The Problem With Men Explaining Things

The Problem With Men Explaining Things

After majoring in Computer Science, I went on to grad school in it because, after having suffered the company of fast-talking, self-important, acronym-spewing, male nerds for four years, my confidence in my grasp of the field had been shaken. Yes, the graduate education deepened my knowledge, but it also showed me that I already understood the relevant concepts much better than I had previously thought; I just didn’t speak the secret hardware shorthand that keeps the girls out of the club.

In the years on the job since, I’ve lost count of the number of prima donna software engineers that have dominated design meetings by holding forth on their superior ideas. I had to learn to yell and interrupt to get heard. It was really an uncomfortable thing for me to do to someone—I considered it rude and disrespectful—and I resented being pushed to those measures.

Also, it’s not within my constitution or my upbringing. My father is one of those think-out-loud guys. Like me now, he needs a captive audience to get his ideas fully formed and articulated. (Thank you, blog readers.) As a kid, I quickly learned that you don’t interrupt Dad. The lecture will continue anyway, just with an angrier, more urgent tone of voice. Like most guys, he wouldn’t have considered his behavior sexist. In fact, because he showed me in so many other ways that he believed in me, I’m damn sure he would be seriously disheartened to realize its long term effect was that I would evermore get sick-to-my-stomach nervous and go dumb (both verbally and mentally) in face-to-face conflicts with male authority figures.

Nowadays, I can get in people’s faces when necessary. (Hooray for therapy.) But the cultural norm that dictates the need for that maneuver is still unappealing and exhausting. I’m still not quick at verbal debate. I still don’t want to publicly show someone up. That I’m less afraid of being doing these things doesn’t diminish their suck on my energy reserves. Quotidian turf wars are just not worth the effort. And, frankly, I’ve lived long enough now to see that it’s not my failing that I can’t constantly play the game their way. 

Unfortunately, this interrupting habit has wormed its way into my social relationships, and I’m not proud of it. I let myself become unthinking in its use, and my life now doesn’t actually require it much. At work, I’ve got cred with my peers; I’m more relaxed in my self-confidence; and my team is no longer comprised of prima donnas. Rather than hammering at so many conversations as if they were all nails, I’m working hard to unlearn the habit of interrupting to get the upper hand or even just to get heard. 

Baby, baby, where did our love go?

In 2005, I was traveling solo in India. I happened to be in Udaipur the day a multi-year drought broke and it POURED down rain—I mean, like standing-under-the-bucket-thing-at-a-water-park dumped. People left their homes and stores and spontaneously ran into the streets to get soaking wet and dance and clap their hands and congratulate each other. It was a privilege to witness, and I felt this incredible urge to SHARE it with someone. I had been pretty happy traveling alone except for moments like these when I saw something so special that I felt incomplete without someone to turn to and say, “Did you SEE that?!?”

And this is why I love social media. It turns out that people (friends mostly, but even strangers) love to be included in those moments of ours, even when the delights are merely mundane. All of these studies suggesting that people who spend a lot of time online are more lonely are a bunch of hooey to me. Just like IRL, I only find myself more lonely online if I’m not sharing these moments (and having them acknowledged) and witnessing others’.

Up until a few months ago, Facebook was serving that need. But since its IPO, my friends have gone strangely quiet. Lately, Facebook feels less like the bar at Cheers and more like the television in the airport waiting area. I run into fewer and fewer friends and see fewer and fewer intimate glimpses of their lives. Mostly, it serves up 3rd party blogs and recycled or promotional content.

I have to wonder if I didn’t ruin it myself with all of the willy nilly “liking” of pages that turned my FB feed into a ticker tape of news and memes. But even when I created a separate friends-only (no-pages) feed, there wasn’t much there that was less than two days old.

I’ve been a social media user since I was a grad student in Computer Science in 1990. (For you whipper snappers, that’s BEFORE “the web”, browsers, and HTML, when we  carried our bits in a bucket uphill both ways.) BBS and LISTSERV were great for discovering other people in the world with whom I shared some obscure hobby or alternate lifestyle that, at home, would have left me feeling slightly freakish. But, like most largely anonymous forums, it was fraught with flame wars, and there was too little pay off in culling the decent people from the haters.

In 2004, I found Livejournal to be a perfect forum for a smart, single, reflective person in her early 30s. I often posted publicly, but usually I first worked out my thinking privately, in an online discussion with my handful of trusted LJ friends. LJ was the first time I really developed lasting, online friendships based on kindness and mutual respect. Years later, I’m still in touch with most of those people.

Friendster was a flash in the pan but it was fun for putting the “six degrees” theory to test and laughing at pathetic stalkers from halfway around the world, who promised big love for a beautiful lady. I skipped MySpace altogether because it would have required too much Ritalin; plus, let’s face it, I may be an early adopter, but, in my mid 30’s, I was already old enough to be most users’ parent. Even I would have considered myself creepy. And in 2008 … I joined Facebook.

Because of Facebook, I reconnected with people with whom I had actual IRL history—people I had let slip away, friends and acquaintances from high school and college, recent grad school friends with whom I would have otherwise lost touch, and even friends from Livejournal were there. All of them were in one place; and as I jotted off brief thoughts and pics, it was gratifying to see my friends cross-pollinate and my worlds merge. The most natural of these online connections quickly re-translated into time spent together IRL. And it all has come at a time in my life when reconnecting the past with the present suddenly seems valuable: my 40s. These renewed relationships (and the new ones they have led to) have in no small way changed the trajectory of my life.

But, now, I’m a wee bit lonely on FB. I’m jonesing for a friend’s funny story from the check out line, for highlights from people’s days, and for their worries, small and large, that make up adult life. I know my FB friends are still out there “liking” and lurking, but only my most talkative of friends are frequently sharing original content. Those Martin Buber-ish, “I and Thou” moments have waned as the content of my feed has become more subject-to-object relationships and less subject-to-subject ones. Facebook had suddenly morphed into a really great newsreader but a poor social networking service.

If I’ve learned anything from 20+ of online social networking, it’s that there both more vicious idiots out there than I ever would have imagined as well as open-hearted, generous, insightful, and down-to-earth folk that I would like to know better. Layer on mutual respect, fondness, and a shared history, and that’s a real relationship—online or not.

Livejournal taught me to be real by being thoughtful. Facebook taught me to be real by not over-thinking. Public forums taught me to not waste my time with people that can’t reasonably meet me in between. I ported my LiveJournal over to WordPress today and restarted blogging here because change is in the air and I need to think out loud again–maybe a little less loquaciously this time, but don’t count on it.

Need help giving a piano away …

I’ve got a beautiful, performance quality grand piano, and it needs a good home. My personal conviction is that even things need love and I shouldn’t hold on to them if I can’t give that to them. For much of my life, my piano has been my refuge and happy place. But I’m pretty happy all the time anymore, and–I have to be honest with myself–it has been years since I’ve played with any regularity. Now that I’m moving into a space about half the size of what I’m accustomed to, it is the time to bequeath my beloved instrument to someone who will give it the kind of attention it deserves.

Here’s the trick: I need to be able to write it off my taxes. That means I could use your help with two questions …

1. Can anyone recommend a personal accountant in Boulder to help me determine how much of the donation I can write off? (Is it FMV or adjusted basis? Can I include moving, maintenance, and loan interest in adjusted basis? Etc.)

2. Can you help me find a tax-exempt (501c3) organization that I can donate it to? This will require a small amount of work on your part. I could spend hours calling around to Boulder churches, non-profit schools and hospitals, public parks and rec facilities, charitable organizations (e.g., Red Cross), veterans’ organizations, and I would surely find someone who would take the piano. But I don’t have that kind of time or energy. What I need is a specific, viable donee. If you think you know of a place that would be interested, before giving me their contact info, could you please give them a quick call and find out if they are a (1) qualified charitable organization (they will know if they are) and (2) they would be interested in a donated grand piano. I would enjoy giving it to a place that I have a personal connection with, through you.

Here is the info:

6′ 1" parlor grand
1996 Young Chang
very well maintained
original owner
high action, bright sound
black finish
+ artist’s bench
+ padded cover
Appraised at just over $14,000

Thanks for your help.

With this couch, I thee …

Well, we have passed the first major cohabiting hurdle: the purchase of a couch. Two, in fact.

I wanted to keep my enormous and comfy sectional pieces, but she didn’t like them. (And, I must admit, they would have completely dominated the small apartment and blocked the fabulous views.) But I found her "couch" about as comfortable as hay bale. What to do? Buy something new!

You wouldn’t think this would be hard because we pretty much have the same tastes. But, no. Oh, no. Our priorities are totally different. As wizrad  knows, the perfect couch does not exist. You gotta compromise on something. For my little architect, aesthetics are everything. If there is any compromising to be done, it’s in the function. As an engineer, I’m more of a pragmatist. If the couch doesn’t serve the intended purpose, then why bother forking out that kind of dough?

So, although we found many beautiful couches that would look good in somebody‘s home, we couldn’t agree about what to settle on for our unique space. By Sunday night, this holy grail of a quest degraded into me feeling like she wasn’t taking my needs into account (which I, of course, had been completely clear and calmly articulate about 🙂 and her (I’m guessing) feeling like I wasn’t taking her needs into account (which, to me, kept getting more and more mysterious with every piece she dismissed).

Monday morning, still a bit restless, I got up early and taped off imaginary couches to see what I could live with in what would be my little pasha palace/TV/reading corner. And she woke up later, better rested, and generously complimented me on my patience and flexibility. And we reached a conclusion.

The winners:

Living room couch (from which you sit and admire the views):

TV and reading corner (picture this in a bone color and without the piece on the left, more or less):



OK, peeps, I have a relationship problem and I need your help.

My girlfriend and I are moving in together. She is exceptionally clean and neat. And while I’m no Pigpen, I’ve lived all of my life with pets and always will and just accept that pet hair is a fact of life. (Love me, love my pet hair-covered wardrobe.)

Although my cat at least matches the floor colors, Habiba hates just knowing that the hair is there. With my back problems, I can’t keep up with her demands for vacuuming every day. And she is exhausting herself trying to do it all. Exhausted girlfriend –> surly girlfriend –> unhappy Pif.

Frankly, we are both sick of talking about it. Then she was musing last night that we need a robot. And then I remembered the Roomba!

Could it be that our relationship could be saved simply by a piece of machinery?

Please weigh in. Do any of you out there own a Roomba? Do you love it, hate it, name it, curse it?

If nothing else, I’m thinking it could at least keep my cat company during the day.

Your suggestions are sorely needed.

Oh, Canada!

Back from a too short vacation. Now that Habiba is feeling better, we made a lovely trip out to Toronto (T’ronna, for you Canucks) to visit her brother, sister-in-law, and nephew (who she has been missing desperately). Plus, I got to catch up with an old friend from my days in grad school in C’ville.

It has been 20+ years since I’ve been to Toronto, and I’ve since acquired a dislike for big, noisy cities. So, it being Canada’s largest, I didn’t really think that I’d like it all that much, as a city. But it is so damn low key. And the public transportation is so fantastic you hardly need a map and you definitely don’t need to keep track of bus schedules. You can get just about anywhere you want, at just about any reasonable time. And it was green! And the sun doesn’t make you feel like you are an ant under a focusing lens. And, oh my god, I had forgotten just how casually multicultural the place is. I can’t even count how many languages I overheard this past week. I road next to a women on the subway reading some Danielle “Steelova” pulp in a cyrillic-based language. (For those of you who haven’t been to our fair city of Boulder, it’s … er … fair, as in skinned. We are a pretty educated and friendly bunch. So, it’s not like we are running anyone out of town. But if you see, say, an African American on the streets or bike paths, it’s really more like a rare bird siting than it is part of the local color.)

I had really come to believe that to be in a hip, diverse environment, I would have to put up with the chaos of an LA, the unfriendliness of a Paris, the grit of a NYC, or the cost of living of a London. But not so. Right now, my theory is that Toronto has avoided these fates simply because it is really a collection of small neighborhoods which each have pretty much everything you need for daily living. So, no need for megamarts and megacrowds and megacommutes.

On the balance, my friend thinks that Toronto’s multiculturism hasn’t been tested–that it remains to be seen, if there is ever any sort of major hate crime, if it can be more than an Amsterdam in which racial tensions and other conflict of differences are kept only to the extent that people stay out of each others’ business. In any case, it was surely a relief for Habiba to simply be in a place that she didn’t feel like she sticks out.

In any case, me thinks maybe we found a place to set our sites on for the future. We still have some other places to visit but we’ll keep it in mind.

In the meantime, I came home to a flat tire (thanks to having driven over a wood screw and then remaining parked for a week), a virus-infected computer, and we both picked up colds on the journey.

But ol’ Mr. Weatherman ain’t gonna rain on my parade. Habiba’s CAT scan results came in and she’s still completely tumor free!

Remembering Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch, computer science professor and virtual reality researcher, most recently popular for his book “The Last Lecture” (based on the talk he would give if he knew it were his last), died today, at age 47. (In 2006, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and, after unsuccessful treatment, was given 3 to 6 months to live in August 2007.)

When I was a grad student in comp sci at UVA, where he was teaching, I was lucky enough to have met him and been affected by his infectious enthusiasm for learning and his positive, kind nature. Thanks, Randy, for sharing that with me and so many others in your short life.

And … we’re back.

And how glad I am to be back.

The last 6 months have been damn intense.

Shortly after my last post, Habiba was diagnosed with esthesioneuroblastoma (an aggressive, rare kind of type sinus cancer). By the time it was caught it was already Stage 4 (there is no Stage 5) and had wended its way down into her right lymph nodes, up behind her eye and into her forehead, and back toward her brain (but not yet into it). It had broken bones in her face (hence the awful headaches she had been having), had impeded her sense of smell, and, right around the time of the last post, had started pushing her right eye out of its socket.

Because this kind of cancer is so rare, there isn’t a lot of data on how to best treat it. In the past, the standard way to treat head and neck tumors would have been to operate on them. A very invasive and scarring treatment. Fortunately, we have enlightened oncologists who were tuned into more recent studies on chemotherapies being tried. On January 18th, Habiba had a port installed into an artery (so that they could give her infusions without constantly having to find veins), and she began 4 rounds of a very difficult chemotherapy. She lost her hair, she slept a lot, couldn’t keep food down, was generally miserable when she was awake, and got dehydrated. The week right after the 3 day infusion was usually the worst. I worked from home a lot and we had a cadre of helpers, bringing us food and taking over for me so that she wasn’t alone. (The chemo made her weak and the port had given her a blood clot so she was prone to passing out. If she fell, it could have been very bad because of the blood thinners she had to take for the clot.)

She got immediately relief with the chemotherapy. Within days of her first infusion, her eye began to look normal again. So, we knew that the tumor was responding to the chemo. You can’t believe how grateful I felt. We were told that, although the chemotherapy might shrink the tumor, it wouldn’t be able to get rid of every cell. And because this is a very fast growing tumor–they estimate that it had been around for only 3 to 6 months–they would have to do radiation as well to give the best chance for killing off every cancerous cell and prevent this from happening again.

Unfortunately, we were told that the radiation would have to be given at such a high dose that she would likely lose sight in her right eye. (This was just awful, awful news because she is an architect and makes a living by the way she sees.) So, in April, we took a trip to M. D. Anderson hospital Houston to go see supposed “specialists” in this kind of cancer to ask about experimental radiation technology that might be able to spare her right eye. The hospital there was an institutional nightmare. We were told to stand in endless lines, forgotten about, given wrong information, given no information, and then when finally given access to the doctor who could give us information, were told that this kind of experimental therapy couldn’t be given to her. It was wasn’t far enough along to be wielded with the kind of sophistication needed for her case. So, we went back home to accept the risks of regular radiation.

But, when we got home, we got some good news! Because we had been delaying the start of radiation in order to go consult with the Houston specialists, she had to stay on chemotherapy until they could fit us into their bureaucracy. And the extra rounds of chemo had shrunk the tumor down so much that, by the time, we got to the specialists and they took their MRIs, no tumor could be found! That meant that, although she still had to go through radiation (to kill the microscopic cancerous cells that can’t be picked up with tests and scans), they could adjust the dosage so that she would only get cataracts and not lose her sight.

May and June was radiation on her face and neck every day. It wasn’t so bad at first, but then her mouth got covered in ulcers so bad that she couldn’t eat (not that she could taste anything–the radiation killed her taste buds). And her muscles got so stiff she couldn’t talk or swallow properly. It was like she was getting a really, really bad sun burn but on the inside. Lots of blisters and pain and swelling. When I lay next to her at night, I could feel the residual heat pouring off of her. At the very end, she had been rendered unable to speak or eat (and dropped to 95 pounds). The end of June, she rode out the residual effects (even after the doses stop, it gets worse before it gets better).

The last few weeks, life has started returning to normal. We’ve begun visiting with friends, going out to concerts, and going out to eat (her taste is coming back, slowly), and even, this past weekend, white water rafting! (She didn’t have to paddle and was carried on an oar boat like Cleopatra on her barge. 🙂 For me, I was so pooped out that, all I was able to do for the first couple of weekends was lie on the couch and watch episodes of “Weeds”. Now, we are looking forward to some travel and visits with family for the rest of the year.

On Monday, we’ll go to the doctor to found out the results of her latest CAT scan. She’ll be getting these every 1 to 3 months for the next 5 years. If the tumor comes back, at least they’ll catch it while it is small and easily operable. If she goes 5 years without a recurrence, then they’ll declare her cancer-free.

I can’t thank you all enough–Habiba and her family for their courage and you all for your prayers and kind thoughts. Habiba has said that I was the one that kept her going, day by day. And I would say that you all were the ones that kept me going, day by day. Knowing that you all were out there and rooting us on and eagerly wanting to know how things were going kept me focused and upbeat.

Bless you.

If you want to know more about this kind of cancer and what it can do, you might be interested in this video. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this woman’s story in English. She had been diagnosed with the same disease as Habiba, 8 years before and, for some reason, refused treatment. In the end, she received a lot of press coverage because she was petitioning the French government for the right to die. She was in significant pain: The tumor had pushed one eye out of the socket, broken the bones in her face, and eaten into her jaw bones so thoroughly that they were nearly gone. She was refused and, just this last March, took her own life.

The C Word

Well, we still don’t know what kind of cancer it is. They’ve got it narrowed down to two kinds, but they couldn’t sort it out at the lab here. So, they sent the sample off to the Mayo clinic. (I always knew my girlfriend was exceptional! 🙂 We should hopefully have a diagnosis on Monday.

I’ve set up a Yahoo! group for folks who are interested in keeping up with the news, sharing cancer success stories and encouragement, and in making yourselves available for logistical and emotional support. If you want to be on it, just give me your email address and I’ll send you the instructions. (For those of you LJ members who are on my flist, I’ll post a link to it after this.)

I’ll post here as often I can and use this blog to get my personal thoughts down and spare the Yahoo! group members who are more interested in Fatima than in my self-indulgent ramblings (as it should be).

Love each other well, friends.