I worked my tail off

I didn’t hear all of the Kavanaugh hearings, but there were two times when I was listening that struck me. The first was when Kavanaugh was asked about the word “ralph” in his high school yearbook and he explained that he frequently vomited because he had a weak stomach, back then and now too. The second time was when he vehemently stated that he had worked really hard. More precisely he said “I worked my tail off.”

This second one has stuck with me and makes me cringe. At a time when women earn 80 cents on the dollar as compared to men, and at a time when women face a glass ceiling because it’s worried that they can’t keep up with the workload, and when women are doing the majority of caregiving for the children and the elderly, this statement that he worked his tail off rubs me so wrong I cannot let it go.

I want to describe two people I know who have worked their tails off.

First, a professional colleague of mine who escaped Vietnam on a boat. As a teenager he was jailed and put in solitary confinement for years and he lost his voice from lack of use. When he escaped from jail at the age of 17, he dodged soldiers with dogs by hiding in a water tank as the soldiers and barking dogs approached. He fled, and unable to speak, begged a family for shelter. He escaped on a boat and at sea with no water he wet his lips with engine oil in order not to drink salt water, which everyone knew would accelerate dehydration and death. When he came to the United States as a refugee at the age of 18, a retired army officer on the East coast gave him a place to live and taught him English. Eventually he moved to Portland, holding down a minimum of two jobs, and sometimes three jobs. While working janitorial and restaurant jobs he got a degree and then a job as an electronics technician. But he had so much loyalty to his first employer that he continued to work at the restaurant on the weekends because they needed the help. My colleague worked his tail off.

My mother’s mother died when my mother was a few years old. My mother and her baby sister were found in a bombed out trench in WWII near their mother who died from injuries and sickness. My mother became a physicist. She immigrated to the US from Lithuania with my Indian father, me and my younger brother, two suitcases, and a handful of rubles. She went on to get her Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering when we were little kids. Then she worked at Ford Motor Company in Detroit, commuting 150 miles round trip each day. She got her third Master’s Degree in Computer Science when I was in high school, while working full time at Ford and commuting. My mother worked her tail off. And my father treated her as an equal.

My colleague and my mother, if they had been born as white males in America, and been afforded all the advantages of life that Brett Kavanaugh had, would have gone even farther than they did. If they had been white men they would have had a ladder put right in front of them, with instructions on how to climb it. Brett Kavanaugh and others like him need to acknowledge that their success is in large part due to the affordances they have been given, to the lives they were born into.

I’d like to see our government represent the people who really have worked their tails off, because the diverse women and men of this country who have worked their tails off are the ones who represent our values, and the land of opportunity that this country stands for.

p.s. I asked my mom to proofread this story. She responded “I feel like crying. Why are you writing all that stuff. Nobody cares.” And I said I would delete the story.  She returned with “I was 1.5 years old and my sister 4 months old. Keep it, this our story.”

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I’m afraid

It’s America and it’s 5 days after the 2016 election during which Donald Trump was elected President.  I’m afraid, because I don’t think the new political regime under Trump is going to be able to help the disenchanted middle Americans who voted him in.  I actually don’t think any president could.  Why?  Because the train has already left the station.  Factory jobs in steel mills are not going to come back.  Every major industry, whether it is agriculture or automobile production, has turned to technology and increased automation.  In the coming 5 to 10 years, self-driving trucks and cars are going to become reality, and literally millions of people who drive for a living will face a new reality where drivers are not needed anymore.  The problem can’t be solved with more taxes or less taxes, it won’t make a difference.  Tariffs won’t be able to protect American jobs.  Holding back technology may slow the loss of jobs, but will cause the country to become uncompetitive on a global scale.  People need to plan for change and they need to retrain themselves.  But it’s not that easy.  The pace of economic change is faster than the pace at which we humans can change.  In a single lifetime we can only retrain ourselves so many times, maybe not at all.

I am afraid because Trump has appointed Steven Bannon, chief exec of an alt-right media outlet called Breitbart, as the White House chief strategist. Bannon wants to “bitch slap the Republican party.”  I am afraid because today on the 60 minutes news hour Trump confirmed his plan to deport 2 to 3 million undocumented criminal immigrants.  That seems like a whole lot of people.  How will these people be rounded up?  It sounds like the beginning of a series of ethnic purging.  Maybe I’m just paranoid, maybe mass deportation and ethnic purging are not going to happen.  Okay, back to disenchanted middle Americans.  Are Americans going take the jobs that these undocumented criminal immigrants are working?  Is this going solve American economic problems?  No.

It doesn’t matter if the President-elect never succeeds in his deportation plans.  His supporters have taken the anti-immigrant racist messages to heart.  On Friday a close friend went for a drive to enjoy the weather.  In a bar outside of Portland he heard two unrelated groups of people talk about getting their guns and ammo to shoot protesters. Later on Friday evening a protester was shot. This weekend swastikas and racial slurs were spray painted on the walls at Reed College.

I’m afraid because I read the Diary of Anne Frank when I was young.  I’m afraid because I am an immigrant.

I honestly wonder when the people who voted for him, and those who voted third party, and those who didn’t vote at all, will understand what has happened.  I wonder when we will all understand what has happened.  I’m afraid this is just the beginning of things getting worse. I would be grateful to be proven wrong.

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How to marginalize a person and reduce her sense of self-worth

Recently I attended the wedding celebration of my friend, who is a Bay Area tech entrepreneur.  It was a well-attended event, bustling with some of the who’s who in Silicon Valley.  I was introduced to the founder of a successful startup and learned about his next startup, which is working to address the national shortage in tech talent.  The startup is a training and placement program that gets people trained with software skills for a career in tech in just six months.  It seems to be successful and is getting a lot of visibility from business and government leaders.  These days the lack of women and minorities in tech, especially in Silicon Valley, is getting a lot of attention.  So I naturally asked if the program was recruiting minorities and women.

And the answer was “No.”  As my face registered surprise, he went on to add “because companies don’t want them.”

At this point my face flushed red and I started to feel hot and sick to my stomach.  But in the way that I normally am, I calmly responded “that seems odd because my employer is actively recruiting women and minorities”.

The conversation became even more interesting when he responded that “companies that are rich can afford to pad their numbers with low performing employees.”  Okay, maybe he didn’t say low performing, maybe he said filler, inferior, or sub-par.  “Smaller less rich companies can’t afford to pad their numbers.”  What I heard is that he, along with others, believes that women and minorities do not make good employees.

This was really offensive to me.  My head is still spinning.  My twenty five years as a woman at a large tech company relegated me to an inferior status.  I felt personally marginalized, and still do, when I think about this conversation.

And then he went on to use an analogy, asking me this question “if you were going to have heart surgery, and you were given a choice between a surgeon who is a minority, and may have benefited from affirmative action, or a surgeon who is a white male, whom would you choose?”  I responded that I would probably choose the minority because that person likely worked much harder to achieve their position.  He informed me that “not many people would agree, and that most people would choose the white male.”  Okay, he’s right.

I responded by describing a recent study that exposed implicit bias in the hiring process. The study, published in Harvard Business Review, describes how having more than one woman in the interview pool makes a bigger difference than probability would suggest.  When an employer interviews a panel of four candidates, and one of them is a woman, she has zero chance of being hired.  However, if the panel of four candidates includes two women, then the chance of a woman being hired goes up to 50%.  The study exposed the implicit bias that minorities face, and also showed a potential fix of having multiple women in the interview pool.

The article also cites other studies that expose implicit bias.  “When employers use a blind audition to hire their programmers and engineers, women tend to be hired at a higher rate than men. The same is true in blind auditions for professional orchestras.”

The next day I sent him a link to the studies and said I’d put him in touch with the recruiting department where I work to help find jobs for his program’s graduates, in particular minority and women.  I still feel personally marginalized from the experience, even after being a woman engineer in tech for 25 years.  My achievements are overshadowed by a cloud- I’m just padding, for my employer to meet diversity numbers.  It is a feeling that I still can’t shake off several days later.  But I am grateful for the experience of knowing what this Bay Area entrepreneur thinks, without a fake sugar coating.  His feelings are the same as the feelings of many others, he isn’t an anomaly.  It’s good to know where I stand, even if it hurts.

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Is this Huge? Reflections on the 2015 World Cup

As I was waiting for my flight in the Vancouver airport, the day after the World Cup Finals, watching girls and women of all ages clutching their souvenirs on their way home, I couldn’t help but think that this just might be a huge moment, not just for soccer, but for women’s sports, and for women in general.

I’ve largely been following soccer through my husband, who is a huge soccer fan and doesn’t discriminate by gender. He loves men’s and women’s soccer equally well, having season passes for both of Portland’s teams, the Thorns and the Timbers.

In our hometown of Portland, Oregon, both the Thorns and the Timbers command impressive support, giving Portland the title of “Soccer Capitol USA.” Portland Thorns goalie, Nadine Angerer, in an interview stated that every Thorns home game is like a World Cup game. That’s because in her home country of Germany, where men’s soccer is immensely popular, sometimes only a few hundred people show up to watch women’s soccer. But in Portland, every Thorns home game commands ten to fourteen thousand enthusiastic spectators.

A few years ago when I visited Germany, my soccer playing friend whose sons are active in their local youth soccer club explained how Germans talk about soccer. Her sons’ soccer coach openly derided women’s soccer as a joke of a sport, and in front of her kids. In many countries where men’s soccer is a national treasure, women’s soccer gains little or no recognition. The United States puts those countries where women’s soccer is a second- or third-rate sport to shame.

However, even in the US, not all women’s sports fare well. Last year when my rock band was filming a music video with Portland’s semi-pro women’s football team, the Fighting Fillies, I had a chance to speak with one of the players. As she ran laps around the field I encouraged her to show off her skills for the video. She responded, “It doesn’t matter, I’ll never be a famous football player… because I’m a woman.”

This woman is an All-American athlete. She exudes athleticism from every pore; and sadly, she’s right. If she were a man with similarly stellar athletic ability, her story might be different. Yes, women have done well in many college, Olympic, and amateur sports, but less so in professional sports, especially professional team sports.

So I ask myself? Was this the biggest moment in women’s sports history?

Let the numbers speak. In all, 53,000 people came to see the Women’s World Cup Finals. 25.4 million viewers tuned into Fox TV for the game. Worldwide viewership smashed previous records from the Men’s World Cup and the NBA Finals. In the future, the meaning of “World Cup” will not automatically default to the men’s sport.

I wonder, is this a big deal? I actually think it’s a huge deal.

Why? Because well-known athletes, along with entertainers and celebrities, are the heroes of our culture. These heroes capture the media spotlight. They are icons of our society and they reflect what society values. In general, women who are in the media spotlight are valued for their youth, sex appeal, and beauty.

All too often, women in the public eye are judged for their taste in clothing, hair styles, and makeup, instead of their skills, determination, and experience. Furthermore, women who aspire for top positions in the public eye are swatted down and labeled as emotional, uncharismatic, catty… and sometimes they are even described as “bitches.” We see this happening over and over. But things may be about to change.

The U.S. women soccer players have taken on hero status for being passionate, for playing to win, for supporting each other, and for playing as a team. Maybe these attributes could become the new labels that media uses to describe women striving for success in other arenas- in politics, technology, and business.

As I watched the girls and women clutching their World Cup souvenirs at the airport, I got the feeling that they were holding onto something more than just T-shirts and soccer balls. They are holding onto something much bigger than that. I believe they are holding onto the idea of equal recognition for women.

Maybe, just maybe, this harkens in a new era where women could become heroes in our culture without being judged by their outward appearances, their youth, or other superficial factors. Women could become our heroes- cultural icons, business leaders, and political leaders- by being recognized and admired for their perseverance and fighting spirit, for their tenacity, and for being good.

Imagine that.

****thanks for reading****
More commentary about the momentous game can be found here:
http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/06/opinions/bass-world-cup-american-victory/index.html
http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/06/living/feat-womens-soccer-victory-uphill-struggle-equal-recognition/index.html

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Keep Going, Broboat

Not long ago I sent an email to a well-known Portland band to see if we might play a gig with them, and this was the reply:

“We actually really liked you dudes. Keep goin, broboat.”

A few days later we played an opening set and while I was setting up, a guy looked at my electric guitar and Drew’s drums, and puzzlingly asked if I was going to sing a cappella.  I wondered, like what, some sort of Karaoke Idol?   I replied, “no, I’m gonna play the electric guitar, and Drew is gonna play drums…”  Throughout the night, people seemed confused when they first saw us, but when they heard us play they were both surprised and happy.

When they ask “you are going to play the guitar?” it’s not the words, but rather the tone of voice that gives away what they are really thinking.

In one year and five months on the Portland rock music scene, I’ve finally figured out that I don’t belong.  It’s been a tough lesson to learn, but then I wonder “why did I ever think I’d belong?”  My entire life I’ve only had glimpses of what belonging feels like.

I was born in the former USSR to a Lithuanian mother and Indian father, lived in four countries before moving to the USA at the age of 3 years old, and grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Ohio.  The kids in school accused me of being a communist.  From the start I didn’t fit in.

As a female student in electrical engineering, I was again an exception, but I never felt unwelcome.  In my job of 17 years as an engineer at a high tech company, I feel a greater sense of belonging than anywhere else in my life.  I work along with scientists and engineers from all over the world who put their differences aside to focus on creative endeavors.   I love my work, partly because I feel like I belong there more than anywhere else.

Among my friends, I’m one of the only people who doesn’t have kids.  I don’t know anything about diapers, car seats, or soccer.  Even within my own circle of friends I’m a misfit.

A sense of belonging and feeling accepted is important to everyone.   It’s why cliques form in high school, it’s what drives college students to join fraternities and sororities.  It is why cults form.  And dare I say it, it is one of the reasons that people join churches.   We are all driven to find a community where we belong.

And so it goes…. after so many years of being me, I should have figured it out by now.  I don’t fit in, never have, and probably never will.

As for music, my favorite musicians, the iconic ones, were also rogues.  Similarly in science, brilliant people are the odd balls.  Maybe all of us who feel that we don’t belong shouldn’t feel so bad after all.

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On Leaning In and Being Maxed Out

There have been books and articles in the news lately about working mothers being “maxed out” and also about women “leaning in” for career advancement.   This essay isn’t about me, it’s about my mom, and others of her generation- the early ones, who leaned in and for whom being maxed out seemed okay.

***

I was born in the USSR, and my brother was born in India.  My parents arrived in the USA with a 1 year old and a 3 year old, two suit cases, and some rubles, which were a nearly worthless Soviet currency.  My mother’s father gave her his life savings to pay for our plane tickets. We had no relatives or friends in America and neither of my parents had ever driven a car.

As soon as my mother realized her physics degree wasn’t going to make her employable, she enrolled in university to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering.  We didn’t go to daycare.  She dragged us to school and to computer labs and we played with boxes of computer punch cards while she did her homework.   We were told to watch TV so that we could learn English, and we were enrolled in school as soon as possible, which for me meant being younger than the other kids in my class.  The choices they made showed how much they cared about me and my brother, but their daily lives didn’t revolve around us.

And so it went on.  My mom cooked, and if we didn’t like what she made, we could use the microwave to make frozen pizzas.  Nobody was home when we got back from school, but we didn’t think that was weird.  My parents’ lives were about their kids, but not about always being there to attend to them. Somehow we got all the lessons- music, ballet, photography, art, even horseback riding- to make sure any hidden talents had an opportunity to flourish.  But I never expected that my parents would be there to watch me do sports or other activities.  Why would they be?

My mother got her third master’s degree when I was in high school, this time it was in computer science.  This was while she worked full time at Ford Motor Company.  Her career was marked by achievement, and scarred by blatant discrimination that was the norm at that time.  Despite all of this adversity, she never gave up pursuing her career.

There was only one priority in our household, it was simple- academic excellence.  My parents always said nobody could steal your education, it’s the one thing that is yours and can’t be taken away.  So we ate sugar cereal and microwave pizza and watched a lot of TV, and we were left alone most of the time, but we did well in school because we understood the importance of it.  It was the one thing our parents asked us to do well.

Lately there are new books and articles about women Leaning In to their careers, and about moms being Maxed Out, and I’d really love to know how my parents survived raising us while pursuing their careers, and without freaking out about it.

p.s.

I sent this essay to my lovable mother, and this was her short and telling reply,

Dear Ramune,

I think that somebody is making money brainwashing young people on how difficult it is to do natural and obvious stuff.

Love, Mom

Ford Ford rewards 2

moms grad pic

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Teaching Songwriting at Rock Camp

I had never taught songwriting to anyone, nor had I ever received instruction on how to write songs.  So when the Rock n Roll Camp for Girls asked me to teach songwriting at their summer camp, my first reaction was “how exciting!”  And my second reaction was “I’ve never done this!”

In the weeks before teaching my first songwriting class I did a lot of research on songwriting.  I read articles about it, watched YouTube videos, and even signed up for a songwriting class.  I put together a course agenda outlining what I would talk about.  Then in the last few days before the class, I changed my approach.  I would not talk about songwriting.   I decided that I would show them how I write songs, and right then and there in the class we’d all write songs.  I didn’t know if this approach would work or not.

I started with a few minutes of background info about myself, and then launched into a short discussion asking “what is a song anyway?”   To lubricate our brains we started writing rhyming words on the board.  Just lists and lists of words that kinda rhyme.  We got pencils and paper to write down our lyrics that rhymed, or not.  I walked around with a guitar playing chords and rhythms that the girls might latch on to.   Ten minutes later, I asked for volunteers to come up to the front and read their lyrics.  The girls came up one by one.  I played the guitar and the girls easily fit their lyrics to melodies and rhythms.

Voila!  Dozens of songs were created, right there, easily and effortlessly.   Lots of the songs were funny, like the song about purple cola and ice cream soda.  Some songs were really well-developed.  One young woman wrote an entire composition of several verses and a chorus.  She sang it flawlessly, as if she was the next up-and-coming Pink.  Most of the girls were enthusiastic to share, except for one girl, maybe 8 years old.  She shielded her song from view, even though she had written a full page.  She said her song didn’t rhyme and that she didn’t like it.  I let her know she was fine and there was no pressure to share.

The class was almost over, and nearly everyone had shared, when the little girl raised her hand to indicate that she was now ready.  She came to the front, said her name, and shared her song.  It had lots of sound words in it, like crash and smash, and then words about a bridge and water and something about 99.  It was really emotional.  I listened closely and when she finished sharing I slowly asked her, “were you in a car crash on hwy 99?”  She looked down and said yes, it had just happened recently.   Her song was her way of processing a recent experience that was still on her mind.

I recognized that feeling of songwriting metamorphosis- a song can help us heal and recover from the pain and see it from a different view.  That’s where songs come from.

At Rock Camp the girls don’t learn cover songs, they learn to write their own original songs.  Then they form bands, and by the end of the week, each band performs an original song.   I think the songwriting aspect is really important for the girls.  They express themselves as unique individuals who have something to say.  They don’t copy or try to be someone else.  They use their own words.

It’s what rock music is all about, it’s about sharing experiences and emotions.  It’s about speaking up for what we believe in, it’s about expressing ourselves.  If a girl can speak up, write a song, and perform it in front of audience, she can do anything.

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