Wednesday, August 31, 2005

I feel compelled.

I finally finished "A Feminist I", Christine Overall's book highlighted by Theory Girl last July. The book is rather dry, written by a philsopher, and reads more like a research paper than the inflammatory yet witty feminist books I'm used to. The book does make a few good points about being a woman in academia. Her first point resonates with me most these days.

Christine Overall makes the point that, because she is a feminist in Academia, she is often asked to participate in conferences, talks, and other activities that fall far outside her usual responsibilities. I have similar requests made of me, as an undergraduate and a software engineer in the nineties, and as a graduate student today. I often make the joke that my name is written on a bathroom stall somewhere, because I'm always getting asked to helped with mentoring, showing students around campus, moderating panel discussions, and other work that is geared towards attracting girls to computer science. Generally, as Christine Points out, feminists are happy to do this work. However, when we have to say the horrid little word, "No," we are often victim to some kind of guilt trip, either by the requester or internally.

I did not come to GradShitTownVille to make the field of computer science a better place for women. I came here to get a PhD, but because I am a woman in a field dominated by men, I am compelled to contribute to an additional, though implicit, piece to getting a PhD. I am compelled to advocate. I am compelled be an active member of the female engineering societies. I am compelled to be visible in the department, including assisting the department with recruiting new students so that they see a female presence. I am compelled to say "Yes" to any requests about helping with Freshman, Girl Scouts, High School, and Middle School students. I am compelled to be the "liberal bitch" who is visibly offended by idiotic sexist jokes, and must vocalize my offense to the appropriate parties. I am compelled to defend my entire gender entirely by myself in meetings, offices, hallways, conferences, and buildings of 93% men.

Some days, I am happy to do all these things. The entire field of computer science will benefit with an increased diversity in its population. Generally, I enjoy getting away from my desk and helping people to see what a fun field computer science is. For me, this isn't just about attracting more women and racial minorities, it's about making a group of computer scientists more fabulous and more interesting because we have a melting pot of different perspectives.

Other days, I just want to do my work and go home. On those days, I wonder if what I am doing is even improving a situation that seems so hopeless, and if I really could graduate and get out of GradShitTownVille if I just stopped helping out altogether. And there are days, even worse, when I feel like I need help more than the younger girls. Where is my mentor? Where is that guiding hand to pull me out of tight situations and stop me from leaving the field? Those are the days when I have to avoid helping out, because I'm so angry at my own situation that I would never want any other woman to go through it. I could see myself singing a song very much like Willie Nelson might sing,

"Mammas, don't let your daughters grow up to be geeky. Don't let 'em play teris or hack the xbox. Make 'em be doctors and lawyers and such."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

When I grow up.

I have a running list in my head. It's entitled, "When I graduate with my PhD and I am a fabulous professor with students that I advise, I will never..." It's a list of things that I will never do to my future advisees. Some of these are very obvious:

1. Take calls during a meeting with a student.
2. Have regular meetings that exceed four hours in length.
3. Interrupt; especially new students who are just getting used to technical words being in their mouth.
4. Meet with a student about their paper that I haven't read.
5. Assume the student knows how to do research.

Some are not so obvious. I have one that I'm trying to articulate right now. It regards meetings.

I have a true hatred of meetings, generally because most meetings are badly run. At my old workplaces, meetings were treated as a means for 1 to many communication which could have been performed just as easily in an e-mail or other document. Generally, a "boss" stand in the front of a big room, presenting information by reading bullets of a powerpoint document projected onto the wall while the "peons" sit very confused or bored, anxious about the time being wasted while the hours to their next deadline become fewer.

Other meetings consist of 1 to 1 communication where the rest of the people in the meeting become a drive-by audience. Of course this 1 to 1 communication can take a round robin fashion where each person in the meeting reports their current status to the meeting's leader. In some cases, this is an effective meeting model. It helps everyone to know what everyone else is doing, important for a tight group of software developers all working on the same few files of code. In other cases, it's a horrible waste of time for everyone, since the projects being reported may be incredibly divergent.

My ideal meeting consists of a few people who've all come prepared, have read the material and are ready to have a dynamic, interactive conversation about the topic at hand. People in attendance listen to each other, and each subsequent comment in the meeting is strongly or loosely based on what's been said previously. People walk away from the meeting feeling like their ideas have been heard, but with a greater understanding of new perspectives.

It's very difficult to implement my ideal meeting. In the classroom, it can be forced by awarding participation points to students and giving those points serious weight in the final grade. In the workplace, it can be forced by people's fear of termination or the promise of a promotion. However "brownie points" such as those can quickly single out one person into the group butt-kisser. Without some kind of reward system, this interactivity can't exist because there are so few people who will share their ideas just for the sake of the idea.

* * *

When I was an undergraduate at my small Oregon university, I was in love with Joel Sullivan, one of the guys in my engineering program. He was a tall, pale boy of slight build whose father was an tenacious engineer from Tektronix. Joel was a genius and often expressed his genius through his eccentricity. Many on the campus knew him as "The Bathrobe Guy" because he would often walk around campus in a bathrobe. When I asked him why he wore a bathrobe, he replied, "It's very absorbant. I always wear one when it rains." Genius. He always seemed two steps ahead of the rest of the us, often offering his own insight in class if only to help the rest of us understand what the professor was trying to say. I was always glad to hear what Joel had to offer, and he was a likeable guy. He was someone that I would always want in my ideal meeting, for he shared his ideas for the sake of the idea.

The opposite of Joel Sullivan was the "Ice Cream Guy." During the evening meal at the campus dinning hall, Ice Cream Guy would finish his dinner, bus his tray, and get an ice cream cone. He would walk out of the hall with the tip of the ice cream cone perched in his fingertips, holding the cone a foot in front of him. Ice Cream Guy was also in my undergraduate program, but he would never be invited to my ideal meeting. His idea of classroom participation was asking questions that he thought sounded very intelligent to which he already knew the answer. I was never sure if he was trying to show off his knowledge or trip up the the professor. I felt bad for him, because he was just a goofy guy with a good heart, but he would still not be invited to my ideal meeting, not even for pity's sake.

These days, I'm attending meetings as usual. They are definitely not my ideal. People come, they sit, they check e-mail on their laptop, they don't listen, they interrupt, they read papers, and they certainly don't contribute to the meeting's interactivity. The topic may appear to be not in their area of research, but they don't take pains to expand their ideas and their research to include new ideas. I don't blame them. It's hard to be interactive for many hours in a row.

I think one origin of this problem is American science education. For the most part, I have attended my math and science classes with nothing but a blank sheet of paper, ready to be lectured. The lecture consists of complicated material which I don't know, and couldn't possibly understand, so I'm not expected to contribute to the conversation. This is quite unlike the Spanish Literature courses I took in undergrad (I tested out of English). I was expected to read the material and be able to discuss it intelligently in a language that was not my own. The classrom was an interactive space for sharing, not a radio program.

All that, and I still don't really have an idea of how to put this in my list. I want to remember my ideal meeting. I want to come up with ways to implement it. I want to be able to inspire people to talk to each other in effective ways that further good ideas. Most of all, I want to graduate.

Monday, August 29, 2005

There are no women at CBS

I miss the 1980's. Shows like "Kate & Alley" and "One Day at a Time" glowed on my face during primetime. These were stories of women who had divorced their husbands, but kept going with their jobs and child-rearing and were doing just fine. "Who's the Boss" showed us a working woman with a son, and her male live-in nanny. The 80s were a time when we saw a small shift in the media's representation of the nuclear family. Of course, other than Claire Huxstable, only good, happy mothers were white.

These days, what shows do I have to watch?

ABC, also home to such classics as "Desperate Housewives" and "Wife Swap", presents, According to Jim: in which we see working man living with his housewife and kids, and the funny antics that ensue. There are a number of shows that follow this model, many of which are at CBS:

  • King of Queens: Working man, working woman, father in the basement, funny antics.

  • Yes, Dear: Working man, housewife with kids, working brother and stay-at-home sister-in-law next door with kids and available to babysit, funny antics.

  • Everybody Loves Raymond: Working man, housewife with kids, parents next door are available to babysit, funny antics.

  • Still Standing: Working man marries his high school sweetheart now a housewife with three kids, friend hangs around and is available to babysit, funny antics.

Shows like Law & Order give me some hope. Anita Van Buren is a black mother of two whose husband owns a hardware store. She works hard as a police lieutenant. However, we never see Lieutenant Van Buren bring in her kids when she doesn't find a sitter. I think there was one episode where she left early to pick up her kids, but for the most part her kids never get in the way of doing a fine job for the people of New York City.

This week, the media is working hard to present the two most important
issues of Americans today.

1. Hurricane Katrina.
2. Brad and Jen.

I don't read People or US magazines, but I do go grocery shopping, so I am a victim of their glossy, airbrushed covers. I don't read the stories, but it's hard not to be informed of celebrity culture simply based on the covers of these magazines. Because I have to buy food to put in my fridge, I'm aware of the fact that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's divorce is final, and that Angelina Jolie just adopted another baby from some far-away country.

If I had been the editor of US magazine when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up, I would have put a picture of Brad Pitt on the cover with a sharpie-drawn moustache and blacked-out teeth. The headline would have read, "Look at this Big Asshole!" And that would have been that. Instead, we are bombarded week after week with pictures of Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. We see pictures of Jen all stressed out with headlines like "Is She Too Thin" and "Jen's Warning to Angelina." We see pictures of Angelina Jolie bouncing her adopted son on her knee, or bringing her newly adopted daughter home from the hospital, her hair in perfect arrangment. Paparazzi pictures show us the fabulous time that Brad is having with his new family.

The overall message from the media has been, "Poor Brad. Just look at that Jen. She has no mothering instinct at all. She's just a fruitless whore only interested in her career. Good thing he found Angelina when he did. She's got so much love to give those adopted kids of hers. Now he can be the dad he's always wanted to be."

Bullshit. BRAD LEFT HIS WIFE FOR ANOTHER WOMAN! In most cases, that's a really shitty thing to do. It's definitely a really shitty thing to do when the man LIES about his "friendship" with the other woman while he's still in his marriage. Instead of just chalking it up to, "Look at that asshole," we have to spend the next three months deciding who is the better woman, and likely concluding that poor Brad was right to do what he did.

Secondly, if Angelina Jolie were black and poor, she wouldn't be touted as the perfect multi-tasking mom with so much love to give. Instead, she would be a working mother with two children from two different fathers. Instead, she's the perfect white mom. I, too, could be the perfect mother if I had on-site daycare at my latest movie set and could afford million dollar homes, all the necessary medical care, and an army of nannies because I did two movies about a video game character.

Snark aside, I'm sure that Angelina Jolie is a fine mother. I'm sure she loves her kids. I'm just sick of hearing about it. Moreover, I'm sick of the media's guilt trip about not being one. I can't help but feel like we are back in the 1950's when the only choice for women is to have babies. Susan Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels in the book, "The Mommy Myth" explain the time warp best:

Feminism won; you can have it all; of course you want children; mothers are better at raising children than fathers; of course your children come first; of course you come last; today's children need constant attention, cultivation, and adoration, or they'll become failures and hate you forever; you don't want to fail at that; it's easier for mothers to abandon their work and their dreams than for fathers; you don't want it all anymore (which is good because you can't have it all); who cares about equality; you're too tired; and whoops--here we are in 1954.

Like Jennifer, I am a fruitless whore. I'm 28, single and childless working to get a PhD rather than a husband and house in the 'burbs. I wonder what kind of heyday the media would have with me if I were more famous. I probably wouldn't want to read that garbage either.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Guilty Pleasures

For the most part, I try to live a good and honest life. I drink my Minute Maid Heartwise orange juice with plant sterols to reduce my cholesterol. I exercise at least four times per week. I don't play political games with people, I like 'em or I don't, and I sure as hell ain't gonna suck up. I try not to be a workaholic, but I try to work hard everyday. I take time for my friends. I do good deeds. I listen.

Despite that, I do have a few guilty pleasures which I allow myself. These are:

  1. Lyle Lovett. As a high school kid, I had a "country music phase." It was the result of my mother's boyfriend who I mistakenly adored. He was a good ol' boy from Colorado. He had more pairs of cowboy boots than I have pairs of clogs. Mom ended up marrying him, and he quickly turned into a sadistic psychopath which marked the end of that phase. A few artists stayed in my musical library, Mr. Lovett being one of them. As a funny lookin' Texan man with a curly mop of hair on his head who can sing openly and vulnerably about loves lost, he's one of my greatest crushes. If Mr. Lovett came to my door tonight and proposed marriage, I'd marry him without hesitation.

  2. Pop tarts. Two perfect golden-ratioed little pastries filled with chemistry's *idea* of fruit and topped with chemistry's *idea* of frosting. I eat approximately 8 per year.

  3. Wendy's Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxes. I loathe fast food, and I won't eat it socially. But there are those late nights when I have nothing in the fridge and there are a pile of ns simulations knocking at my psyche. I won't bother to cook. I'll just pull up to Dave's Late-Night Window and order one of those tasty burgers (no mayo) and a diet Coke.

  4. "Quality" movies. The Princess Diaries, The Santa Clause, their sequels, The Prince & Me, The Last Unicorn, Save the Last Dance, First Daughter, The Pacifier, Ice Princess, Swiss Family Robinson, and anything with Hayley Mills. Escaping into a world of saccharine is theraputic for me.

  5. Janet Jackson's Control Album. This is the home of the songs "Nasty Boys" and "The Pleasure Principle." When I was 10 years old, I choreographed a dance to "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" and peformed it for my mother in my black Reebok high-tops and splatter paint leggings when she got home from her school day at community college.

Ganas, Jing Jing, and other words needed in English

I was at Leslie Middle School in 1988 attending my first-year Spanish class when I learned the definition for ganas. Senyorita Shirley stood at the front of the class with her hands in claw formation grabbing at her stomach, hunched over as if she were in pain. "Ganas," she explained, "are this gutteral, emotional, burning, visceral need for something."

Tengo ganas de salir el Midwest.

That sounds so much better than "I really want to leave the Midwest." Or "I rilly rilly want to leave the Midwest." Or "I god-damned fucking want to get the fucking hell out of the fucking Midwest."

That's the beauty of learning other languages, you get to learn about words that simply don't translate into your own. You learn that an entire group of people somewhere in the world decided that a word was needed for a concept that you've always understood, but could not articulate. For example, I went out with the boyfriend last night. We ate at our favorite restaurant, and were trying to make plans for the evening.

bf: What do you want to do now?
me: I don't know [whiney voice].
bf: You want to go to a movie?
me: There's nothing good playing [whinier voice].
bf: You want to rent a movie?
me: Noo. I don't know [still whiney...why does this man put up with me?!].
bf: You want to go to the bar?
me: No. [yep]
bf: Um...You want to go to Wal-Mart and walk around? Or, I KNOW! We could drive out into the corn fields and stare at the corn.

Of course, the last two suggestions were jokes, but that is really the gambit of all there is to do here on a Saturday night in GradShitTownVille. Sometimes there's live music, but with all the douche-bag undergrads back in town, I was hesistant to even bother.

I was telling my friend about my previous evening and she said, "Oh, you were in jing jing mood." Apparently, in Korean, there is a word for the mood in which a person is really apathetic and whiny and doesn't want to do anything. This is great. I have a word for this mood now.

Today, I'm not in jing jing mood. Today, I'm just pissed off that I live here. Many times, people ask me why I hate the Midwest so much. Generally, I don't bother answering because if they don't already know, then anything I have to say won't make them understand. But today, I'm especially angry about living here, and so I will list my top ten reasons:

1. The local "forests" are either caged up biological research areas or embarassingly small "learning centers" where the trails are overbuilt and dogs aren't allowed.

2. "Dude, I know you. You know me. We see each other every god-damned day in that computer science building of ours. You are a computer science grad student. But, since I saw you in the public library, I guess you are going to pretend you don't know me and just walk on by. Ass." Note: people do this to me, even when I see them in the computer science building.

3. Beer selection:
me: "What kind of beer do you have?"
waitress: "We have everything. [Pause] We have Budweiser, Coors, Miller Lite, and Blue Moon."
me: "Nevermind."

4. No bottle deposit.

5. I'm growing out my hair because I got tired of people assuming that I was a lesbian dating the other girl in computer science with short hair. At one point, someone invited me to a party saying, "C'mon, you should go! There will be lots of hot chicks there!"

6. The local mass transit company wants to spend a gajillion dollars on light rail. The stupid town doesn't even have bike lanes, and they want to spend a fortune on a fancy little choo choo train to travel the 10 mile diameter of the town.

7. The dancing scene is 80% inbred cheese weasles who think they are the best dancer EVAH and therefore too good to dance with anyone else. That, or they will dance with you, at which point they simply grab your boob when no one is looking, or explain to you that they are an artist looking for nude models.

8. "Feels like 115 F."

9. "Feels like -26 F."

10. The town is surrounded by miles and miles of flat farmland whose pollen, fertilizers, and pesticides are the equivalent to poison in my lungs. In order to breathe, I have to take 4 different medications among which put me at greater risk for throat cancer and osteoporosis.

Stay tuned. Hopefully I can take the chainsaw to the overgrown shubbery in the backyard and get back into my regular malaise, rather than this hyper-angry state.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Poetic Memory

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call "poetic memory" and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our life beautiful.

--Milan Kundera, from "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

Summer is officially over. Not because classes have started or because the equinox has passed, but because most of the students have finally trickled back into town for the big dorm move-in this weekend. The dad and I went out to lunch yesterday, only to be confronted by crowds of obnoxious undergrads all wearing permutations of five wardrobe artifacts: flip flops, Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts, slutty tops, gaucho pants, and $100 jeans. Admittedly, I was prepared for this. I had the feeling that summer was just about over when two nights ago I saw a girl dressed in Daisy Duke jean shorts, a backless top, and silver (SILVER!!) high heeled shoes. It didn't help her case that I spotted her on the street corner.

Despite being prepared, I'm sad to see the season go. Summer is my favorite time of year in GradSchoolShitTownVille. The hordes of undergrads have all leaked out of town by mid-May, and I get to enjoy a few of the advantages of living in a small town. Bars, restaurants, and movie theatres are all empty, allowing me to patronize the local businesses and travel through the streets without the traumas of getting mooned by drunk sorority sisters.

I decided not to pay my gym fees this summer to save a bit of money, so I didn't have access to the university pool, my usual scene for exercise. This summer I played like I was in the Tour de France, going on 1.5 hour bike rides down country roads. At some point in July, I got tired of my usual route and I started heading in different directions on the backroads that begin only a few miles from my little house. Last night, I headed plain east, looking for where the highways end and the byways begin.

I discovered two sections of biological research areas owned by the university, forest and prairie. Moss covered the fallen trees huddled on top of each other, mirroring the wild structures that reside in my own poetic memory. The rusted hurricane fences, barbed wire, and trespasser warnings prevented me from entering, but not from recalling happily my own adventures into the forests. Past the biological areas, the roads became hilly and the copses non-native farm trees thickened. The great Midwestern sky was pink from the setting sun, surrounding everything. I felt like I might fall into it.

Goodbye summer.

Why I tell stories

The dad is here for his annual visit.

Scene: I'm eating peanut butter toast, looking through the Land's End catalog while the dad folds laundry.

the dad: Land's End? Where'd you hear of that?

me: I don't know.

the dad: You are supposed to keep stories of all this stuff. Spencer Gifts. The first time I ever saw Spencer Gifts was the very first time I went to my aunt's house and met her for the first time. She had the catalog there, and I looked through it because there was not one other thing to do in that house. And that's how I got all my venus flytraps. How the hell do you fold this spaghetti underwear of yours?

* * *

Scene: The dad and I are driving to mini-golf.

the dad: I could be like your grandmother. Ask you the same thing a hundred times. Like when your brother and I went down there in the truck and slept in the back of the truck because we didn't want to sleep in that marshmallow bed they got where you just sink down in the middle pit among all the marshmallowness. And that hitch on the truck would scrape on the way out of the driveway. And she'd say, "What's that?!" "What's that?!" "What's that?!" "What's that?!" EVERY time.

me: She's your mom.

the dad: She's your grandmother. And you're just like her. [laughs]. You're not. Nah, you're like your great grandmother. You go all ballistic like she did when you're fed up with something.

me: Yeah, but I haven't attacked any strangers with a garden hose yet.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Out of the desert

I've gone on many road trips in my lifetime. In part, it's because I'm from a working class family who couldn't afford airfare. I didn't fly on a plane until I was 16, and that was by myself to visit an aunt. I didn't fly again until after I graduated from college. My father has only flown five times in his life, four of which have been to visit me in the Midwest. On my road trips, I've travelled the entirety of Interstate-5 from Vancouver BC to Mexico. I've travelled much of Hwy 101, Hwy 1, I-44, I-40, I-80, I-35, and Route 66. I've been to 16 of the 22 contiguous states west of the Mississippi.

For me, road trips almost always represent a big life change. My favorite was a trip my father and I took to Reno, NV in August of 2001 to witness the burial of my grandmother. It happened on the same weekend my Terrible, Horrible, No Good ex-boyfriend would be moving out of my house. I envisioned myself as a brave warrior entering the desert to burn pieces of a past only to rise again like some kind of Phoenix. Dad and I watched grandma's ashes buried next to her husband's, mother's, mother-in-law's, father-in-law's, and grandmother's graves. We stayed at Motel 6 and played mini-golf in the sun. I took photos of the strip to add to my "Cheesie Sign" collection. On our way back, we passed small towns peopled by smoke-stained fire fighters taking a pause from the summer of forest fires. Sunburned and tired, I happily returned to a house which housed my half of the furniture, my half of the dishes, and no ex-boyfriend.

The most recent road trip was no exception. I went to Texas to watch some friends get married and to meet the boyfriend's parents. The wedding was beautiful and the reception was something of a mini-reunion for all the folks who attended graduate school with the new couple. The parents were very gracious and welcoming, especially the mother who quickly eliminated all my fears with her casual jokes about embarassing baby photos of the boyfriend. I returned to the Midwest with the boyfriend via car chatting about the recent visit, Pressburger relations, politics, and other verbal attempts at trying to figure out how the world works.

I've returned from the South as I'd once returned from the desert. This time, all my furniture is intact, but I'm ready to get back to the adventure of grad school.

The age-old question.

What is the evolutionary purpose of feeling like my ovaries are on fire once per month?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Throw a chimpanzee in the water, and watch her drown.

It has recently come to my attention that a number of judgements have been made against me based solely on my behavior in environments in which I do not flourish. There are a number of times in which I find myself in meetings in which it's not so much the exchange of ideas, but rather a fierce contest for air time, and that's not a game I like to play. My previous post captured the environment of these meetings quite well. I will not describe these scenarios further so not to be a witness against myself.

What it boils down to is this. Everything I've understood about graduate school, until now, has been all wrong. Thus far, I've treated it like another job at another company, rather than a place in which I must forge my own path. An entire year of research has passed by, and having finally pushed and pulled and clawed for the telling negative feedback from the higher-ups, I feel only shame. In the words of David Byrne, "My God, what have I done?"

I realize now that I must fight my own inclinations and behaviours if I want to stay here and succeed. I must interrupt people. I must brag about my work. I must ignore what I'm told by those in power and stand my ground. I must be technically creative. I must rely on no one. I must, in a completely disgusting stereotype, be a man.

At this crossroads, I must ask myself a very serious question. Do I want to stay here? I could ask the alternate question, "Do I belong here?" However, it's apparent to me--now more than ever--that I do not belong here, but that hasn't mattered for three years. Do I want to stay here? Will the next two, three, or four years of misery be worth the person I have to become to succeed and the degree I will obtain?