -- but it's taking its toll on me and the family in ways I didn't anticipate.

First, the good things: the kids have a lot more time with their Papa, and he bears a lot more responsibility for household chores than he used to. He gets the kids out the door in the morning and, with his flexible-hours, work-from-home-once-a-week job, he deals with a lot of the doctor appointments and daytime tasks now.

I have the psychological independence that my own paycheck brings, feeling less guilty when I buy a pair of shoes or write the check for the summer camp that the kids completely adore but that Papa thinks is too expensive. I also have the satisfaction of being good at my job most of the time and being recognized for it.

The kids have the positive influence of seeing me do something that isn't in service to them, which is a very good thing. They come to work with me sometimes, so they know what I do, and I think it's good for them to see that, while they come first for me, I have responsibilities to other people that have to enter the equation.

Now for the less positive: time. I just can't seem to get everything done, and I crave solitude. I work in a cubicle in a busy, social office that is never quiet. I go home to a noisy, busy household that is happy and boisterous, which is wonderful, but the only divide is the car ride home. Before I went back to work, I spent time writing, playing the piano, singing, walking, reading, podcasting... the list goes on. I have had to drop all of those creative things that made me feel alive and learning.

I am learning, though. This job stretches me in ways I didn't know existed, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. While it's a technical job, it's also financial and managerial, which is fairly new territory for me. I don't like managing, but it gives me the freedom to work on exciting technology that I might not have if my work were more closely directed by my immediate supervisor. It allows me to channel my creativity in ways that aid the business, but because of my inexperience, sometimes those projects go awry and I pay the price. It's stressful, but when things go right it can be exhilarating.

I miss the hours I spent each day just contemplating the larger questions of life, but I enjoy the sense of purpose I feel now. It's harder now to keep the volunteer commitments I made when I was unemployed, but service to the community is important to me, so I do my best.

The hardest thing for me to accept is the very real limitations I now have on my career. The unavoidable fact of it is, I chose to put my career on hold for five years, and I can't get that time back. I'll never make as much money as I would have if I hadn't opted out, nor will I get the flexibility -- you usually have to prove yourself by working regular 8-5 hours for a while before you can get that. My job prospects just aren't as wide open as they were because I feel so strongly that I need to be home for my kids after school. I hate the fact that my DH makes twice what I make and has much more flexibility with the same level of education and experience (except that, while my degree is in the field he works in, his is not). It's very hard to reconcile the choices I made with the consequences, which seem to be more far-reaching than I anticipated.

I wish it weren't necessary for women to make these hard choices and then be criticized by *someone* no matter which option we choose. The hardest criticism, though, comes from ourselves. We know we can't be perfect, but we also know that the generations before us fought for us to have the right to choose how to spend our time, so we feel an obligation to make that fight worthwhile. Perhaps our daughters are growing up in an atmosphere where that struggle isn't something to feel guilty or grateful about, but where the results of it are simply a given. Where they really can choose a career in industry or in the home or somewhere in the middle and be respected either way. That doesn't mean forget the struggle, but acknowledge it and get on with their lives. I hope that is my legacy to my daughters. defense of solitude...

I need a lot of time alone. I actually prefer to be alone.

Funny how I feel like I should be ashamed of that, like it's some kind of stigma. I'm not socially inept (at least I'm told I'm not), and I don't dislike people per se, but I find being around people tiring and difficult.

I'm lucky that I live in this technological time. I have friends that I haven't actually spoken to in years -- would never have heard from otherwise -- that I've reconnected with on Facebook. I'm able to keep in touch with a lot of people via email rather than hours talking on the phone.

But I just don't have time for that, and given a choice between talking on the phone with a friend I haven't spoken to in a while and reading a book, I'll choose the book every time. Relationships with people take effort, and I have to put enough effort into my family and my work relationships that I don't have any energy left at the end of the day. My children alone can sap the interpersonal strength right out of me, and I love them dearly. I almost always find myself thinking about the dozen things I have to get done by the end of the day and scolding myself for wasting time.

So, consider this an open apology to all my friends that I never call. None of you read this blog, but it's the thought that counts, right? See you on Facebook.

Monday, May 05, 2008

vacation from my time off

Today I got up at 6, worked from 7 to 2:30, came home and entertained four extra children aged 3-9 (who would not leave no matter how many times I told them it was time! to! go! home!) for two hours, threw a quick dinner on the table, took my son to karate.

I came home from karate, took the laundry off the clothesline, then came in to the sound of my two daughters yelling for me as they watched the water pour out of the overflowing toilet. Turned off the toilet, yelling at the girls about the joys of the plunger. Went downstairs to find the water leaking through the ceiling and pouring down onto the basement floor. Finally found the wet/dry vac in the darkest, remotest corner of the basement and the nozzle attachment on the opposite side of the basement (of course) as the water dripped from the ceiling onto a computer which I desperately hope was destined for the recycling center anyway, because it sure is now.

I went up to find my husband arrived home from work, bringing in groceries from the wholesale club, climbing over the mess of stuff piled in a corner of the foyer as we cleaned up the bathroom mess. He was calm, as one who walks in on chaos in progress can be, so I finished vacuuming the water, then set off on my bike, trusty trail-a-bike attached, to pick up my son at karate.

We arrived home and I had two Boca sausage links for my sumptuous dinner as my son made a sliver of carrot last for twenty minutes. He nibbled at each corner, whining about every single bite, until suddenly he realized that he hadn't done his homework. He is finally heading upstairs for bed, only forty minutes past his bedtime (and at least an hour past mine).

My seven hours at work were the most peaceful time of my day, except maybe for the commute. Tell me again how it's harder to be a working mother than to be a stay-home mother?

Sunday, May 04, 2008


It's been a long time, and much has happened...

I've gone from being a tired, frustrated, angry stay-at-home-mom to a tired, frustrated, angry working mom.

Why the transformation? One word: options. Despite all the articles I read about professional women who took the career off-ramp to raise their children for a while, I saw my meaningfulness (is that a word? It looks to me like one of those German words that's just other words all pushed together, like gutenmorgenfahrvergnugen or something) dwindle to nothing. My children are growing up before my eyes, and pretty soon I'll be one of those fat, middle-aged meek mothers you see sitting quietly at graduation with a wistful smile, hands folded, hiding the desperate panic that grips her as she realizes that her entire reason for living is about to embark on the life she envisioned for herself all those years ago. That's right before her husband announces that he's flying to Bermuda with his administrative assistant for a "conference", if you know what I mean...

I started working part time last summer, a little over half a day, so I was home for my kids in the afternoons, and they got to spend the whole morning with their grandma, who needed to be needed. Win-win-win, right? For a while, yes. Then, in the fall, I expanded my hours a bit. I'm still home when my kids get home from school, but I leave before they get up in the morning, so their father gets them off to school. Another good thing: kids get more quality time with Dad, and Dad gets to participate more in the whole child-rearing thing. I never enjoyed the morning routine, so I don't really miss it.

But now the honeymoon is over. The job got harder when colleagues left and I had to do their work. I find it harder to get home on time, and to get the housework done in the time left. All the family teamwork that worked so well in the fall has fallen by the wayside, and the kids are back to spending hours buried in books while Mom does all the laundry and nags them to clean their rooms. Dad is resentful because Mom is more tired than before, Mom is angry because the house is a disaster and no one's doing anything about it, and the kids are either oblivious or in open rebellion.

How do people do it?? I am at a complete loss as to how the general public handles this dual-income thing without having a complete meltdown at least once a month. I visit the homes of families where both partners work, and they're uncluttered and spotless. I don't know how to do that without actually moving out of my house. I spend all my free time driving the kids to various activities, hammering away at the endless mountain of laundry, and paying bills. My husband handles most of the grocery shopping and cooking, and no one does the cleaning. It's a miracle that my son gets a bath every now and then.

Do I have to make a choice between having a job and having leisure activities now? Is that the secret?

I keep hearing about happiness studies that show a U-shaped curve, with the nadir of happiness occurring in the 40s. That's around the same time that most people are raising teenagers and tweens, working hard to keep their jobs in a questionable economy, and often taking care of their aging, ailing parents. Gosh, I can't imagine why we'd be unhappy dealing with those things. Do we really need a study for this? The one good thing about it is knowing that it will probably get better. If we're able to keep our jobs. And if there is affordable (universal? please?) health care when we reach retirement age. And if our children don't go off the rails and become drug addicts or homicidal maniacs or, worse, victims of a DUI on their seventeenth birthday. (My nightmares are vivid, count on that).

I need options. The means to send my kids to college no matter how much it costs. The wherewithal to go it on my own if my husband and I just can't stand each other anymore. The money to buy a piece of land in the middle of nowhere that I can leave alone and go visit when the planet just refuses to slow down.

Women so wanted these options, for so long. But now that we have them, how do we handle the family demands that haven't gone away, that aren't yet shared equally between the partners? I can handle the job, it's the parenting and housekeeping that I'm having trouble with. Amidst all of it, I'm trying to hold onto the person I was before all this started. I never knew it would be this hard just to stay me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It's all about health care...

So many of our country's ills could be ameliorated or even solved by universal, government-run health care.

Ok, maybe not our country's problems as a whole, but certainly a whole lot of women's issues.

Take, for example, abortion. The New York Times has an article out today about the new tactic being used by anti-choice activists: abortion is bad for a woman, too. That's absolutely true; how many women go through an abortion and emerge unscathed? It takes an emotional toll that can have repercussions even decades later.

That tactic misses the point of the pro-choice movement, but let's leave that for later. For now, just think about how much universally-accessible, free health care could change the face of pregnancy and child-rearing. A single woman now has to work full time just in order to get health benefits for herself and her child; if she were unable to work -- put on bed rest for a pregnancy-related complication, say -- she would lose her health benefits and her doctor's care. So she would have to continue to work, jeopardizing her health. It's lose-lose for a woman, and it could affect her physical health and her career for the rest of her life.

Now, imagine that this same woman had free health care unrelated to employment. If she were unable to work, there would be a financial burden placed on her, but not an insurmountable one. If she had family or friends to help her out for a while, she could manage, because medical bills wouldn't send her into bankruptcy. She could take an unpaid leave, or leave her job altogether, confident that her health would be preserved and she would be able to find another job when she was able. The child she eventually bore would get the well-baby care that children need, receive all the necessary immunizations, and have all the physical advantages that good medical care provides. If the child had medical problems, the infrastructure would be in place to make life as manageable as possible. Everybody wins, including the woman's employer, who has not had to pay for her health benefits, at least not directly.

Now, to return to the actual point of the abortion choice debate. It would be nice if no one ever felt that they had to get an abortion. Of course it would. But this isn't just about abortion. This is about control and choices for women. Enacting laws to regulate how abortions are offered and to whom is discriminating to women; the real point here is that a woman should have ultimate, unilateral control over her own body and what happens inside it. Full stop.

So here's my message to anti-choice activists: instead of lobbying for legislation to make abortion illegal or unavailable, thus sending desperate women underground for dangerous "medical" procedures, give women the support they need to make choices you can live with. Rather than bring a fist down on abortion altogether, offer a helping hand by using your powerful lobby to fight for health care for everyone, unrelated to employment. Rather than taking away a woman's power over her own body, give her the tools to preserve her own life as well as her unborn child's so she has more options. Don't be paternalistic and patronizing; be collaborative and respectful of a woman's life and health.

And don't forget to line up at the adoption agencies. If you're going to insist that every embryo, wanted or not, be brought to term, then step up and take responsibility for raising them. Put your money where your mouth is.

Next post: health care and working mothers.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Music of My Life

Seventeen years ago, I walked into the sanctuary of the Presbyterian church for a Bach Choir rehearsal. The orchestra was playing -- it was among the last rehearsals before the concert, and the orchestra was rehearsing before the choir arrived. I walked down the center aisle, the pews around me sparsely populated, and imagined myself a bride. The conductor led the musicians with vigor, and I imagined that it was all for me. This was my dream for my wedding day, something I hadn't really thought too much about -- something I didn't really think would ever happen.

Two years later, I had my wedding after all, but there was no orchestra. There was very little music, and what there was was recorded. No one danced, no one revelled in music. It was rather subdued, actually, with a great deal of food. I married someone who does not share my passion for music, and, even though our wedding date was chosen well ahead of time, we spent far too much time choosing a home and far too little planning the wedding. It was nice, it served the purpose, but it was far from my vague idea of an ideal celebration.

Tonight I sang Bach's St. Matthew Passion with that same choir and that same orchestra. Some of the faces have changed, but the music is timeless. While the whole piece is full of emotion and drama, the last chorus is the most moving. In the story, Jesus' body has just been buried by Joseph of Arimathea, and all of the people who had been close to him gather around. Ruhet sanfte, ruhet wohl, they all whisper. Sleep softly, sleep well. This one chorus is, to me, the most passionate of all of Bach's work, much of which strikes me as beautiful in a matter-of-fact, almost mathematical way. This one's different. One can feel the wild extremes of emotion, from wailing grief to quiet reflection, just as someone very human might react to the death of a spouse.

As I anticipated it, and even as I sang it, I thought to myself: I want this to be sung at my funeral. If it can't be sung, then a recording should be played at full volume, so the walls shake. Music is a visceral, essential part of who I am, and this chorus needs to be felt in the bones. When I sing it with the choir, I feel the resonance of the singers around me in my body; I hear the passion in their voices, and I see the vigorous direction from the conductor. It is all so compelling; merely listening to a recording is far too passive for this music.

Once on my way down this path, I started to think about other music I would want to have at my funeral. Parts of the Faure Requiem, perhaps, maybe some of the B Minor Mass, definitely some Billy Joel, Susan Werner. But then I stopped short. What am I doing? I thought. It hasn't been that many years since I walked down the aisle in that church and thought about my wedding. Can it be that I've gotten so old that now I can only think of my funeral?

This is disturbing. But there is no other event for which I can plan any music I want. It is the only celebration of me that I can foresee; it's just unfortunate that I can't be there for it. I'd sure love the music..