Eat Your Frogs

“Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

The relative cholesterol of frogs notwithstanding* this has been my mantra for the past several days. As part of the seasonal reorganization of things here at my company, I have a new boss and new coworkers (sorta) and so there’s a bit of an administrative tax associated with that: the PowerPoint that describes your products. The weekly update email on how those products are doing. The monthly update PowerPoint on how those products are doing. The one-off PowerPoint to discuss the ProblemChild in your product, and the one-page Word docs to describe the individual projects of your Product. Then of course there’s the emails about each of these items.  It was a rough three weeks getting all of that in order, but now I think we’re there and it’s time to eat another frog.

America needs to eat a frog. Actually, your average American citizen needs to eat a *lot* of frogs, because it is Election season. Whatever their opinions are about the candidates for the Top Office are, and how much they do or do not like said candidates, that is (frankly) the least of the frogs Americans need to eat.

*All* of the 435 House of Representative seats are up for reelection this year. Thirty five of the 100 Senate seats are, too. One hundred and sixty three ballot measures are up in 35 states, and 72 citizen initiatives. In my home state we have some pretty big decisions to make, including the possibility of a carbon tax (the Economist covered it last week). There are initiatives about pot, about gun control, about taxes, and about minimum wage; I guarantee the average American has an opinion about some or all of those. I equally guarantee there are no simple choices.

Let’s take my home state: Washington. We have the aforementioned carbon emission tax on the ballot, which economists love but I guarantee you local businesses will not. Ditto the Minimum Wage initiative (actually economists are split on that one, depending on who you talk to regarding artificial price floors, etc.). Firearms make another appearance, this time around risk protection orders. Another initiative asks you to weigh privacy risks against proper compensation for home health care workers. There’s also not one, but two advisory votes (where we get to let the State House/Senate know how we feel about taxes they approved without subjecting them to vote). You may think we have a lot in our state but it turns out California and Alabama voters will have a much thicker pamphlet to read through.

All of these frogs to eat and yet, while the states are doing their best to saute them in butter and garlic (or is that braise them in red wine and tomato sauce?) our election year coverage seems largely devoted to the biggest frogs who, depending on the status of the Congress they are rewarded with, may be stuck in the mud anyway and unable to do much other than croak for the next two years.

Because of the howling cacophony over those “biggest frogs”, it’s rare you find an intelligent, balanced conversation over the little frogs (and possibly tadpoles) we need to consume. It’s almost like the sheer dread of that first big frog negates the fact that once we’re done chewing that one and swallowing it, we have to eat another fifteen, or twenty, or thirty frogs.  Unlike college, there isn’t going to be some sort of machismo pride on the line for chugging your frogs; there’s not going to be a team of your brothers and/or sisters cheering you on as you eat your frogs.  This is probably because they’ll be busy with their own frogs. Stopping to discuss the balance of flavors in the small frogs, or cooking method, seems ridiculous.

It is, however, the platefuls of small frogs that await us are what we’ll have to subsist on for the next two years (at least — remember Senate terms, for example, are six years), and they are not getting the attention they deserve. I’d argue the biggest frogs are over seasoned and will be cooked to a crisp, leaving little taste on the palette and not otherwise making any long-term impressions. It’s those carefully prepared, home-grown frogs we need to fill up on. On voting day,  you get to pick your frogs.

*50mg per 100g of frog meat, in case you were wondering, vs 88 for chicken. There may be a missed opportunity here.

Amphigory & Discovery

In 1992, I was in my second year of college and caught between a love of English (Literature), and Marine Biology. Naturally, then, all of my humanities credits were embedded in literature. My college offered a course in British Literature, and I took it.  I had had the instructor before (Dr. Linda Leeds) and I would have her again (in a custom course in which I spent it studying the Vita Merlini), and she was most judicious in her judgment.

In my time with her, she remarked that:

  1. My journalism teacher had succeeded in curing me of writing “cute” but not killing writing for me, and
  2. That I really should have stuck with English as a major (true, I use it more than Marine Biology to date)

I remember that in our Brit Lit class we thought we were so smart. There were 30-odd of us, and we “convinced” her to let us watch “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” as part of coursework.

The joke was, of course, on us. Have you watched the movie? I cannot, to this day, without being able to dissect Every Single Joke into a commentary on English Literature or historical fact. There is a reason there is a killer rabbit. There is a reason there are irritating French soldiers, there is a reason there are wanton harlots and questionable witches and messed up science. There is a reason the guy who is being carried to the “Bring out your dead” collector isn’t really dead, and why Dennis was considered “old” and mistaken for a “woman”. There is a reason the professor appears halfway through, the monster had 3 heads, and Robin has a divergent experience and minstrels. There is a reason a cow is thrown, a rabbit is the “Trojan Horse”, and there are no actual horses. There is a reason for the shrubbery, the Castle Aaaargh, and Wicked Newt. (If you are willing to dive deep and view askew, there is even a reason for the “Swedish”subtitles in the opening credits).

The joke was on us and I cannot speak for the others in my class, as I do not know any of them anymore, but I watch this movie with my son and smirk both in the pure joy of a Monty Python movie and the knowledge that it’s so much more well conceived than anyone thinks. It hasn’t killed the joy of watching for me, and here I am some 23/4 years after the fact fondly remembering an English Teacher.

That is power.

I do not know what has become of Dr. Leeds.  She was extremely effective as an instructor and I really do wish I had listened to her more often. I only know that I am not the only one who benefits from her wisdom and generosity.

And I am not the only one who cannot watch this movie without winking at the Black Knight, who always triumphs, regardless of the circumstance.


Today, I was an adult. I got up early (even for me). I wore professional business wear (not jeans). I wore heels for more than 9 hours. I paid for parking, in downtown. I held meetings. I followed up.

And I spoke in front of 250-odd people on the reason why I work with Team Read.

Here is the text of my speech. I flubbed it in a couple of spots, but the sentiment is there. If you can, give: http://www.teamread.org.

Good morning. Thank you all for coming to our Annual Fundraising Breakfast. I know it takes some effort to get up and presentable and into downtown at 7:30am, so well done all of us.

Being, as I am, a technologically minded person, and surrounded, as I am often, with technologically minded people, who all agree on the importance of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – in education, it may have been a surprise to some of my friends and family that I chose to invest in, and support, Team Read. After all, this is about reading, right?

Right. Step one, in a long list of steps to a robust and complete education. Without reading, and specifically without quick and thorough reading comprehension, no student will survive that hallmark of third grade math: the word problem. We all remember – a train leaves Chicago going 40 miles per hour, and so forth? Only now they’re multi-step problems in third grade, like this one:

Ashley is 61 inches tall. Adam is five feet four inches tall. How many inches taller is Adam?

So we help students improve their reading fluency and comprehension, paving the way to use reading as a tool for all and any disciplines they need to pursue through the course of their educational careers.

That is only half of the story though, and only half of why I support Team Read.

About two breakfasts ago – I measure these things in food – Kiarra Thomas, a Team Read tutor, spoke here about her experience being a tutor. She talked about how she learned very real job skills – dealing with her charge, budgeting time, being responsible for this student. She spoke about how these skills and this experience helped form her educational and career path, and how it helped her get other jobs. Too often we are given to looking at our teenagers as “just teenagers” – oh, those kids – whereas Team Read provides, to qualified and eager teenagers, a real job, with real experience, and real impact. These teenagers are equal to the task.

And that’s why I am here today. And that’s why you are here today, too.

Team Read relies on the support of volunteers and donors, and I want to thank you for being here this morning, and learning about the good work of Team Read, and sharing your enthusiasm for this organization with others.

So thank you.


It’s that time of year again, where kids are out of school and we all forget about the responsibilities and management associated with education. School’s out for the summer!

Here in Washington State our legislators have come up with a budget (after two special sessions, for which, may I remind you dear voter, our congresspersons get paid). It got signed in, but doesn’t include the funding for the recent education bill that got passed, which totals slightly over $2 billion. Out of $38 billion, that means we’re missing about 5% or so of our budget. As much as I want to look at that and still give us an “A”, I’m a pretty harsh grader.

This little rounding error is for reduced class sizes, voted in by the constituency. The reason why there’s no funding for it is the measure didn’t include a funding resource, which is like saying “Do you want to have free groceries?” as a voting item. Of course you want free groceries, or reduced class sizes. When we don’t address how it’s going to get paid for, however, we end up with extended sessions and bickering and our very own elected officials trying to delay a measure we elected to have.  A funding measure wasn’t included, though, because as soon as you mention the possibility of raising taxes — of any sort: real estate, business, sales, or (eek!) instantiating an income tax — people lose their collective shit.

Here’s the thing: we can get mobilized around *some* social progress. We have gay marriage and subsidized healthcare and it only took Donald Trump one speech to ignite and unify the Latino vote (hi, I’m one of ’em, Donald) and get NBC, Macy’s, etc. to drop him like a hot potato. We are a country moving towards better social freedoms, recognition of our needs as a society, and intolerance of intolerance.

“We” (and by “we” I mean our dear, elected officials) do this because of one very simple reason: those movements represent votes. They get the Latino vote. Or the gay vote. Or the elderly vote. Or the African-American vote. Or the women’s vote. They love those voters! Those voters will help them *win*. It will be great.

As long as those voters aren’t educated.

We live in a country that is 14th in the world for education — and a state that is 20th in the US. Those figures are dropping with each year.  You don’t have to be smart to vote, and when you have your Legislative Branch playing games with numbers to “pass a budget” that doesn’t include all of the things that it is required to pay for, it’s better if the voters aren’t smart.

I live in a good school district. Our kids get issued laptops.  One of the more common rejoinders to this is: if the school district can furnish laptops, why can’t it pay its teachers (or reduce class sizes)? Great question.

Local school districts augment federal and state money (because it’s not enough) by levies and bonds. Here in our county it’s not uncommon to see an education bond measure every two years — for this district or the one down the road — to cover a given thing. Technology levies are separate from operating levies are separate from capital bonds (the latter used for building new schools). So if the tech levy passes but the operating levy doesn’t, you get computers but no one to administrate them.

Let’s take a look, then, at the operational cost of a teacher — that’s really what it comes down to, right? The teacher is who your child interacts with on a daily basis, they’re the ones that “take all summer off” and “Only work like 6 hours a day and get multiple in-service days and spring break and such”. Let’s look at a “Schedule C” teacher, who has either a BA and 90 credits or a Master’s Degree. We will take one who is 5 years in. That teacher makes $43,607/year. (Note to those who go look up those hourly rates — those are based on in-class hours. They are not based on hours worked).

Let’s further say the teacher doesn’t work at all during the 10 weeks of summer (they actually go in a week early, but it makes the math easy), or spring break (1 week), winter break (2 weeks), and holidays (Veteran’s day, Day after Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, Mid-winter break adds up to a week). I exclude Thanksgiving and Memorial day because they are typically off for everyone.

OK so 52 weeks/year, minus 10 for summer, 3 for regular breaks, and another for miscellaneous days == 52-14=38 weeks. That translates to $1147/week, before taxes, or an hourly rate of $28.67. Woo hoo! Riches behold!

Well, wait. Do they really work 40 hours?

My son’s school starts at 7:4oam and gets out at 2:10pm. Teachers are expected on-campus by 7:10am. So let’s assume they hightail it out of there with the kids and do not stay late to cover detentions (they do), test retakes (ditto), clubs (which they do and it’s usually on their own time, but it’s a choice so we will ignore that). That’s 7 hours. Oh, they get lunch, for 40 minutes. That means 1 hour, 40 minutes short of an 8 hour workday.

Except there is no room in there for lesson planning, grading, etc. Six classes at 30 kids/class is 180 kids worth of papers to grade, tests to grade, and lesson plans. Fine. Let’s be super-generous and say that is used up with that 1 hour and 40 minutes. (Note: my kid averaged 3 hours of homework per night in 6th grade. Each class had one graded item per night, roughly, not including major projects and papers. Translation: go through roughly 180 pieces of math homework and check the answers and they showed their work correctly. At one minute per paper you have used up all of your 100 minutes and then some).

Great! We’re done.

No, we’re not. These days, your dear teachers are expected to answer email from students and parents. This averages 30-50 per day (I am not exaggerating, I asked a bunch of different teachers — and I know I contributed to that count more than a few times). Call it 30 per day at 1 minute to read and 1 minute to respond– that’s another hour. Then add in IEP meetings (teachers with a student in their class in an IEP attend one or two of these a year — and there’s about 2 per class, so 12 per teacher) and those add up to another 15 minutes a week. Then add in staff meetings, call it another 15 minutes per week.

With me? Your 40-hour per week teacher is now at roughly 48 hours/week. Let’s go back and do that math again: $24/hour. Looks great! Except remember we removed all those weeks off the teacher gets — we assumed s/he didn’t get paid for that period.

Now lets look at how much “life” costs.

  • Take off 20% for taxes.
  • The cheapest 2 bedroom apartment I could find within a 20 minute drive (because there is a gas/transportation trade off here) is $1200 ($14,400/year).
  • $300/mo for food
  • $100/mo for transportation — bus and/or gas money/insurance
  •  $150/mo electric/gas
  • 10% for retirement

That’s $2294-(20%*2294)-1200-300-100-150-(10%*2294)=2294-458-1200-300-100-150-229=and guess what we’re in negative numbers. Because after I take out electricity/gas we have only $86, and that’s what the teacher can put to retirement.

As long as they don’t have kids. Or pets. Or hobbies. Or unforeseen medical expenses. Or mandatory union dues. Or chipping in for the kid who can’t afford school supplies. Or student loans, because our higher education system is horrifically messed up, too.

Today we celebrate our independence from a government that wanted to give us taxation without representation. We need to look at our government today and understand our responsibilities, and theirs. We pay the taxes. We may need to pay more. In turn, we need our legislators to represent: not just because they “let” us have the freedoms we were already granted (my 12 year old was shocked to find out gay people couldn’t get married already) in our constitution, but because we put the legislators where they are today.

If they don’t represent what we need, then we need to put others in there who do. That is the ultimate freedom we have as Americans, and we need to remember it, and use it.

Great Expectations

‘Tis the season here at My Big Software Company, where we rate ourselves and rate our peers and rate our managers in a method that doesn’t actually impart A Number, you see, but is still used to determine those numbers which are most important to working folks: how much you get paid, either in one shot (bonus), in the future (stock), or over time (raise). In other words, it is review season, and it sucks.

I don’t care how careful HR is and how well prepared they are. I don’t care what the template and tools are you are given to follow. The fact of the matter is that at least once a year and, ostensibly, four to six times a year, you are sat down and are told to quantify, in a variety of ways, the working worth of the people around you. And they are told to do the same about you. It sucks.

It’s horrifying and necessary. This process is meant to weed out the freeloaders, the bad seeds, Those Who Do Not Fit for a better word. As a manager I dreaded reviews (because as much as everyone says they want to lead a team of rock stars, guess what happens when you actually do? Now you have to rate rock stars. Which means only a few rock stars can be the rock stars of rock stars. Talk about splitting hairs.) As an employee I dread reviews (because as hot shit as I can think I am — and sometimes I really am — like any teenager staring in the mirror there are a load more times where I wasn’t even a lukewarm fart).

That more companies are moving to a system where this is not technically quantified in numbers — e.g., as a manager I would not say “Jane” is a “3” on a scale of 1-5 (for, you see, historically Janes and Jons were appalled at being reduced to a number)–means that this gets harder, not easier. How do I tell you that you are doing “pretty good” but not “really good” and so you only get a mediocre raise? How do I tell you I had to compare you to the guy who came in under-leveled — in some cases by 3 levels — because of someone ELSE’s hiring error, that has nothing to do with you? I don’t. I just tell you where you fell on the curve.

One of my favorite memes is the one that is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but wasn’t — and was later imparted by Baz Luhrman on “Wear Sunscreen” — tells you that the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself. If there were some way to measure one’s improvement against oneself, and then weight that within reasonableness (because frankly, I can have a deliberately shit year and then bust my ass for an easy “improvement” rank), that would be better.

Interesting point of fact though: we hold our kids to numbers.

My kid is in 6th grade — almost 7th  (2! weeks! to go!) — and is held to the standard 1(D), 2 (C), 3(B), 4(A) scale that I grew up with. Every assignment is reduced to numbers and faithfully reported and published (to the point where I often know his score before he does). This number — and numbers in standardized testing, either within the school or external to the school (Washington state is on its 4th or 5th “standardized’ test in the last 10 years — none of which equate to one another, so it’s a constantly shifting field)– will determine what classes he can take, which math path he is on, if he can participate in extracurricular activities, etc.  And he’s 12. Whereas his mother is 30 years his senior and doesn’t have the “advantage” of a number.

As a society we constantly worry about preparing our kids for the future, to be competitive within the global sphere. They are learning things 2 years earlier than they did at my age — both by math formulae and science concepts. They are expected to perform and they are connected in a way we never were — the kids are handed laptops as a required tool for school. The internet was this totally shady side thing when I was in school and generally not talked about. Now it’s a project to tell him about how plagiarism works and that Wikipedia is informative but cannot be your data source. We grade them and numericize them and then let them take and retake tests as needed to make sure the number fits. In short we are preparing our kids very, very well in one way, and very, very poorly in another.

In the working world, you are held to a numeric standard but it is never actually communicated to you. In the working world there are damned few test retakes and there is little extra credit. It’s this world full of meetings and 1-on-1’s and phraseology without hard-core definition. In the student world it’s the opposite: little individual time and little talk, all strict grading and numeric application. In college this gets less personal and more regimented. We train our kids to know things, but not apply them.

This mad scramble that results, inevitably, in a new testing method every two years or so means that we are trying to hit a moving target with a bow and arrow while on the back of a truck in the middle of an earthquake. Instead of sticking with one test– however suboptimal– we change the test in hopes of finding some “perfect test” that will make everything sane. Instead of gearing curriculae towards the Real World, we chase some phantom metric that is meant to make us feel better about being twenty-somethingth — or is it thirty-somethingth, now?– in the world on education. When we were, at one time, first.

We are two weeks out from the final grades that will numerically identify how “well” my kid did in school this year. We are two months from the longer, more complicated, not-numerically-driven conversation with my boss about how “well” I did at work this year.

In neither case can we state with confidence that the analysis was foolproof, regardless of the outcome.


The freeway between Centralia and Vancouver, WA is actually quite pretty, despite the gray drizzle that is the hallmark of October through April in Washington. Either side of the freeway is lined with trees, broken up occasionally by pastoral lands and the occasional body of water. The morning drive was shortly after dawn, the evening drive at night: without the benefit of scenery I listened to Snap Judgment podcasts.

I was bouncing between these two fair cities because my mother lives near one, and the 2014 Annual Washington State PTA Legislative Assembly was in the other. This is a departure from previous years, where the Assembly has been held in Seattle; in an effort to make things more equitable for non-Puget Sound schools the PTA has moved the event. Although to be frank I’m not certain how moving it to a far corner of the state benefits most. If we want to put everyone to equal inconvenience, I think we should hold it in Yakima next year. It’s wine season then, and odd years are not voting years.

The purpose of the two-day Assembly is to have representatives from each school PTA across Washington caucus and vote on the top issues the PTA Legislative Team will work on in the coming two years. To clarify: Of the 15 issues presented, we pick the top 5, which represent where the lobbying dollars and effort go.  There are educational opportunities as well – yours truly attended an eye-opening seminar on the capital budgeting process used by school district to figure out what they need in and for a new school – but the primary focus is to get together and vote your conscience or your constituency, and to influence others to vote your way.

It is an exercise in diplomacy that I find a constant challenge.

My school had four issues it cared very, very much about; the largest overlap with my own concerns was Funding McCleary. (To read more about McCleary, see this. And maybe this too.) I participated in a caucus and I opened my mouth to indicate that people like facts and data to support rhetoric; I found myself then scheduled to speak at the microphone at night. It was slightly over one minute, I spent it reminding myself that I should not speak too quickly, and I pelted people with facts.  I was one of 4 “pro” speakers, and there was 1 “con” speaker… and only one “no” vote at the end of the day.

When given an assignment to publicly speak I find that I don’t do it well on my feet. I spend hours finding data, drafting text, practicing, rehearsing, etc. In previous jobs where I had to present in front of 80 or 100 people I would carefully prepare, sometimes days in advance, or sometimes on the redeye between Seattle and London. Extemporaneous speech is not something I am good at, and it makes me sick to my stomach for the period immediately preceding and following.

The purpose of advocacy – and of acting as a representative of your school and constituency – is to speak up even when it means you are going to be personally discomfited, to be personally challenged, and to be publicly opposed.  As PTA parents we advocate for kids who are still learning to advocate for themselves, and frankly for an educational society that is often oblivious to their need of advocacy. After my brief spotlight that night I had to call the male person and calm down before I could take the wheel and drive the 100 miles home to my mother’s house.

A Letter to the Girl at the Gym, Going Back to CalPoly

Congratulations! You’re going back to Cal Poly!

Oh, I hope you don’t mind. David told me. David is my trainer, and your trainer, and as you’ve been training with him it will come as no surprise that he shared that. The fact that you and I don’t really know each other somehow makes this okay, but I’m still not sure how the social convention of talking about others works (when it is and isn’t okay), so just understand he is proud of you and that’s why.

He said you came back because you didn’t make friends and no one was particularly nice to you your first quarter.

Well, first, let me congratulate you again, and point out that you are making a financial decision that will last the rest of your life, and that we need more women in STEM, and that since the American schooling system is trained to either drop you out or send you to college (no trades-person training, which really should happen), you picked the best route, really. I’ll do you the credit to assume you knew that.

That said, a word about the friends thing: You’re not in college to make friends, and the deck was stacked against you.

To my first point: college is widely touted as this friendship-making, bonding experience that late teens/early twenty-somethings will have, filled with parties, alcohol, clear skin, walking to class in your pj’s, Ramen dinners, learning the physics of beer pong, etc. Every college brochure has the following 3 pictures among others: one pic of a beautiful college campus with architectural or landscaping feature, one pic of what a graduate of this college will look like (cap, gown, diploma, smile), and one pic — and usually several more — of groups of diverse young people with big smiles doing varying things in and out of class.

Take it from me: friends are what happen in between cramming for tests, running to class, and sleep deprivation. Friends *can* happen in college, but they are not part of the curriculum or contract  you (and/or your parents) are making with the university. Speaking as someone who attended classes where some of the constituents CRIED because they got a 95% (that’s crying with shame, mind you) — and the class was graded on a curve — college classes, and particularly STEM classes, are competitive. While it is possible to be friends and competitors, it’s a difficult trick and usually requires more experience than the school system arms you with. (Remember, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, we are all Special.)

Friends do not instantly appear as part of your dorm room provision, and in fact most people I know who did stay in the dorms avoided their dorm mates. Not that they were bad people, or anything, just not their type. Also, since college is a different psychological playing field than high school was, the criteria by which people group themselves together and socially signal is subtly altered. Wearing the right clothes or doing your hair the right way will not automatically identify you with some particular group that you can meld in to. You will find, I think, that this is a good thing.

Which leads me to my second point: you were going to have a hard time making friends. Everyone does, but you in particular will. First, I agree that it is unfair. Second, I will explain: you are a tall, athletic blonde, with fine features, and clear skin. You have the brains to get into CalPoly. You are, therefore, the subject of envy on two fronts.

Most of us who could get into CalPoly (and I say us because I didn’t apply myself — in both senses of the word — but had I –again, in both senses of the word — I would have got in) were the ugly ducklings of our high school. We had thick glasses and our skin wasn’t clear and we “geeked out” on things before being a geek became cool. (Wait, does that make us hipster geeks?) We spent our high school — and some of us, junior high — lives being either envious of your looks, your social sphere, and your choices; or being mistreated by you or people who look like you. (Example: it was one of “your” group in junior high who did the “finger test” down my spine to see if I was wearing a bra, and then announced it to the entire lunchroom.)  There’s an entire subsection of high schools everywhere of folks who were like me, who pretty much cried every day they had to go to school for a given period (in my case, about a year) because being a teenager is awkward enough but the additional unfairness that is heaped upon everyone in those times just makes it more so.

Imagine our distaste, then, when we find out you had brains, too.

Even if you weren’t one of the locker-room bullies, even if you were super-nice popular girl (and we had a bunch of those, too — and those are the ones I can be Facebook friends with now, actually, because they’re the same and I’ve grown up), we still were going to Go To College and Everything Would Be Better. We wouldn’t be judged on our looks and would only compete with our brains, and especially, especially at a technical college, our brains would be the thing most appreciated.

And now we saw you had them, too.

There’s going to be reticence. There’s going to be envy, and comparison, and competition, and it’s going to feel a lot like that first part of Legally Blonde where the two characters — the blonde one and the brunette one, I don’t remember their names but the brunette is considered more smart and less pretty, naturally — are in the thick of it and the smart, less-pretty brunette (I think the quote was “not entirely unfortunate looking”) is picking on the blonde. The real and perceived inequities of high school coming back and asserting themselves on someone who looks like, but isn’t, the person they had to deal with.

Totally, completely, and utterly unfair. In retrospect I agree. (Did I do this? No. I slacked off. It wasn’t a better solution.)

So I want to give you this advice, because it was hard to make friends for me as well — in junior high and high school. And, as I have the clarity of some years, this is the advice I wish I had gotten, and/or followed:

1. Remember where you are, and why you are there. It’s 3.67 more years to go, which is a comparatively small part of your life: treat it like a job. Learn as much as you can, get a decent GPA. Come home to the friends you’ve made here, but don’t be surprised if they change — or if you do. It happens.

2. Make friends outside of college. Join the gym there, or a club, get a part-time job at a place whose products you enjoy. Keep your college life, and your personal life, separate, at least at the start. You will find them slowly merging, and it may take a couple of quarters or a year, but if you don’t require it as an instant presentment you will be fine.

3. Get an internship somewhere. This will help you when you graduate to show practical work experience. It also shows you that most of the world operates differently from high school and college, and while it is not the utopia most of us thought college would be, it is far better than college was. You’ll learn about the difference in expectations of the corporate world and the academic world, you’ll learn the value of a well-timed coffee break or how to multitask in a meeting. Possibly more importantly you’ll learn if that is what you want to do when you get out of college, or if you want to pursue a more academic life.

As you left I heard you tell David you’ll be back in November, to visit for Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to the update. 🙂

State of Education

I was born in California, and the first 12 years of my life lived there. The summer before my 13th birthday we emigrated to Washington, all six of us: my four parents, my brother, and I. Up until then we had gone to private school (in my case, religious private school) because my parents wanted to keep us out of the blackboard jungles of southern California.

When we arrived in Washington State the public school system was actually pretty darn good — the fellow students in my junior high were, for the most part, atrocious (as all junior high kids are) and my social register was somewhere beneath pond scum; but the educational offerings, while not as good as a private school, were pretty decent. My brother and I were as challenged as we wanted to be (which became “not much” and so between parent teacher conferences and report cards, the continual theme was “Bobbie could do so much better if she just applied herself”.)

As a twelve to seventeen year old student, I did not pay attention to educational funding or where public schools ranked within the state or the country; I wasn’t a taxpayer and I regarded school as a dismal use of my time (why couldn’t I just sit in a corner and read someplace?). When I finished college (the first time), left home to go create my own, and returned to the state with the intent to start a family, I still assumed Washington schools were “fine”, as they were when I was in school.

By the time my son was about 2 I was hearing, from the fellow mommy reports, that this was not so. Funding issues were brought to the forefront, and as someone who has voted in every election since 2000, I discovered a direct correlation with my vote and my taxes. I was paying for these schools now, so why was I hearing complaints from the field? Why were the local schools needing additional funding, seemingly each year, in the form of bonds and levies?

When my son entered Kindergarten, I resolved to be as involved in the school system as I could — PTA, volunteering, etc. Doing this as a single mother working full-time was difficult but necessary; there’s an unspoken “us vs. them” for the parents who contribute (in any form or fashion) vs. the parents who do not. This is not fair but it is true. With every PTA meeting and email from the school and school district, it became clear that as well-funded as our schools seem and ought to be, they are not. As we live in an area where the median house costs about $350k and nearly every high schooler drives his/her car to school, this is not what one would expect.

My son’s school — the one he is leaving — was built the year my brother was born. There are five or six portables that have been there at least twenty years, housing not only “electives” like music and computers, but also at least two grade-level classrooms. In my six-year tenure here, the PTA has paid for cement stairs and a ramp for easier access to the kindergarten area, fencing to protect the schooling area from bears and predators that walk on two legs (for we have had cases of child enticement), new landscaping, chairs for all of the classrooms, new sports equipment, stipends for the teachers annually to spend on school supplies, scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford the roughly $350/year in expected purchase of school supplies, materials, school party contributions, and field trip costs. That the direct community who benefits from this (parents of the local students) is the direct community who provides it, is a pleasant thing. The realization that we are fortunate and there are other schools in this district and throughout this state where they cannot hope to raise equivalent cash is not.

Washington state is unique in that it has a state constitutional mandate to *amply* fund education. Unfortunately it hasn’t and got sued (see the McCleary case) and lost in its own Supreme Court. Lawmakers are scrambling to figure out how, with the number of tax-reducing propositions on the ballot, they can achieve the now court-mandated requirement to fully fund education by 2018. This is not eased by Common Core State Standards (whether you’re for or against them — and my opinion is that at least there’s a standard now, even if it’s a low one — they do cost money in the form of teacher training, new materials, etc.). This is not eased by teachers unions (who fight legitimately for better benefits for people who are treated as babysitters and, for the most part, have the shittiest job around; on the flip side they protect those teachers who are not deserving of the pseudo-tenure said unions provide). I have participated in three ballot/levy votes here in our little area of Sammamish, including this last round. For this last round I knocked on 375 doors, I called 85 strangers, I emailed hundreds more. I wrote each week to the local newspaper to get them to print my letter urging constituents to vote, explaining the benefits of a properly funded and educated community to even those who do not, or no longer, have children in schools here. (I succeeded twice.) In this most recent effort, the operational expenditures the district needed to survive were approved. Our kids will have heat in their classrooms, they will have virus-free computers, they will have secure locks on doors.

But they will have this at 40 kids to a classroom, with some children being bussed in from 10-15 miles away, because the local bond initiative (to account for expansion) failed. We have a total of 300 brand new houses going up in the immediate area this year alone; the average house here has 4 bedrooms. The amenities keep expanding and City of Sammamish is spending a record amount of money on a local swimming pool and community center. If you want to go to a chiropractor, an orthodontist, a podiatrist, a personal tutoring service, a nail shop, a grocery store, a sports equipment store, or a gas station in Sammamish you have a choice of three of those (each) within a 3-mile-square area. What I do not understand is we fund all of these things through the local economy, and the demand is there for additional housing for families ostensibly with children– where are those kids going to go to school?

Already poorly-paid teachers, who will not be getting raises in exchange for some preservation of their retirement funds, will need to stretch their attention to an additional 10 or so students. The level of personalized attention is already small in a 30-student classroom (in elementary school, where that attention is needed as they build the foundations of study and learning practice). It will diminish that much more as the schooling populace swells. Sammamish, and the local school district, will not have the ability to put forth another bond measure for four years, meaning that the short-term decision-making of the paltry 34% of the populace that voted (yep, that’s right, only about a third of the voting populace voted, and while more than half voted for the bond, bonds require a supermajority (60%) which was not had) will have some long-term effects on the community as a whole.

I had been Legislative Advocate at my son’s Elementary school for five years. This last year, after the second failure of the bond (there was proposal A, and then when that failed a special election for proposal B), I gave up. It may be temporary, and I may just be suffering from fatigue of the situation; I increasingly feel that this society values an “every man for himself” view of education.

Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, that’s how it’s going to be. It’s just a sad state of affairs.


Be a Traci

Every year, about this time, I get a little hectic. I’ve decided it must be me, because every job I have had for the last ten years, regardless of industry or emphasis, seems to go absolutely crazy at this time, and it lasts right up until about Christmas or just before New Years’. In previous years I attributed it to planning, that process where you decide how much money a given individual is responsible for; in recent years I had attributed it to the frenzy of “finish what we said we were going to do by end of year”.

Now that I am in a Retail Organization, I realize that I was but a Baby Developer/Analyst and had No Idea what the Real World was like.

I am finding comfort, and redoubling effort, in light of something I learned at my old job: Be a Traci.

To explain:

Each year, at this time, in my old job, I was part of a process in which we divided up something on the order of 1 or 2 Billion Dollars (it changed over the years) to 8 or 12 individuals, in terms of responsibility for the coming year. In short: Jane Roe, Jon Doe, and George Smith, you are now responsible for $1bn/x for the next 12 months, and if you don’t generate that cash volume in your area the Whole Company will look down on you with a mixture of derision, pity, and disgust.

As you can imagine, having someone (especially a Dev Manager) tell you “Here is your number, based on my Excel spreadsheet and near-sociopathic bent for analytics, have fun with that”, is not fun. I got a reputation for being “apolitical” and someone took me aside at one point to tell me that “No and no” was not a reasonable response to email.

However, the mitigation for this at the time was to get all 8 or 12 people into a room, for 8-10 hours, with me, a laptop, a projector, and dubious catering service. In that meeting each person would grab their PowerPoint and their skills in persuasion to indicate to the VP’s that Be why they should be able to put 10, 20, or 30 million dollars back in to the pot. After two rounds, I could tell you, in advance, who was going to sandbag, who was going to like it and lump it, and who was going to knock it out of the park.

Traci always knocked it out of the park.

I met Traci formally in Las Vegas during one of these meeting events, she was responsible for San Diego and was an up-and-comer. Traci was a Manager at the time and therefore a bit more down the hill that these monetary expectations rolled down. The next year, though, she was one of the 10, and she grabbed her Power Point, her very cute shoes, and her Excel Spreadsheet, and did something remarkable:

She accepted her number, and said how she’d do it.

Her number that she was allotted was audacious. It was not easy. I remember thinking she had to have balls of solid steel to accept it, and this was in a meeting where at least three other people who had been Directors, longer, put money back on the table. She didn’t act overzealous, she admitted the number was aspirational, but she detailed her plan.

She made her numbers.

She made her numbers every year for five years.

She has been a VP for three years running at a Fortune 500 company,

When there is a problem to go solve, they send Traci.

And every time, she rises to the occasion, grits her teeth, and gets it done. In cute shoes.

There are relative few heroines for women in the working world, apologies to Sandberg and Mayer. The fact that I can only think of two off the top of my head (without getting political) is sad (note: I have a whole blog post about Lean In coming). And the fact of the matter is, Traci and I are worlds apart in the actual work we do.  But I cannot forget her tenacity, and I cannot dismiss the infectiousness of her attitude.

Traci once had a long conversation with me about the 20-odd ways there are to say “No”. I like to say “No” the way I learned to: “No”. But in modern business, you need to say “No” without actually saying it: “I need to review our resources”, “Perhaps XYZ tactic will work better”, “I will take that back to management and we can review”, and so forth. It was one of the best lessons I had ever had in management, and I use it to this day.

So these days, when I feel overwhelmed and like the Powers That Be are dumping more on to my plate than I can handle, I remember Traci, and that meeting in Vegas. I’m armed with my Excel spreadsheet, and my Power Point. Now all I need is cute shoes.

Economics and the Power of Hindsight

I recently found myself on a direct flight, courtesy of Delta, from JFK to Seattle. Having thrown out my back (technically dislocated two rear ribs), and not slept well the night previous, I was tired and cranky as I checked in. For most travelers, checking in means using a kiosk or online app, which in turn peppers you with questions like “do you want to check your bags?” and “do you want to upgrade your seat?” As I had arrived at SeaTac on the way to JFK in pretty much the same state, I made some fiscally dubious choices on the way out, and on the way in. Here you get to learn from my mistake(s).

First, the way out: it was 5:30AM when I got to Airport Road and my flight left at 7am. I did not intend to check my bag, so that was a blessing, but I figured security would be awful (I was proven right). Therefore I opted to park at the airport rather than offsite as per usual, saving me the shuttle ride to and from the airport but costing me (it turns out) about $36 more for this trip. The verdict? Nice, but not worth it. It was nice not having to hassle a shuttle ride, and being able to pay a machine on my way to my car and just drive away, but it wasn’t $36 nice and I would’ve made my flight despite the long security line. I didn’t check my bag and I had already checked in online the night before.

Now, on the way back: it was 4:30AM when I arrived at JFK and had 3 hours to kill. My back was aching and my sleep had been nonexistent, and so I both checked my bag ($25) and upgraded to Comfort Economy (or Delta’s equivalent), for $39. (NB: each time you use the kiosk to do a transaction, you run your card for EACH PART of the transaction and get a receipt for EACH PART of the transaction. Not efficient.) The results on this are mixed: the bag check was totally worth it: for the remaining 2.75 hours I had post-security, I didn’t have to lug around a heavy bag (just a heavy laptop) and it was one less thing to have to manage from seat to coffee shop to seat to other coffee shop (there’s not a lot to do in JFK at 5am). I didn’t have to fight anyone for overhead bin space and could plop right down into my seat. Verdict: worth it.

That said, “Comfort” Economy is a joke. I had a window seat, which should have been a lot more comfortable, but it wasn’t. My knees hit the chair in front of me (I am 5’10” in flats) and the seat appeared as narrow as the “regular” Economy seats. The sole nod to comfort that I could see was that the attached-to-the-seat pillow was slightly plusher and of a lighter color leather. For $39 I wasn’t expecting first class, but an inch or two more of legroom and a nicer chair would be good. Verdict: so very not worth it.

Delta has free-first-bag bag check with certain levels of flight status/mileage membership and/or their credit card. I get a similar deal on United and it’s nice.  The question becomes if I’m willing to pay $25 for the privilege of checking my bag, would I pay the same (or more) for guaranteed overhead compartment space?