On Friendship, Loneliness, and Being Too-Much

Friendships and Isolation
I learned recently that I see friends far less often than a lot of people do.  Most see their best friends weekly and their general friends monthly.  I'm more likely to spend time with my best friends socially once every 2-3 months, and my general friends once a year for a couple hours.

Perhaps that explains why I've been so lonely for so long, and I'd like to improve the frequency... although there's more to the story.

Loneliness doesn't just mean I'm alone.  I can work on a creative project and not even notice being alone.  Loneliness comes when I feel invislble, because my real self isn't seen and connected to others who understand.  That's a much more nuanced issue to solve.  I can easily be lonely in a group of happy people, even when I'm also happy, because I need a deeper kind of connection.

I have local friends, and the people I hang out with have generally positive opinions of me, so why not just go hang out more?  I'd like to... sort of.  But I'm a caregiver, and that makes life complex in some uncommon ways.  Please forgive me the 7 paragraph wall-of-text segue... it's hard to sum up 15 years in a few words.

Caregiving Sucks, But Not For Why You Think
Being a caregiver for a spouse with chronic illness is not just about the jobs I do, and respite care isn't the magic solution it's sometimes described as.

This caregiving is about the other accommodations I make, to avoid triggering his pain.  It includes keeping the house quiet and semi-dark for 2-3 hours each evening before bed.  It includes not talking to him when he's dealing with pain, and not pressuring him to change rooms or cope with the surrounding world in any way.  Processing spoken or emotional communication can be complicated and stressful when pain is already present.  Even just me arriving home full of chatty or quietly bustling energy can be enough to trigger pain for him (yes, just me moving around the room is a trigger at times).

We've been living with variations of this for most of 15-16 years. I don't even think about the details anymore; I just do whatever is needed, on autopilot.  During bad time periods, this is daily life.  During good times, he may have a few weeks at a time where he's mostly okay as long as nothing stresses him.  I could complain that it's not fair to me, but illness is far more unfair to him.  It's more useful to focus on how to live with disability and salvage what happiness we can.

So, having friends over is complicated.  He needs this home space to retreat into when pain is an issue, and pain sometimes comes unexpectedly.  Am I supposed to ask my guests to quit talking or to leave, just after they've arrived?  Or schedule last-minute so that I know whether he's likely to be having pain issues that day, and don't make plans until I know it's safe?  But my friends have other commitments; they need to be able to plan in advance for their families.

It gets even a bit weirder when my husband seems to be hiding out from my friends; people can read the wrong thing into it and think it's because of anger or interpersonal dynamics.  Actually it's a blend of pain, sensory sensitivity, and neurological overwhelm.  So he tries to say hi to anyone new I have over, and then retreat to another room, but even that greeting is stressful on him.  And then, seeing him struggle is stressful on me, since I've been the one to manage his environment and daily life accommodations for years now.

When we manage it well, it's an invisible disability - because no one else is let in to see it when it's bad.  But on bad days... pain expresses itself as anger and short-temperedness, and while I have ways to cope and work through it with him, I don't expect anyone else to.

When we're in a period of days with a lot of bad times, I spend the good times sitting dully, using the quiet to catch my breath and recover.  So caregiver respite isn't the issue; my ability to rest up during quiet times, though, certainly impairs my availability for socializing.

Emotional Intelligence is learned but hard work is exhausting
A friend of mine has several times seen me manage difficult people situations and commented, "You have so many good insights - you should write a book!"

While the key ideas might be useful, I dread how depressing it would be to explain how I learned these things.  No one would read that, I'm sure - except maybe other caregivers who also really need to hear that they're not alone.  And that we've all yelled at some point, no matter how much we love the care receiver.  I find it hard to write about our journey, even; the memories retrigger my PTSD, and I'm not exaggerating on that.  I do better if I stay focused on the present day.

But also, she's right.  I have a unique strength there, because I've had to pay attention to tons of subtle signals, body language, tone of voice, the impact of healthy or unhealthy eating patterns, unconscious habits that are telltale signs of upcoming pain episodes, and much more.  I've had to practice mindfulness to keep my own reactions under control even when I was frustrated or tired.  I've had to set aside my plans to make room for what's actually happening in the moment, and the time it takes to respond in a healthy way; to be present and really listening, not just with my ears but also with my eyes and my heart.  And I've done it for years, under high stress, nearly solo, which means I got really good at it.

My Love is deep.  People are awesome.  Diversity is complicated.
I love him intensely.  We've been through hell and come out the other side, still very much in love at 18 years married.  But... the love inside me isn't just about him.  Love is who I am.  I'm not saying I always make good choices (I don't).  I'm not saying it's the biggest thing in my life (it isn't).  But it's a huge part of how-I-am-with-people.  I love quickly, deeply, and in ways that the culture I've been living in as an adult doesn't know how to express or make space for.  My friendships come in many flavors, and some of them don't even exist or have names in mainstream culture.

I used to think this depth of feeling was a flaw in me.  I thought there was just one right way to be, in the world, and if I wasn't that, I was a misfit.  I had anxiety most of my growing up years from that, and well into adulthood.  Sometime in my 30s I discovered cultural diversity, and suddenly I wasn't wrong or weird any longer.  I was just another flavor among thousands or more.

It turns out that the curiosity, active listening, and mindfulness I had been practicing as a caregiver are also a key skill for communicating effectively across language barriers and cultural differences.  I'm sure I still stumble at times, and yes sometimes I notice my stumbling and feel super awkward.  And, one of the important skills turned out to be getting over myself even when I misstep, so I could be present to hear my impact and try to make amends, instead of hiding in shame.  That one's not easy nor automatic.  It also reminds me to be gentle with others who might have hurt me, because I get how hard it is.

People bump and jostle each other socially and emotionally, and we're all still learning how to be with that and still find peace with each other.

Some years ago I contributed a few words to an adhoc singing session: "We are stones in the river, we are stones in the river, we are stones in the river of life."  Bumping around, getting our rough edges worn off.  Have you ever really stopped to look at stones?  Big craggy rough-edged ones don't stack together very well.  There are big gaps, odd spaces, distance.  Smooth, rounded off river stones stack into piles much tighter.  They look right together.  They've given up some of their individuality and distance, and gained the ability to be neighbors.  Every smooth little rock was once a rough edged jaggy thing.  But those edges don't wear down overnight.  So what happens in that long in-between time?  For each one, there was a time when they still had a lot of individuality, but their edges were starting to soften and they could combine well too.

That's what I want for myself.  I cannot give up my individuality to fit into a culture that would leave my basic human needs unsatisfied.  If that makes me an outsider, so be it.  I need richer, more affectionate social connections than I get in most of the US Midwest; and needing those connections makes me somewhat unusual here.  But I know it is not unusual everywhere, because I hear about other cultures and other countries where affection is more commonly and easily expressed, and where they're surprised to discover how distant we are here.  So, this is a thing that is variable, not a one-and-only-way.  And yet, adjusting myself to fit the local culture to try to be closer to people, would actually give me less of the affection I need, rather than more.  So that feels strange and ironic.

I also observed that it's easy to make cultural mistakes when the person I'm interacting with looks mostly the same as me and comes from the same geographic area.  It's easy to think that culture is approximately correlated with race and national origin, so that those of us who look the same would also think the same.  Some of that correlation exists, but assuming too much risks missing the cultural diversity (and cognitive diversity) that exists within the visually same group.  That means a high risk for missteps and misunderstandings, and a missed opportunity to learn from each other because we think we're more similar than we are.

Especially as the internet has allowed special-interest groups to thrive, some people may come from a subculture that has vastly different values and expectations, and they've come to see those ways of living as normal and common.  The downside of this is the "filter bubble" that causes trouble in politics.  The upside of this is that LGBT folks and other minority groups can exist in spaces that feel natural and safe and complete, to them.  I see far less internalized homophobia in recent years, for example, because people can gather with their tribe.

I find people generally fascinating and awesome.  (Ok not the haters.  But the rest, usually.)  People have hidden depths, and it's great when they allow enough time for conversation to build to sharing those thoughts and experiences.  Those heart to heart moments are so important to me.  I can't even explain why except to say that my chest physically aches when I am too distant for too long, and deep sharing fixes it, regardless of whether I'm listening or talking.  It's fulfilling at a primal level in a way I think people who have it take for granted, and people who don't, don't even have words for.

I've been fortunate to have many opportunities over the years to experience those deep connections, and they were always, always worth it.  They're also a bit difficult to set up circumstances for, so they're more rare than I'd like.

And again, this is a topic where culture varies; deep connections like that are not universal.

The rural culture I grew up in was very emotionally expressive verbally, very passionate talkers, and almost nothing was taboo to talk through.  A few things were recognized as not appropriate for young ears (like arguing over who pays for grandpa's nursing care) but otherwise people would talk, vent, laugh, cry, get pissed off, and still keep talking with each other.  Once you showed that you were trustworthy, people would tell you what was on their minds, without you having to ask or dig. Everyone expressed; that's just What You Did.

It turned out that expressiveness didn't carry over well to cities and higher economic class environments, where it was instead judged as lack of self control.  That is a nearly comical misread of the situation - it actually takes quite a bit of self-regulation to stay in passionate conversation while expressing accurate emotional and vocal tone, word choice in context, hand gestures, and body language, and not just fleeing because the person you're arguing with is red faced because something pissed them off.

Sympathy and debate were both much more intensely and freely expressed, and I fear we're losing that piece of cultural gold as the rural areas are economically starved out and people move to the cities and adapt to conflict-avoidant city culture.

On Being Too Much
In many ways, I am Too Much for the local culture I live in.  I care too much, I want too much connection, too much talking and listening, too much heart, too much devotion, too much expressiveness, and too much presence to the current moment.

Shallow chat and activity distractions are okay but don't hold lasting interest.  I see them as a bridge to deeper social intimacy.  If I can't share about who I am inside - my interests, curiosities, passions, observations - then I feel invisible or unwelcome.  If I can't listen to another share about themselves, then I feel like an outsider who is not trusted.  These things are not necessarily true of the group (they're not actually judging me that way and it's usually a subculture difference in expectations), but they're true descriptions of my feelings and desires and where I'm poorly matched to the group.

I can hang out with people at a shallow level and deeply enjoy the moments of simple things - taking pictures of flowers, walking around a park, or playing with children.  (My secret is slipping out: children are really good at going deep, if given a chance to share their thoughts and feelings to an interested listener.  It's a nice break from adult distance.)  But anyway.  I can be entertained and truly enjoy casual hangout with adults.  But it's not heart-filling the way that deeper connection is.

As I said earlier, I am one flavor among thousands.  I finally have the perspective to know with my whole being that there is nothing wrong with the way I am.  Only, I might not be able to grow my flowers if the soil isn't right for me there.  Just because I'm a sunflower in a patch of daisies doesn't mean that either flower is wrong... but I might feel a bit more natural if I can get transplanted into a patch of sunflowers.  If that's not possible, I guess I should drop lots of seeds and see if I can invite more sunflowers to grow up around me.  :)

I joke, but feeling different and lonely is really hard.  Self-acceptance is one thing; belonging is another, and understanding is deeper than that.  It seems like such a simple thing to ask for, but the implementation is a lot harder than it looks.

Thinking on Rural Culture

It has taken me a long time to find my own voice in response to the recent election.

Background reading:
"The dark rigidity of fundamentalism in rural America"
"How Emotional Connections Trigger Creativity and Learning"

I grew up in rural midwest culture - and then, unlike most of my peers, I found a way out - an escape, a new life.

Rural poverty means living in chains.  The chains aren't literal, of course (except on snow tires and wagons), but to the same extent that money enables freedom, lack of money is a trap.  But how does it trap an entire community?  And why don't people change it?

The grass is thick and green, still wet with morning dew.  The grass catches between my toes as I carefully pick my way up the hill.  Then I cross the stubs of last year's weeds mowed short, which feel like straws poking my feet.  I pick my way past thorns to the black raspberries.  The cicadas' ever-present hum fills the air.  The berries have ripened well over the past few days, and it doesn't take long to fill my empty belly, and then start filling my plastic ice cream bucket.

A few minutes later, I hear the screech of a red-wing blackbird enforcing its territory, and turn to see my little sister walking along the road to join me.  She walks slowly up the dusty tracks in the road; it has been over ten years since it was graveled, and the soft clay dust is comfortable enough on bare feet.  She passes the rusty old tractor with iron spike wheels, the plow that has sunk into last year's mud, and the old row boat we stowed under a wispy tree hoping it would keep the sun off of it.  I pause from picking, and hold each thorny cane carefully as I step back out of the berries.  A thorn catches on my thigh, and I take care to lift it off without breaking either the thorn or my skin.  Slowly, steadily, I work my way back out.

She catches up just as I emerge.  "Anything ripe today?"  I hand her my bucket with a few handfuls of berries in it.  "I ate some already; you can have these.  I was going to surprise you..." Her eyes light up, and she gives me a big grin.  "Are you sure?  'Cause I'll happiily take them but I'm willing to share too!"  Now we're both grinning.  "Okay, maybe I'll keep a couple.  And then we can pick some more together."  We eat, and she begins the meticulous climb through the thorns from the other side of the bush.

A while later, our bucket is nearly full.  Then, I hear the far-away crunch of rocks under vehicle tires; someone's coming!  We freeze, and listen.  Aha, got it - that's our uncle - and he's driving the car that has room for passengers, not the truck; it sounds different on corners - and he's about a half mile away right now.  Cousins!  If we're lucky, the kids are along, not just the adults to work the fields.  I look down from the hill we're on, and see the dust rising above the road in the distance.  "Hey sis, are you done picking?"  "Not quite, I see some really big berries back here I want to get."  "Okay, then, I'm going back to the house to see if our cousins came.  See you there!"

With a few swift movements, I'm out of the berry patch and racing barefoot down the hill, ignoring the straw-like stubs hurting my feet, racing along the dusty tiretracks, into the grass, and all the way back to the house.  I make it to the driveway a moment ahead of the car, and climb up on the bank of the pond so I'm out of the road.  As the car turns in, I can see my cousins making silly faces at me through the window, and I grin back.  They are barely parked when the kids climb out, nearly tumbling over each other in their eagerness to be free.  I run over (a little slower, as the driveway has sharp rocks), and conversations explode into bubbly laughter.  The grownups have barely said howdy and already I've had three conversations with two different cousins.  Eventually the adults will sit around the kitchen table and trade stories and complaints, but us kids will be too busy building forts or pretending to wage war in the woods to notice.  Sometimes we pity them, having only complaining to bond over, instead of play.

Love.  Togetherness.  Belonging.  Play and peace and venting and complaining; bitching as a way to bond.  These are how wounded hearts and wounded dreams find a way to live on past sorrow, loss, and poverty.  The rules of life have a different flavor when you're trying to find happiness without the ability to ensure your basic safety or anything about your future.  When your very body is vulnerable to the elements and you don't have the protective armor of emergency funds or a pantry full of food.  And so, the rules.

Dreams are for the young.  Between age 16 and age 25, you have potential, and you can learn and get a good job and make a good life.  If you miss that window, you'll never get a second chance.

Dreams are for the young.  Once yours have passed you by, there's no point in dreaming new dreams.  It's a false hope; it's Lucy's football, and as consistently disappointing.  The only winning move is not to play.  Don't dream - it will only end in heartbreak.

You don't have time for heartbreak.  Anything that makes you less capable of paying attention to the current moment will threaten your short-term and long-term security.  It takes full-time attention to figure out where your next meal is coming from.  Or the money to pay for gas, or utilities, or catch the odd jobs that will pay the bills.  You don't have time to grieve, unless it's over drinks when there are no jobs to find anyway.  Or when you'll only find them by talking to the other drinkers.

You don't have time for self investment.  Learning is a luxury.  You can't afford the books, videos, classes, practice materials to learn a craft.  If you're really lucky, you'll apprentice to someone who already knows their trade and has scrap material you can practice with.  A learning opportunity must lead clearly and directly to paying work, and preferably be paid while you are learning; otherwise you don't have the time or money to take the risk on it.

You have no employable skills except the basic ability to read, write, and do arithmetic, and at least one of those is a little shaky.  School was... let's not talk about that.

Incremental improvements in life are false progress; you're believing a lie.  Something will always happen to knock you back down so you can't escape.  If the chains aren't all removed at the same time, they will simply come back.  Hard work is how you scramble just to stay in one place and not fall further behind.  You'll never actually get ahead.  Playing the lottery is fine though; nobody will blame you for a far-fetched silly dream, and if by some chance you did win something, you could finally buy your way out of all the chains at once.  And probably somebody else's chains too.  You will share, of course, won't you.  That's not a question.

Doing things the way they've always been done is the only way to stay safe and at equilibrium.  Losing equilibrium always means falling behind and doing worse; there is literally no way for things to actually get better.  So the best you can hope for is to not fall out of the boat.

If you think you're getting ahead, we'll be quick to remind you that Lucy's going to yank the football away soon.  We just want you to know before she breaks your heart again.  That way you'll be better prepared, and you won't dream as much, so it won't hurt as much when you inevitably fall.  Oh, and pride can make you fall even sooner, so don't get carried away celebrating either.

When you're really down on your luck and things are bad and you are breaking, your friends and family will always be there for you.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  But it usually guarantees a listening ear for the rage days.  You are not alone.

Everybody goes through this pain.  We've been through it a thousand times.  The ground is really hard under Lucy's football.  We know how much it hurts.  Our hearts break with yours.  We're sorry it didn't work out this time either, but what did you expect.  It's always like this.  This pattern has lived for generations, forever even, and we haven't been able to break through it either.  But you're young and still have your life ahead of you.  Maybe you'll find the escape route that we missed, somewhere back in our younger years when it could have worked out.

And in all of this... love.  Deep, vulnerable, passionate love for life, for family, and for togetherness, presence.  When I moved to the city, one of the cultural changes I struggled to adjust to was how much more calm and reserved people were about their feelings.  In rural culture, feelings were a sign of passion, of deep caring, of humanness and need and related to really important survival aspects of life.  Feelings were the glue that bonded family and friends, and that tied business deals, and that ensured neighborly cooperation when it was planting season or harvest season.  Feelings fed the hungry children with leftovers from festivals, and feelings did the work of carrying groceries to the neighbor when his car was broken or the road had flooded and blocked him in.  There was never enough money, but there was time, and feet that could walk and hands that could help, and feelings put those feet in motion.  Helping others ensured that others would look gently upon you in your time of need.  And it was just the right thing to do.  And we've got to take pride in ourselves for something, right?  And so we care about each other.

But in this push for community, the individual is strained.  Those things that make him different, that make him a bit hard to get along with, or a bit unpredictable - they make it harder to blend.  They make it harder to know what to expect, to follow the scripts of helping behaviors and what to say and how to respond.  Our shared experiences are what let us bond, so, when your experiences are completely unfamiliar to me, all I can contribute is a "huh.  ok." and I have nothing to add.  I do not see my value in the exchange.  I cannot help you or protect you.  I do not know who to be.

And in that discomfort, I might shut you down.  I might strike out at you.  I might brush off your ideas or disbelieve.  I cannot stay in that discomfort.  You are Lucy holding the football, and I know better than to take the bait.  At least, I think I do.  Maybe.  It sounds tempting.  Maybe the escape route only worked for you though.  Yeah, it probably won't work for me.  It probably didn't work for you either.  You're just misled.  I shouldn't believe it.  It's not like I have anything to invest anyway.  I can't take a chance like that.  I'd die.  I'd end up homeless on the street with no food and somebody beating me up besides.  At least out here, alone, I am safe.  Or if not safe, at least I can predict the dangers.  I know who makes an angry drunk.  I know when to shut my mouth and shut my door.  I can't take the risk of leaving.  It'll never work.  I couldn't afford to go, anyway.  This is the only life there is for me.

We live in a culture of stories, and the stories don't have to be true, only reassuring.  Stabilizing.  We live in a world of emotions, and they don't have to be rational, only familiar.  Shared.  Expressed.  The feelings we share make us safe together.

This isn't the culture I live in anymore.  I moved to the city.  I started working corporate jobs, and took on that culture as if it were my own.  In practice, I nearly disowned my rural heritage - who wouldn't remove those chains if given the opportunity?  And yet... those of us who knew it from the inside stand the best chance of being able to bridge the cultural gap in the urban/rural split in voting.  Or at least, be able to describe what might be going on.

Here are the key points I'm currently remembering:

* Emotions are welcomed and they matter heavily.  To understand this, get into your body and your feelings and remember what it was like to be an over-enthusiastic child all of the time about everything, good or bad.  This is not to say that their emotions are childish (they're not) but that your own perspective has become too narrow and reserved, and childhood is a reminder of another way to be.
* Stories matter.  We need shared emotional perspective in order to bond over it.  (This is why tv shows can be powerful motivators of social change.)  As a variant on this, reputation is a form of story.
* Pacing matters.  Too much too fast leaves people in unfamiliar territory with no way to relate.  Slow and steady and repeated is easier to find time for with low risk.  Plant a seed, and come back and water it regularly with a little more context, a little more story, the next chapter in the act.
* Resources matter.  Scarcity enforces a mindset that cannot tolerate risk, not even emotional or intellectual risk.  Under-resourced people are fragile and preoccupied.  Rural poverty traps entire towns or counties all at once, with little to no local source of funds.
* Community contributors - givers - earn high respect and trust and gratitude.  Preachers fall into this category.
* Authorities - people we trust to give good advice - are trusted without verifying because verifying is resource-intensive and impossible in advance.

Those who wish to understand how to message to this culture need to recalibrate their verbal and emotional experience of communication to fit these norms... and be prepared to get to know people individually and personally, because outsiders are rarely granted respect and trust.


Responses to "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap" documentary

I was invited to join the Women in IT Network at work to view the film. At the same time, I also got an invite because I am a mentor for CoderGirl, which teaches women to code so they can find jobs in the industry. The film was a summation of clips on gender bias in tech, from many things I was already certainly aware of, plus some fresh content from middle school girls learning to code at school.

What made it profound was how it all tied together when presented as one single movie. I teared up several times as I saw explanations of many of the obstacles that held me back, knocked me down, or failed to support me at crucial stages in my development as a software engineer. I saw myself reflected in the statistics of those who were held down by biases and lack of support. And I saw myself reflected again in the statistics of women whose career stagnates 10-20 years into it and they can't seem to get ahead - and some of them look elsewhere for opportunities.

I won't leave coding. I love it too much. But I see the same stagnation in my own experiences.

I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard support and encouragement from a manager at work, encouraging me to grow professionally in a significant way. I don't mean "oh pick up this one skill we need; here's a 3-day cram course" -- I mean the kind of professional development that leads to big roles, projects, promotions, and long-term professional connections and networking. There was exactly one job at the beginning of my career; one in mid-career; and the one I'm in now. That's very few for a 20-year work history. And I know damned good and well that I am worth it, so this isn't a case of "oh you're not doing enough" -- I've been the only or one of two senior tech leads for most of the last 15 years of my career.

In contrast, I've watched management at various places intentionally develop and groom the guys for manager roles, project leads, technical architects, presenters/speakers, and cross-team organizers. I've seen them sent to trainings that I was denied when I asked for, given insider information about corporate politics and team dynamics, and I've seen them pushed to take on big challenges that they didn't even want, while I was overlooked or flat-out denied with no reason given. I hadn't realized, until tonight watching the film, just how profoundly that changes that arc of a career and prevents advancement.

And... after all those experiences... I'm tired. I'm tired of working my ass off only to lose out again and again. I'm done trying to kick the football until Lucy makes amends. I'm not even sure what I'd be chasing - for all the talk of companies wanting to help their women stay and succeed, most don't post salaries with job titles and a clear path of what it takes to get to each level. Everything is secret and subjective, which makes it easy to arbitrarily deny someone who has proven that they're capable. Want to fix the number of women promoted? Make it an open system with concrete milestones and public salary numbers, and then stick to it.

The film touched on the obvious biases - minority status, stereotype threat, educational expectations, cultural bias from a young age, and harassment and frat boy hacker culture. What they went light on, and I wish they'd covered more, were the things that go deeper: messaging and invitations, sponsorship, access to technology and support services, what is a welcoming environment, what are we asking people to give up in order to show up and participate, how do verbal interactions demonstrate bias and how can we counteract that.

At Grove leadership training, we talked about group dynamics and introduced words for certain aspects of that. Primary process is what we are gathered together to do; it's our main task. An example would be: We're working as a team to do a prairie burn and restoration project. All of the aspects of group dynamics that orbit that primary task, such as deciding who's bringing the equipment, and how we're breaking up into pairs, and making sure we have water jugs, and so forth, are primary process.

Then there is the next layer of group dynamics: secondary process describes all the things happening to people or between people that can either support or distract from the primary goal. Someone trying to dodge a wasp while listening to directions is a secondary-process issue. Interpersonal drama is a secondary process. Conscious and subconscious bias are secondary process issues.

I see the overt gender bias in tech -- harassment, overt discrimination, hacker culture -- as primary process issues. They suck, but they're easy enough to point a finger at and say, this needs to change. And in some ways they're easier to work with; put skilled, experienced managers in place and you will stop most of the overt bad stuff, albeit with some work.

What I'd like to see more exploration of are the subtleties of secondary process. These are the things that are hard for even well-meaning people to get right. These are the micro-aggressions, the false assumptions, the favoritism and long-term effects of small decisions multiplied. These are the ways in which a small group of people get extra information, behind-the-scenes preferential access, and subtle boosts that make them seem to shine over others around them. These are the hard-to-prove things, the accidental differences, and the long-term trends across an industry rather than in a single person's hands. And we need ways to wrestle with these things, authentically and honestly, to talk in specifics instead of vague generalizations. This is where it gets painfully honest to see our own biases and figure out how to work around those.

And, I am going to add another layer: there are also processes that act in concert across entire job industries and cultures, that bias in a consistent direction, which are incredibly hard for any small group to change. Women do a disproportionate amount of the housework and child rearing. They are disproportionately dealing with poverty, evictions, and domestic violence. In the job world, they face a set of rules and systems that make child bearing and child raising unreasonably difficult. And then on top of all that, they are more easily fired and left with a broken up job history that does less to support them economically, support their professional advancement, support the basic bones of having a child, and makes them look unreliable even if they aren't. Have you ever been fired (excuse me, "laid off") for being too good at your job? If you answered yes, I'm willing to bet you're a woman.

You don't really understand bias and discrimination until you start to grasp that third layer, and its effects across someone's entire lifespan, and into the lives of their children and grandchildren.

I'm willing to admit that the mass cultural bias is a tough nut to crack. So, within our companies, where we're dealing with primary process and secondary process, that are a bit easier to grasp, we need to be able to talk about what's going on and why. And that means (*gasp*) talking about feelings, and listening to others, and those are difficult conversations in jobs where people come from very different patterns of emotional communication and cultural expectations around emotional safety and where emotions are largely kept muted because it's "at work".

And what no one will come out and say is that those emotions are muted because every one of us who shows up is vulnerable and many are scared and they're trying to put on a brave face and do the best they can, and if someone opens up then everyone feels raw. And we haven't built the containers for those experiences. And yes, I mean the guys here.

So I look at my own career, particularly when I'm at a pivotal point in going in a new direction with it, and I wonder, what's next. Do I have any other choice but to continue on a very unlevel playing field? Is there anything in my own control that I can do, to push back at biases in a way that works, and that gives me equal access? (I nearly wrote "roughly equal" access, because writing "equal access" sounded ridiculously over the top and audacious.) As I hit variations of both glass ceiling and sticky floor, where do I find or make MY path to success? Is there one, or am I going to hit invisible barricades every way I go?

One of the CoderGirl mentors is a young white guy in his mid-career. When he greets new CoderGirl participants, he tells the women, "I need you in this field. You will make our companies more successful. And so I am going to show up every week to make sure you get the chance to learn this." They really appreciate hearing that. It's a different experience to be invited rather than barely tolerated.

That is what we need. It's not about eliminating bias so you can be nice, so you can avoid discriminating. It's about making a real contribution to fixing the imbalance, and it's about men taking responsibility for their impact and their own leadership. It's about being intentionally welcoming, overtly supportive, not just nice. It's realizing that bias doesn't stop at "ok you're hired."

I have enough experience to say: Work is a totally different life experience when you have a manager and sponsor who support your professional development in an active, personal way. It's mind blowing how different it is from the usual cog-in-the-machine feel.

EDIT to add: The following article crossed my facebook feed quite timely tonight. It's richer than most of the posts on the topic.

End of Year Update

I did this a few times in prior years, so why not this one?  :)  End of year general update on life.

Work: Climate Corp has been fun and educational and I'm really happy there.  It's paced well, with reliable leadership and support, and I'm learning a lot of new things.  I've been picking up ops skills, or at least polishing the ones I had quite a bit.  It's been nice to get with the leading technologies again; aws, stash, jenkins, python, clojure, and a variety of others.  I'm thrilled to be getting exposure to scientific computing, and although that's not core to what I do, it is core to what my users do, and it's helping me figure out what I need to learn and how to educate myself on it.

Professional Development: I went to the StrangeLoop conference in St. Louis for the first time this year, and it was awesome.  It's a tech conference focused on practical core-tech skills (and not on entrepreneurship like so many are).  So, it was pretty hardcore, with a focus on functional computing and distributed systems, which is exactly what I needed.  I learned a lot and discovered a bunch more things I want to experiment with in my free time.

Mentoring: I'm still mentoring for CoderGirls every Wednesday (though we're taking a break over the holidays).  I've seen some of my earlier learners get placed into jobs and come back just long enough to say thank you.  Now I'm working on my second batch of intermediate folks.  Holidays have made it tough to meet enough; I'm hoping to solve that after the first of the year.  Meanwhile, LaunchCode has its own building location now, so we can stop getting displaced by other organizations.  I continue being a leader on the CoderGirl mentor team, helping to plan and structure programs and figure out what will help the learners be more job-ready.  I'm also finding that I'm sufficiently secure in my role there that, while I appreciate the thank-yous, mostly they roll off of me and I keep on going steadily along.  That's actually a good thing, I think, because I'm not getting distracted from my focus on the work.

The Java class I'm authoring recently had its outline split out for a second class, so I can try to finish the material for the first class and get it published on Udemy.  I've got more material to write and a ton of audio recording to do yet, plus general course polish.  But with the adjusted outline, it's at least looking fairly feasible.  This project has somewhat reduced my time for other projects, although not completely; I do need a brain-break once in a while.

Other stuff:  I have the Oculus Rift and the Leap Motion.  Either works alone, to some degree.  Unfortunately, a 2015 Macbook Pro is insufficient GPU power to run the Oculus for anything other than Minecraft.  (It's rather nice in Minecraft though.)  I've done a trivial amount of coding for the Leap using Unity 3D, but I haven't coded for the Rift at all... although with the release of Unity 5, it should now be possible to do in the free edition.  But see above, poor GPU performance.  Still, it's fun to be able to show friends and other developers what the future of virtual reality might be like.

And, it has been fun getting my hands into a variety of other languages, sdks, and apis.  Unity in C# was a stretch for me, particularly as Unity's own APIs are enormous.  Then I messed with the leap.  Then I switched jobs and had Java drop away and clojure, R, and python come up, along with a heavy dose of bash, plus the Amazon Web Services api and a bunch of virtual machine and docker stuff.  It got me out of being pigeonholed into Java, and more comfortable exploring other things.  It helps that there was no need to write perfect code, only decent code, and so there was room for learning.  More recently (after an Internet of Things hackathon at work made me curious about devices), I picked up the Philips Hue lights and started messing around with their sdk, which is Java and thus easy and fast to get into.  The variety and exploration has made coding fun again, and far less stressful.

Which leads me to my code analyzer project.  I've gotten more serious about planning and building it, especially as my job has exposed me to functional programming, parallel programming, distributed systems, big data, and new ways to think about compute power.  I've started a google doc for myself with the beginning of scope and plans for it.  The experiences I had at StrangeLoop contributed several potential solutions for big data gotchas that I was wrestling with, including giving me a better idea for the application architecture.  I now see where I need to use functional programming techniques to make it easier to scale up the analysis via parallel processing, and that dramatically impacts how I architect the software.  I'm also spending more time exploring related theoretical concepts to the modeling and visualization I want to do; being a bit more academic about it, and taking inspiration from pre-existing work where it's helpful.  This also makes it far more valuable that I'm building a design doc along the way, to explain my thinking and let me come back to it over a period of time.

I'm seeing this more as a 5-10 year project, where I first build the groundwork tools I need to ingest the data, and then I start doing experimental visualizations and statistics to tag it with metadata. That will let me figure out if my long-term visualization strategy is viable, and adjust as needed.  During that time, I'll also be using variants on the tools to explore other related code visualization questions, like how it's different in a different programming language or different coding paradigm, and what I can learn from the shapes.  And finally in the last stage, I'll work on pulling it together into a project that's distributable and production-ready in a meaningful way.  (I do expect it to be shared and deployed earlier than that, but that step is about the difference between an experimental exploration with base raw data, versus a "boxed software" feel.)

The wild-success criteria for the project would be 1) if I was able to gain real insights into large code bases as a result of this tool (at-a-glance knowledge; spotting needed refactoring; educating others on reading the structures; appying statistics to the data to learn from it); 2) if the results made a real contribution, however small, to the field of computer science and software engineering.

I am pretty sure I can hit #1.  I'm not sure about #2, but that's the nature of real discoveries; you don't know what's behind a rock until you turn it over.  But every bit of my experience and my knowledge of software and structure - as well as encouraging results from simpler proof-of-concept work I've done before - tells me there is value there just waiting to be properly mapped.

Others seem puzzled on how to do it, but to me it's really clear - but also a lot of work to get there, because no one else has laid the path for the 3-5 steps ahead of that one.  So, I've got a lot of path-cutting to do, before I can even get close to the real work.  Imagine if you were trying to make a wall mural glass-chunk mosaic, but first you had to forge your own glass and glass cutter... and the people around you had never seen a mosaic before so they had no idea how to help you build one.  That's a bit of what this feels like.  I've been living with and refining this idea for years, although it wasn't until this year that I gained the coding skill to tackle certain critical parts of the process.  I still have a ton to learn but now I know which fields to study.

There's one fellow I've met through professional networking who is working in this same area, and we have great conversations about it when we get the chance to talk.  That happens entirely too rarely.  And his explorations have served as a gut check on how difficult the task is that I'm proposing to take on.  But, I'm also aware of some simplifications that he had never thought of and thought were greatly useful when I ran them past him.  So, difficult does not mean impossible.

Getting my Udemy Java course finished is pressing against the time I might be spending on this code analyzer.  I wish they weren't in competition for my time.  But I want the Udemy course to become a second income, so, I need to get that finished and published.

Interpersonal relationships are being intentionally left out as this is a public post.  Suffice it to say I'm pretty happy there.

I've also recently discovered f.lux software for red-shiting and dimming my laptop monitor at night, and combining that with the philips hue led lights set to dim red just before bed has helped a lot with reducing insomnia.  The 45 minute drive to work each morning is forcing me to get enough sunlight to partially hold the seasonal depression at bay.  So, I'm feeling it a little, but getting by decently most of the time.


The sellers accepted our offer for a house. Yay! Next up, inspections and ensuring it's all as good as it looks, and that we understand the property line locations, setbacks, etc.

3 acre lot, generously sized house (5 bedroom, 2 of which are large) with a partly finished walk-out basement, and a nice 3-car garage. Lots of space for gardens and greenhouses. Lots of privacy. About 10 minutes farther out of the metro than I currently live, which isn't bad at all. It's a place I can see spending the next 20 years of my life.

It's on hilly, steep forested land (beautiful, just rough) with a couple of ravines, and a scary-steep driveway, which is presumably why the price was low enough to hit my price range (the house itself is in fantastic condition; the lot is just weird). We have ideas for driveway improvements over the next couple of years, so I'm not too concerned about it, especially since I'm in a 100% telecommute job. So if we get stormed in for a week at some point, no big deal. I do plan to keep emergency pantry goods on hand before winter sets in. And we'll put in a parking area at the foot of the driveway eventually too.

I hope to post some pictures eventually once it's ours (and assuming all the inspections etc work out). Closing would be at the end of this month.


"Do you know who you are? You're the Dream Operator..." "Pure Possibility"

This house has the foundation for a bunch of our dreams for the future. Gardening, fruit trees, home workshop space, art/craft creative space, comfy family living... so many things. So many dreams to make happen!

Highlights of 2012

(Cross-posted from Facebook. Yeah, I know.)

- I started bellydance in the Spring. By end of the year, I am dancing at a beginning-intermediate level, extremely happy with my progress, and confident dancing around good friends. I look forward to a great deal more learning in the coming year.

- I "found my feet" on tech skills at work. Having finally learned enough Hibernate and Wicket to be coding at roughly the skill level I'm used to, I'm far more confident tackling bigger challenges like I did in past years. I feel like "me" again. Being a beginner was disorienting (give up working where you're fast and fluent, and start all over in something nuanced, hard, and completely new, with a high degree of perfection required? yeah that's rough) but it was totally worth it for opening new doors. I've grown so much and that has opened possibilities in my own mind for my future. I'm past the "stuck" point I was at in career growth about 2 years ago. Having a good mentor was a significant catalyst; working my ass off was the rest of it. :)

- I built local friendship connections and identified local events where I'm likely to find more people of the sort I enjoy hanging out with. You guys are awesome.

- I found (Unfuck Your Habitat) and have been improving on my "make it a habit" skills. Seriously, she's really onto something with the "no marathon cleaning, just build a daily routine" thing. The blog format really works well to support that, too.

- My self-concept shifted internally. I am more assertive, more confident, more secure, and more clear on what I want and who I am. I stopped seeing myself as "less than." This is a major shift in quality of life, but I don't really know how I accomplished it. It just kind of happened along the way while I was busy living and maturing.

- I made decisions about what I want to learn in the next few years to build towards my career 10 years in the future. Data analysis and statistics, here I come. After that, machine learning and natural language processing, which I find absolutely fascinating as a messy, complicated, and USEFUL frontier of science. This is the whole realm of content categorization, search technologies, sentiment analysis, product or ad recommendations, movie recommendations... it's how tech enables people to find meaningful paths through the mountains of stuff on the internet. Somebody's got to build and improve that stuff - why not me? :) It fascinates me. I need at least 5 years of serious formal education, though, to get where I want to be. It'll be a while.

"Formal education" does not necessarily mean University. It does mean carefully and deeply learning all of the relevant material, both theory and practice, with lots of hands-on time and interaction with others in the field.

- Started learning Japanese. Learned all my hiragana thoroughly, learned katakana kinda weakly, and learned about 400 vocabulary words plus basic grammar. Read about 2/3 of the way through a Level 1 graded reader, without a dictionary, before I started to encounter things I couldn't translate. (Woot!!) Learned to recognize (but not draw) about 15 kanji. Since I used to be afraid of learning a foreign language, the fact that I am learning Japanese casually for relaxation is a comment on how much my mind has changed. The real key is that I have no deadline, no tests, and no stopping point (semester breaks etc). It's just a daily practice, indefinitely.

2011 Resolution Fulfilled: Make More Mistakes

Last January, after losing a long-term job and facing the changes in my life around it, I wrote:

"I need somewhere to take my career that gives me sustained challenge and keeps opening up more doors to opportunity. It's how I work, it's how I've always grown, and I need it again. And after spending quite a bit of time focused on real research R&D, I'm able to tackle much harder problems."

Sometime in late January, or maybe it was early February, I made a choice about my intentions for my year. You could call it a New Year's Resolution. While I don't get into the "lose 30 pounds" or "try skydiving" or whatever the traditional resolutions are... I do try to set an intention, a gentle background focus for my year and my choices. My motto for 2011 was thus:

"Make more mistakes."

By that, of course, I didn't mean be sloppy or careless, or intentionally clumsy. But rather, get out of my comfort zone. Try new things. Dare to attempt things I'd never done before and knew would be hard. Move into the unknown instead of freezing up at the threshold and then turning away. Try things that "don't seem like something I would do" and see how it felt from the other side of the first time - when the first try was behind me instead of yet to come. Take those first tries with courage and curiosity, and don't bother getting nervous or anxious about it, just go try.

And throughout the year, I very much did so.

I took a new job that was significantly above my competency but very exciting, and then worked hard to bring my skills up to match. As a result, I learned a ton of new skills and perspective, that I've then been able to reapply in surprising ways to other technical areas. I'm no longer in stagnation, and am growing like mad again (yay!).

I went to social events alone, introduced myself to people, and made new friends who eventually became "my crowd"; now I am greeted with hugs and excited smiles by wonderful friends. I taught a photography class as a solo teacher. I did formal introductions of one friend to another (something that seems so simple, but which social anxiety had prevented me from doing before). I tried various new experiences without planning ahead (or worrying ahead) about how it would work out; and just not-worrying was a new experience too.

I took my first solo trip to Chicago in many many years (maybe ever) and succeeded in navigating / coping with traffic / getting where I wanted to go, without too much stress. I did a short solo hike in a redwood forest in California, and climbed muddy paths on my hands and knees because the adventure called me more strongly than staying tidy... and when I started to lose my footing, I got creative about leverage and figured out solutions, instead of getting nervous.

I faced down my high school struggles with foreign language learning and started the process of learning Japanese. It's so foreign that even after years of listening to it spoken in anime, I still struggle just to pronounce words and syllables. But I'm having _fun_ and I'm letting myself flub it over and over so that my mouth starts to learn how to follow the sounds. I am learning at my own pace and for the joy of the learning... like a little child playing with baby talk. This is the loose play that I was so rigidly afraid of in prior years, that stopped me from doing any deep learning. And now, instead... I play. I let the mistakes roll out. I fumble through it and then giggle and try again.

Tonight I sang at karaoke for the first time. Solo, too. And predictably, I sucked. And then I asked a good friend for tips, and got back up there and tried again, and the second time didn't suck nearly as much. I still have a long ways to go before I am "good" - but I don't care. I started! And I didn't freak out at just getting up there and doing it.

I relaxed. I let go. I figured out that mistakes won't kill me, or even particularly embarass me if I don't let them.

I still hold back sometimes, out of fear of "doin' it wrong." But now I have another option, that I can choose to engage: "Make more mistakes." It comes easier now.

I'm Back!

I got the new job I was applying for. Yeah!!! 100% telecommute, which will be such a change. I put in my notice at my current job, and heard a fair amount of "we're sorry you're leaving -- you're talented!" Awww. :)

I'm spec'ing out a laptop for purchase through the new job. Related, I've got a bunch of decluttering and cleaning to do around my desk, so assembly of the new stuff is viable. There's probably 5 hours of organizing and cleanup work that needs to be done.

I'm also filled with a brainstorm of info for my current job's issues, with stuff I hope I'll be able to share on Monday or Tuesday (this is my last week of work there). And, I have another big brainstorm of stuff related to Sex Positive St. Louis, which is a new local organization I am becoming active in. I'm so excited about ideas I have to share, but I'm feeling squeezed for time to get them written up and sorted out.

Daniel and I got our bed frame (from years ago) reassembled today and the bed back on it. That was quite a task, as it's a king size, and we hadn't had the strength to wrestle it until recently. That bed frame was among the first real wood furniture we purchased after getting married, and it has lots of lovely memories of our first home and the beautiful days before he fell ill. So I am beyond thrilled to have it back, set up, and looking beautiful in our bedroom again. It's a simple arch and bars design, and a gorgeous wood that glows in the afternoon light. And it matches the rest of the bedroom set. :)

I was squeeeing all afternoon. Hell, even my cat is squeeing!! He has spent almost the entire rest of the day curled up on it, blissfully rolling around, and snuggled in happier than any other recent day. I think he remembers it and I think he missed it too.

Setting up the bed frame was the final step I needed to feel "moved in." It got taken down years back when we thought we were moving across the country, and then we decided to stop in St. Louis for a year or two... seven years later, I've been in the same rental house for three years and have declared I'm staying put. So the bed frame is finally reassembled and I'm HOME. It's such a profound and quietly deep sense of completion.

With the upcoming job change and all it means for my career and growth, I really feel like my life is getting back on track to where it should be. I've learned a few important things at my short-term job, and I don't regret taking it. And, I am already ready to move on. My mood is stable and happy, and I'm enthusiastic about life again. I'm done grieving the job loss in January, and although I miss the people, I see what's next for my career path and it's so exciting that I am totally ready to dive in.