Geekamama


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A peek back in time, part 3 (conclusion! finally!)

And thus we finish my pre-birthday look back at what’s been going on around my previous 20 birthdays. Not a whole lot that affected people beyond my immediate friends and families, but then that’s probably true for most of us. (By the way, if you missed the first installments, here they are: Part 1 & Part 2.)

One thing that I find interesting is how the sections describing the longer-ago times are relatively short, while the past eight years or so have been so milestone-filled that they had to be broken off into separate chunks. This could be because my college and early work years just weren’t all that memorable because I was just getting started with this adulthood business. But perhaps it’s because events that seemed so significant when they were recent become less important with the perspective of many years’ distance.

At any rate: here’s the final segment. Enjoy!


Three years ago, our January 2009 involved a lot of breaking the news of my pregnancy to our friends.

A few months later, to celebrate our anniversary and our impending parenthood, we’d fly to Washington D.C. for a week of touristing. While we were there, my sister’s daughter would be born and we would officially be aunt and uncle on both sides of our extended family.

July would find us celebrating the birth of a tiny little Kiddo. And then learning all the challenges of parenting a newborn.

Not quite two months later, Husband and I and a handful of friends hosted Seattle’s first instantiation of DASH, a multi-city on-foot puzzle event. I impressed myself with how easy it was to do things with a child attached to me. That would change. Oh, how that would change.

Two years ago it was 2010 and life had settled into a pattern for us. Baby, baby, baby, and then baby.

Things hadn’t gotten really bad at work, but the downhill slide would start later that year.

We would buy our first new car in years, and drive it to Lake Chelan for a week with my parents and siblings.

Kiddo would learn to eat “real” food, and to walk–both skills that continue to challenge us.

I would join Twitter after declaring for years that I didn’t see the point, and also start this blog.

One year ago, 2011, and it was going to be another big year for us.

In April I would walk away from the company to which I’d given almost 12 years of my life. Six weeks later I’d start over at a new job, which is less stressful and more enjoyable.

In August we’d take a two-week family road trip that took us across the Continental Divide half a dozen times, reunite me with some of my high school classmates, and get the whole Smith family together for some summer family time.

In November we’d host Thanksgiving. I’d also attempt to keep up with the blog-every-day NaBloPoMo. I fell off the wagon shortly after the holiday, but I learned some interesting things – one of them being that if I take the time to write in this blog, people take the time to read it.

And that brings us back to here. It’s been an interesting trip so far. Here’s to the next twenty years.


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A peek back in time, part 2

Here’s the second part of my pre-birthday look back at how the past 20 years have gotten me to where I am now. You can find part 1 here; part 3 will be up soon.


Eight years ago it was 2004, and a lot of big stuff was about to happen that year.

I surprised even myself by volunteering to join the small core of PuzzleDay leads. Guess who else was on that core group? Hint: I’m married to him now.

Come April, Office 2004 for Macintosh would finally be released to manufacturing. I’d been pouring a lot of effort into work that spring, and it was reflected in my performance reviews. Just for fun, I put a big gold star on my office door like a Hollywood starlet.

That summer I’d face for the first time the tough decision to put one of our two ferrets to sleep. I’d never lost a pet before, and it was very, very hard on me. On both me and my then-husband, I think, but instead of bringing us together, it was the first step of the eventual end of the marriage.

In the fall, a few of my friends and I would form a team to play in my first driving Game, Shinteki:Untamed. The four-person team we assembled is still together, with the addition of a few others to come later.

In December, I would make another tough decision: I asked my soon-to-be-ex-husband for a trial separation.

Seven years ago it was 2005, and perhaps one of the most pivotal periods in my life to date.

For my birthday, one of my PuzzleDay co-leads invited me to join him and some of our friends to play remotely in that year’s weekend-long MIT Mystery Hunt. Sometime late Friday night, I walked out of our conference room for a few minutes and returned to find he’d arranged for a birthday cake for me. I got an inkling that there might be some mutual attraction.

I moved into my very first all-my-own apartment. My ex and I filed for divorce. It would be officially a done deal just eight months later.

I started dating the aforementioned PuzzleDay co-lead.

That summer I would run one leg of a marathon relay, along with my sisters and mom. My new boyfriend and I ran Bay to Breakers too. That ended up being the last time I did any significant running, either competitively or just for myself.

In August I would play in my first full-length Game, with my teammates from Shinteki and two other guys. One of them later moved to Germany, and the other is the fifth member of our current Game team.

In October, I’d sign the papers and hand over a great big change, in exchange for the keys and deed to a cute little condo in Kirkland.

Five years ago in 2007, I kicked off the year by moving out of that cute little condo and into my boyfriend’s house. I had some reluctance doing so because I sure loved that condo, but it seemed like the right move for us at the time. I would eventually sell it in November for a very nice profit, just as the housing bubble was starting to collapse.

While sorting through papers, I found my friend Julia’s email address, and wrote to her hoping to rekindle our friendship. One of the first things I learned was that she’d been diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer the previous December in spite of never smoking a cigarette in her life.

In April my boyfriend and I would go on a Carribean cruise. It had seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to propose marriage, and I found myself a little disappointed when he didn’t. Little did I know that in May, he’d scheme with the organizers of another Game to make the first event a marriage proposal instead of a puzzle. I remembered to say yes.

November would find us running Microsoft Puzzlehunt 11.0. This wasn’t just for interns, but for anyone who could put together a 12-person team that contained at least six Microsoft employees. I wrote a choose your own adventure type installation puzzle that sent people roaming through a huge underground parking garage. It was awesome.

Four years ago it was 2008. In March, my moments-away-husband and I would stand up in front of dozens of our friends and family members and vow that this time around, we’d do it right. (So far: success.)

My friend Julia wouldn’t be able to make it to our wedding, as her cancer was getting the upper hand. I’d find out at the end of May that she’d died a few days earlier. How can it be possibel to miss someone so much when you haven’t seen then in twenty years? Even now I still get a little teary-eyed remembering her.

In October we’d get a little plus sign on a little pink stick. (So would my sister, although hers happened a couple months earlier that year.) Life was about to change again.


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A peek back in time

My birthday (ahem) is fast approaching, like the lights in the tunnels that turn out to be oncoming trains, only without the impending sense of doom. This one has some special significance, as it will be the last one I have before I turn 40. This means I’ll have only one more year to plan my 40th Birthday Party Grand Extravaganza. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll need to prebook the flying giraffes, or if I should just stick with the dancing unicorns. Thoughts?

Semi-seriously though, as it’s both the beginning of a calendar year and a chronological year, it seems like a good time to take stock of where I am and where I’ve come. Apparently I’ve come quite a way, because this got so long I had to split it into three separate posts. Parts 2 and 3 will show up tomorrow and the next day, respectively.


Twenty years ago (good lord) in January 1992, I was a college freshman at The University of Montana, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Spanish, having been talking out of a Latin minor by the assistant dean of the Journalism School.

I was dating a guy six years older than me who was wrong for me in so, so many reasons. But he was my first boyfriend and I was in luuuuuuuurve. I still was in touch with some of my high school friends, but since I hadn’t had many close friends in high school it’s no surprise that some of the friendships I’d had were already fading. One that wasn’t, though, was a connection I’d made a few years earlier with a girl named Julia. We’d met at a choir festival during our junior year that both our respective high schools attended. Julia and I wrote letters to each other for the next ten years or so–she more faithfully than me–and I was sure that we’d be one of those pairs of friends who reunite after 25 years of never having seen each other in person.

I hadn’t yet met my eventual first husband, but that would happen only a couple of months down the road.

Fifteen years ago, it was 1997 and I was a graduate student in computer science at Montana State University. I’d complete my B.A. in Journalism (Print emphasis) two years previous, looked around for a year or so, and then decided that journalism was going to be a highly competitive, low-paying field. I’d been intrigued by comp sci and decided to take some nondegree classes, and eventually got talked into officially going for my Master’s.

I’d been dating my about-to-be fiance for about a year. He proposed on my birthday. We (mostly I) decided the following week to have the wedding that summer rather than waiting two years so his engaged sister could have her wedding first. I dove into wedding planning with all the enthusiasm of an early-20s-year-old excited about being a princess for a day and, oh yeah, getting hitched to my life partner. He joked that he’d only proposed so that I’d come with him if he took a job out of state. Solid foundations there.

Interesting note: One of my classmates was the guy who would eventually marry one of my current really good friends. I don’t know whether he even remembers this.

Ten years ago in January 2002, my then-husband and I took a week-long trip to Hawaii for my birthday, and returned to learn that his company was closing their Seattle office, and everyone who worked there was being laid off.

At that time, I’d been working at Microsoft for 2 1/2 years in the Macintosh Business Unit. We made Office for Macintosh. I think I was still a software tester on Word at that point. I’d made a lot of friends but was just getting to know the one who would eventually preside at my second wedding.

Later that year, I would join the staff of Microsoft Intern PuzzleDay and write my first two puzzles. One was pretty good, and the other was so-so. It was either that summer or the next where I’d meet my eventual current (second) husband. Both of us were married to other people at the time, and neither of us had any idea what fate had planned for us.

… to be continued …


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Destructive myths, at work and away from it

A friend of mine on Twitter shared a link recently to an article by Tony Schwartz called Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By. It’s a really interesting read; go check it out when you get a chance.

The myths Schwartz lists are:

  • Multitasking is critical in a world of infinite demand.
  • A little bit of anxiety helps us perform better.
  • Creativity is genetically inherited, and it’s impossible to teach.
  • The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours.

These sound vaguely familiar.

 

I have this habit where I’ll be working on one task, and another task catches my attention briefly, and in that moment it seems like the second task more important than what I’m doing, or that it’s something that will take “only a minute” to complete. I drop my first task to work on the second, which inevitably ends up taking longer than I thought it would, and then when I return to my first task I spend too many minutes trying to remember where I left off and what I’d been planning to do.

 

Anxiety? Yeah, I spent the first quarter of this year getting up close and personal with anxiety. Guess how that affected my performance? (Hint: Poorly.) In contrast, I’ve found that I perform best when I’m riding a wave of success. The morale boost I get from doing a project well feeds my confidence, confirming that I really do have the skills to succeed in this area, and carries me into whatever I’m doing next. But when panic and pressure start looming, I fumble and fall into what my friend Michael calls analysis paralysis: when you spend so much time trying to research, analyze and choose the “right” approach to solving a problem that you end up with no time to actually solve the problem.

 

Oh, and those longer hours? HA. Ask my family members, ask my friends (if you can find any; they’re probably still at work), ask anyone who works in an engineering field. Schwartz describes it succintly:

No single myth is more destructive to employers and employees than this one. The reason is that we’re not designed to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

Not designed to operate like computers! No wonder this crops up so frequently in fields that spend a lot of time working with computers and software. The root of the issue is that there’s always more work to be done than there are time and resources to do it. But rather than acknowledging that people need downtime to rest and refresh* themselves, employees work late and take work home, because the expectations from above are that this project (and the three other ones you’ve been assigned) must be completed by the end of the month, come hell or high water. “Work smarter, not harder!” Uh-huh.

I fall victim to the longer-hours myth at home more than at work. I’ve been known to stay up until 2 a.m. working on a task that I feel has to be done before I go to bed or else it won’t get done before deadline. My husband urges me to go off and get some sleep. I resist, pointing out that he is still up doing work. I ignore the fact that I get up in the morning a good two hours before he does.

*Both figuratively and literally. Taking regular showers can do a lot for relations with your co-workers.

 

Obviously, these aren’t universal truths that apply to all companies. When I started at my current job, I was amazed that even though we were in crunch mode, most people actually went home at night. I tend to stick around in the office until 6:30 or 7 most nights. I’m often one of the last handful to head out. (I have an awesome job, and I can’t say enough about how happy I am that I got up the nerve to leave that last soul-sucking job and strike out on my own. But that could fill its own post; I’ll save that for a little later in the month.)

If these myths are destructive to companies, they’re also destructive to individuals who live by them. It’s often a difficult, slow process to change a company-wide attitude. But it might not be as difficult for an individual to change them in herself.


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You can take the Mama out of the Geek world…

It’s been nearly twelve years that I’ve worked for my current employer, a software company that I suspect most of you are all too familiar with.  Earlier this month, spurred in part by the seizures and in part by a few personal factors, I decided it was time to leave.  I’m fortunate in many ways; I have the full support of my husband and family in doing this, and we have the means (and medical insurance) such that I can afford to take a couple weeks of down time before jumping back in to the workforce.  It was not an easy decision to make, but from the way I’ve been feeling since putting in my notice, I can’t help but be convinced that this was the right choice to make for now.

Many years ago, when my  previous husband and I were divorcing and I had to start breaking the news to people, I did so with expectations that people would be disappointed in me for not being able to make it work. Instead, I received almost unanimous support from family, friends and co-workers. I thought I was going to hear things like “Have you tried [something else]?” or be told that I was giving up, not trying as hard as I should have.  Instead, I heard things like “I’m so glad! You deserve to be happy,” and “Kudos for making a tough decision!”

This past week, as I’ve been telling my friends and co-workers that I’m ending my working relationship, I’ve realized that I had similar expectations about their reactions.  I worried that people would question my decision, or ask whether I had done everything I could to make things work out. And once again, I’ve realized that I haven’t been giving them enough credit.  Once again, I’m hearing nothing but supportive comments.  My friends and family know I’ve been unhappy here for quite a while, long enough that it’s worn me down physically and emotionally. They probably also know that I’ve stubborn and hate to admit defeat, so it’s not too surprising that it took something drastic to make me realize what was happening. Walking away from a decent salary and a prime slate of benefits seems a little crazy, especially in this economy.  Working here was right for me for many years, and it was through my job that I met many of those friends (one who later became my husband).  But even good relationships can go sour under certain circumstances.  Sometimes it’s possible to put things right.  Other times, the price of staying outweighs the benefits.

I’m an engineer at heart, so I have to analyze. In looking at the similarities between the two “breakups,” I’ve been trying to understand why my first instinct is to brace for criticism and disapproval.  The best I’ve come up with is that it’s the criticism and disapproval that I feel myself. Is this really the right decision? Could I have found a way to make it work if I’d just looked a little harder or put more effort into it?  Clearly I’ve failed somehow, and surely it must be my own fault.  After all, hundreds of other woman, mothers of young children, are able to pull off the necessary balance of effort needed to succeed in the workforce, and even in this high-intensity company.  If they can do it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t have been able to as well.

But frankly, if I’m going to send my Kiddo off to the care of someone else five days a week, it really should be so that I can do something I love and find fulfilling, rather than something that’s going to drag me down or even leave me in tears at the end of a too-long workday.  The people who care about me are able to see that, and I can certainly stand behind it when it applies to other people. I just don’t do as well acknowledging it for myself.

The support and love I’ve gotten from the people close to me as I’ve made this decision has been more than I expected.  As my husband loves to remind me, I am more than just my job title.  Yes, it’s been an integral part of my identity for a very long time, but just as I’m more than a mom, more than a wife, more than a puzzle solver or a blog writer, I’m also more than what’s on my business card. I’m greater than the sum of my many hats–and now, it’s time to try on a new one.


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I’m still here

It’s been almost two weeks since I last wrote in this blog.  Since that last post, I’ve had a birthday, spent a weekend puzzling, enjoyed some time with visiting family, and oh yeah, worked worked worked.  This has been a very busy month at my job and I’ve been having a hard time finding any spare moments to write.  I’ve got plenty of ideas brewing that pull from both my “geek” side and my “mama” side; now all I need is time to make those ideas into complete sentences.

So far, I think I’ve done all right with my resolution to be less self-critical.  (I almost added “but we’re only a couple of weeks into the year, after all.”  See how automatic it is for me to take myself down?  Still needs work.)  I’ve also made some good progress on a couple personal projects, and even managed to keep the house tidier than it has been in a long while.  I’ll talk about the projects and organization in another post, because I’m really pleased with how some of it has come out.

I started this writing project as an outlet for myself, and maybe a little bit because I read friends’ blogs and thought, “Hey, I could do that too!”  I had grand ideas about how often I would write, and what kinds of topics I would cover.  Most of those grand ideas went out the window before this blog was a month old.  But maybe that’s for the best.  In the past few weeks I’ve heard from some unexpected sources that they’ve been reading and really enjoying my writing, and it’s been such a boost, right when I really needed one.

So, in spite of my recent reticence, I really am still here, and plan to be here for quite some time.  Thank you, family and friends, for still being here too.


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They don’t all have to be home runs

I’m very critical of myself and the work I do.  The bar I set to determine my own success is ten times higher than I’d ever expect from anyone else.  I know that setting this kind of expectation for myself is silly and can be self-defeating, yet I do it anyway.  At least I’m aware of it, right?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer.  Even back then I knew my strengths (some of them, anyway) and I knew this was something I was good at.  Maybe it came from all the reading I did as a kid, and being exposed to vocabulary and wordsmithery well above my grade level.  But I knew this: I was a good writer, and I had a good imagination.  At the same time, I was practical enough to know that you have to be really, really, REALLY good to make a living as a novelist.  (As an adult, having read plenty of books by certain authors who I won’t name, I’ll add “or really, really, really prolific.”)

When I realized that there was another way to earn a living by writing, I got very excited, and I embraced the idea of becoming a journalist–specifically, a newspaper reporter.  My enthusiasm carried me through high school and through most of my undergraduate degree, except that somewhere in there I got the idea that reporters have to be on call at all hours of the day and night, not unlike doctors and firefighters.  Not to mention the fact that the journalism world, at that time, was a) highly competitive, and b) not highly paying.  In high school I’d been a big fish in a small pond; in college, I was discovering that I was not the only big fish around, and that in fact there were several who were much bigger than me, and justifiably so.

I was saved from having to wrestle with the realities of doing what I loved versus doing what paid the bills, because my senior year of college was 1994-95, and this thing called the World Wide Web was really starting to become a Big Thing, and a couple of my good friends from my hometown were working on their computer science degrees.  The year after I graduated with my journalism degree, I found myself going back to college for a few non-degree graduate courses.  Before long, my professor had talked me into studying for a master’s degree.  Apparently writing wasn’t the only thing that I was good at.  So that’s how I ended up here, at this job, rather than somewhere in a newsroom.  I’m grateful, because this path led me to many other happy things as well, such as Husband and Kiddo.

But I never lost that passion for writing, and I really enjoy putting words together to make something interesting, something that means something to me and hopefully to others as well.  Most of my blog entries take me a long time to write, and most of them don’t get published right after I finish composing them.  I like to put a composition away for a little while and then come back and see if there’s anything I can tweak to make it just a little tighter.  Any typos or miswordings that need to be fixed.  Any long sentences (I do have an unfortunate tendency to write too-long sentences) that could be shortened or broken in half for easier reading.  Any parenthetical asides that would be better left out (because I use too many of those, too.)  In short, anything that could be made better… and that’s where I get into trouble.  That intense self-critical-ness (is that even a word?) and the constant striving for perfection tend to make me very nit-picky about what I write, and sometimes will hinder me from actually publishing whatever I’ve produced.

Last night, for example, I worked on a post for quite a while.  I’d actually written most of it last month, but was trying to find a way to tie it all together and wrap everything up with a neat conclusion, and finally get the darn thing out of my drafts folder.  It just wasn’t happening, and I was getting frustrated.  This morning I got to work, re-read it, and decided I didn’t like what I’d settled on last night.  But then I spent a little of my wake-up time (that period of adjustment where I mentally change gears from being a mom to being a software tester) reading other blogs, and something I’ve been hearing for years finally worked its way through to my full attention.

They don’t all have to be home runs.  They don’t even all have to be triples, or doubles, or hell, even be hits at all.  They don’t all have to be 750-word essays full of insights, illustrated with a cute and well-framed photo, and neatly wrapped up with a witty yet thoughtful conclusion.  They should all be good efforts, and they shouldn’t be anything that I’m ashamed to attach my name to, but they don’t all have to be perfect.

(My husband would be applauding me right now, if he were reading over my shoulder, because he’s been trying to get that through to me for years.)

It’s been years since I’ve made real New Year’s resolutions, and longer since I actually published them for others to see.  But I’ll put a stake into the ground this year.  For 2011, I’m going to try to be less self-critical, and less worried about how others see me.  I don’t know how to measure that, and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to stick to it.  I do know that when I lighten up, I have more fun with what I’m doing, and feel better about the results regardless of whether they fall short of my bar.  So here’s to a new year, and a new chance, and not waiting when I have something to say, and not always looking for the perfect words to leave the proper lasting impression.  Sometimes, imperfect is an okay thing to be.