Thursday, December 08, 2011

To Card or Not To Card: Perpetuating Holiday Traditions (or Not)

Recently, there was a discussion about holiday etiquette, which was really just a catchy timely headline for everyday etiquette because it was just about thank you notes.

That same discussion -- with its preference for handwritten notes -- has echoed around my circles lately. In general, I am the minority who think that email is all right for sending a thanks or expression of appreciation.

I'm kind of in the Warm Fuzzy camp, I guess, when it comes to sending good wishes and positive sentiment -- Bring It On!

I have the same philosophy about holiday cards: I really don't care what your reason for the season is, if you want to wish me and mine well, I'll take it! And hopefully, you'll accept my wishes for you and yours, too. But oooh boy have I ever heard some actually rude sentiments around this -- both from the recipient side. I've heard some people say they only accept cards that are specifically Christmas cards. ACK! I've also heard people who do not celebrate Christmas resent any type of good wishes this time of year, even innocuous Peace ones.

"That's just a mask over Christmas; I know which holiday they really mean!" the angry person told me.

For the fourth time that week I replied, "Hmm, well it varies year to year a bit but isn't it Hanukkah about now, with Kwanzaa and Christmas coming up? I think Islam is out for this month but sometimes I think they are in. Isn't it kind of cool to see all the major monotheistic religions sort of coming together in a positive spirit with good wishes across religious borders?"

"No," the person snapped. That person was frustrated because she felt her own personal atheism was being trampled and disrespected.

I can sort of see the perspective. Rick Perry's opinion (or whatever that is) aside, Christmas is sort of crammed down our throats starting earlier and earlier and getting bigger and bigger every year. Also, the ante keeps getting upped. Charities and retailers alike count on The Most Wonderful Time of the Year more and more as the economy keeps hurting, and the desperate stakes messages can slam you hard. It's a barrage by mid-November.

Still. I hope people don't lump their friends who just want to say Happy New Year in with that.

Sometimes my cards are vague: Peace-Love-Joy. Sometimes I just get to the point and don't obfuscate: Merry Christmas. But my message is always the same: I wish you and yours well.

I've tried doing this different times of the year, such as Valentine's Day. But it just doesn't feel the same. Also, it caused me to fall off a lot of card lists. I'm still trying to recover.

I like sending holiday cards this time of year.

I've sent photo cards with a pictorial trip through our family year, a single photo with a short message, a beautiful design card with a typed letter inside regaling friends and family about our exploits, and many other iterations. Right now it's a card with several shots of our family individually and together. I guess this year it's about who we are -- a family -- more than where we've been and what we've done.

Whatever the style, I am so very excited every single time I go to the mailbox and find a new well-wishing card inside. I love sending and receiving holiday cards. I hardly care how they look (although they are always so gorgeous and individual), or what they say (although I breathe in the sentiment). I only care that they are and they are from you and you sent one to me.

I'm passing it on, too. I got the cutest little ornament cards for the kids to give to their teachers and good friends.

The girls, I've noticed, adore everything and anything to do with the Christmas season. Elf on the shelf (and everywhere else in the house), putting up decorations in stages (hey, I'm only human, a little here, a little there), watching holiday shows (wow, film makers were busy this past year -- there is a new one every day, though we stick to classics mainly), and so on. It's a chance for me to say things such as, "This show came out the year I was born and I've watched it every single year since." They don't know who some of the famous characters are -- Burl Ives, Bing Crosby -- and I delight in telling them. When cards arrive, they stare at the photos, sometimes making an observation, sometimes asking a question. I delight in telling them about thoughtful Aunt Dolly in Chicago who sends them handmade ornaments in cards every year, and how most of the ornaments on our tree are from her. They like hearing about far away cousins and family.

It brings us together.

So yeah, put me on Team Card. And Team Holiday Letter.

I know we keep up via Facebook and email and occasional passings by at school or events, but it's nice to know we're friends here, too. card or to not card?


I've bought cards from a variety of sources -- sometimes charities, sometimes stationary stores, sometimes big box stores. I'm personally a big fan of the photo card, and being able to create it from the comfort of my desk and in my own time.

This year I tried out three different sites and services. I won't name the ones I didn't select because frankly, they were okay, just not a fit for me and what matters most to me.

My 2011 cards -- mine personally and the kids -- came from Tiny Prints. I went there first because I'd gotten cards from them before and was happy, but being a savvy shopper I had to try a few other spots too. I ended up going back to them.

What I liked there over other spots:
  • lots of designs and styles, definitely a lot I liked
  • a lot of layouts that can work for whatever you want to do
  • once you pick a design, you can select among more customizing layouts
  • you upload and store photos, which you can use over and over
  • you can edit photos in small ways (zoom in or out, sepia, black and white, shift) that enable you to tweak photos in place and see how it looks
  • they have customer service available to help (which I've used)
I liked being able to save my designs so I could do them in my own time. Best of all, though, was knowing that staff checked it to ensure it looked good and would do a fix if it needed it.

The card looked great on the screen, but when it arrived, it exceeded my expectations. The paper was very high quality and the right stock (nongloss) that I could use a pen to sign it. The colors were rich and true to what I expected from the screen, and the photos were crisp and perfect. I was really happy with these, and so glad to send them out to friends and family.

I also appreciated the messages letting me know the status.

I did pay for the cards myself and had received them when Tiny Prints contacted me with a promo code. So in fair disclosure, they did end up providing the cards for the kids and gave me a credit. However, they did not ask for this review or demand anything in return, and this post and my review is fully my own opinion. In fact, when they contacted me, I was already a satisfied customer.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

It's because it wasn't what we wanted to hear

My friend Devin shared a site of links to the Jerry Sandusky case, along with a commentary.

If you don't know what is going on with Jerry Sandusky, catch up here. There are a string of articles under Top Stories.

In short, from one article:
Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator under Paterno, has been charged with sexually abusing eight boys across a 15-year period, and Paterno has been widely criticized for failing to involve the police when he learned of an allegation of one assault of a young boy in 2002.

I read through the commentary and I heard the exact feelings any sane, feeling person would have: bewildered, angry, judgmental, and worse.

My husband I just went through a class called "Safeguarding God's Children." It was our second go-round, and it hadn't changed a bit in the intervening years. It's part of the training and certification the church requires in order for you to participate in children's activities now, such as go on field trips, attend class parties, etc. Only the church requires this of parents of students and we all know why.

You'd think the training would at least make a pretense of being about overall child welfare, but it doesn't. It is unashamedly specifically about child sexual abuse. It is unabashedly about teaching adults to watch for signs and how to report it. It teaches by sucking your soul out through your mouth by way of videos from predators, parents of victims and the victims themselves.

You are left sitting in a room with people who cannot look one another in the eye for at least a week afterwards. Statistics say odds are someone in that room was abused or know someone who was, and worse, that possibly someone was a predator.

The instructor was clear: you do know it when you see it, and you should never talk yourself out of it. It's not your choice to make, to decide whether it is or isn't something or whether someone should do something. What you do is report it and let experts figure it out.

There are a lot of scare stories about "false allegations" that "ruin lives."

I can tell you I know at least five families who have been investigated and I guarantee most people never knew. How did I know? Because each of them told me.

They were all innocent, proved so, and resumed life as normal after dealing with what happened. In the end, as angry and scared as it made them, each confided to me that on some level, they'd rather these things be taken seriously and investigated.

But I bet for each of those five families there were 20 people who should have been investigated and were not.

Why not?

It's because it wasn't what we wanted to hear.

I was just listening to Joan Didion talk about being a parent --well, and, a person really -- and how this one time she was line editing her daughter Quintana's writing and was completely missing the pain and anxiety her daughter was expressing. She did eventually realize her daughter wasn't writing sunshine and roses, but she said that all the while her daughter was borderline personality with severe depression and so forth, she was also very amusing.

"And amusing is what I could relate to," Didion said.

She went on to say that we are so bounded by what we expect and can relate to that sometimes we tune out what is really being said to us.

It's a sort of listening block.

I think it's also an empathic failure: we don't want what is, to be. And so we tune it out and tune into what appeals to us. It leaves us, often, confused and befuddled by what seems to be a sudden action on the part of someone we know. But also, we like to please those we care about, and so we can be very good at putting on the right show, or enough of it, to maintain the myth.

Also, ramifications can be very scary. Worse in our minds, usually.

But also, we inherently know that nobody likes a whistle blower.

The kid who made everyone recognize the emperor wore no clothes never had a statue made in his honor. In fact, we don't rally know what happened to him because all the news reported was some kid yelling and then attention switched back to the emperor and the canny, con artist tailors.

We need to be cautious about where we fixate our attention. It's easy to look only at the thing that inspires our first, fastest and most familiar emotion: anger. It's easy to fixate on accused, the perpetrator, the guilty. It's easier to sit in place as judge and jury.

It's much, much harder to sit in the place of the victim.

That's if we can process and believe, that is. Most of the time we can't, because it's not what we expected to hear. It's not what we wanted to hear. It wasn't what worked for us. It was not what we could relate to.

And so...we tune out. We minimize. We rationalize.

"It didn't seem like that big of a deal." "It didn't seem like anything criminal."

It's because it wasn't what we wanted to hear. Somebody had a good thing going and didn't want to disrupt that.

I get it. It's not easy to be the disrupter. It easy to be the Monday morning quarterback, pun intended. Of course, from over here, from now, it seems obvious what should have been done.

We need to know how, though. The one thing that was most useful in the training class we had to take was the lessons about how to confront.

I'm watching. I see.

I'm looking at and listening to the vulnerable. The victims.

Best protections. Ever.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

One more birthday, another year older...HURRAY!

It's my birthday today.

And I opened the day with this status:
It's my birthday! Hallelujah for another birthday! I am one year closer to my 2 pm glass of wine and nap! One year closer to wearing hats every day (that aren't ball caps). One year closer to being able to say, "I'm old, I've earned the privilege of being irascible, now sod off!" which has a dual purpose of play on words: "take a hike" and "get off my lawn." Also it will force the Autocorrect Generation to go look up a word. HEH!
I am truly grateful to get to celebrate another birthday. My 40s have turned into a time of watching friends with major health crises and losing friends way too young. Each week, it seems, someone else gets struck by cancer. My body has turned into a habitable inn for skin cancer, aches, pains, fat cells, and other things I don't enjoy playing host to, but they are minor inconveniences I can work around. They do not take over my internal space like a garrisoning invading army.

And so I am grateful.

Grateful this birthday is one more for me, one more for my family. A day to celebrate, instead of miss. Lucky. So, so lucky.

A friend sent me a birthday wish with the joke, "28 again I assume!"

It has been many years, more than a baker's dozen, since I've been 28. So I cheekily replied, "I don't mind admitting I am over 40 but I also don't mind admitting I like hearing I look 28 while doing it!"

Birthdays are for fun like that.

For more fun, my husband took off the day from work and we had a leisurely lunch at a lovely bayside restaurant we would not usually go to, with the kids, especially. It was decadent. We had four courses -- appetizer, salad, entree and dessert. (See the above photo for the view.)

I made a pledge this year--a birthday wish if you will. It came from kind over matter and it resonated beautifully with some ideas that had been free forming in my mind. So I wrote this:
You who know me well know I truly believe this: I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be "happy." I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter and to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all. — Leo C. Rosten
I wanted to find a simple action I could take to fulfill this in a tangible way as well as continuing to work to fulfill it in myriad other ways. I thought of cards.

I have always enjoyed writing, and sending cards with personal messages to friends. Recently, two things reminded me of how important this is: my merciful visit to Chi-Town and this card from my friend Maggie:

I was so pleased to receive something nice like this in the mail. I know how much effort it takes to do a real card, old-fashioned way, and I was overjoyed to have merited just that little extra thought and effort. It made me feel this sense of value and friendship. Combine that with my new commitment to hand writing things to connect better with them as thoughts, and you had a pledge.

I want to take the time--and let's not get crazy with this, so say one a month at least, at the start, maybe on the 1st of the month--to handwrite and mail a card with a friendly message inside to someone.

That takes a good pen (oh yea! an excuse to go pen shopping) and stationary.

Luckily, Tiny Prints came along with a cause that I believe in: More Birthdays...and less cancer.

They are now printing these gorgeous More Birthday cards from the incredible artists who submitted designs. Check them out:

I've already ordered a full set. If you'd like one, email me your address. J pippert at gmail dot com. It doesn't have to be for a birthday, by the way. It can be for any reason, any day.

And in advance...happy birthday.

A few details about this program:

The American Cancer Society believes that every birthday is a victory – another year that cancer has not won. Thanks in part to the Society’s cutting-edge scientific research, patient support, and prevention, education, and advocacy efforts, 11 million cancer survivors will celebrate another birthday this year.

Tiny Prints – an online stationary boutique – is fighting for more birthdays with an exclusive card collection on that is inspired by all of the ways the American Cancer Society saves lives.

The card collection features the inspired artwork of the American Cancer Society’s more birthdays artists, such as Am I Collective, Andrew Bannecker and Create More Birthdays Contest winner, Marilyn Brown.

From now until April 30, 2012, the Tiny Prints more birthdays card collection will be available at their site.

This sponsored post was written in conjunction with the American Cancer Society/Tiny Prints card collection launch. All content and opinions expressed here are my own.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Manifesto of Sorts About Sexism: You don't know from discrimination, sweetheart, and other divisive fallacies

Consistently I read stories, articles and posts about sexism that divide the women's movement into two distinct, mutually exclusive camps:

1. The system inherently discriminates against women, as do the people within it who continue to subscribe to it, and people must fight to remove this to open up bigger and better opportunities for women; and

2. Women must view themselves as their own change agents and foster their own inner potential, thereby breaking through any perceived glass ceilings through hard work and continual success that stems from belief in themselves as leaders and succeeders.

The problem with this subscription to one or the other camp is that it fosters a high school football team style loyalty to one side, with a competitive disdain for the other.

I read a post that subscribes to Fostering Inner Female Success and the skepticism about an inherently discriminatory system boiled over into outright disgust for the whiny self-described victims. I read a post that subscribes to Fight the Discriminatory System and the aversion to naivete about hard work being the secret to guaranteed success boiled over to antipathy and contempt.

Not all tales are so full of derision, of course, but I just keep seeing this ever-widening, consistently reinforced divide. And I call BS on this -- that these two points are mutually exclusive.

It's naive to subscribe one or the other exclusively.

In general, most women who talk about discrimination are not being whiners; they're trying to reveal that the Emperor has no clothes and they are perplexed and stymied as to why some people keep insisting that he does. In general, most women who talk about teaching women to do for themselves are not oversimplifying and ignoring the real issue; they are seeing that from girlhood, women need to reinforce that despite whatever kind of world there is out there, they have what it takes to accomplish what they need.

I've been in the work force since 1985. That's given me occasion to see plenty of situations in which women did and did not succeed, or where women were able to balance their lives or were forced to choose. We like to think that success is within our control, and that if we do everything right, we can win at this game.

I sincerely hope the current economic situation and the many, many 99% stories floating around the Internet has taught us the fallacy of this line of thinking.

The truth is that there is inherent discrimination -- of all types, but for this discussion, let's focus on women -- in the system. The truth also is that we need to foster belief in women of their ability to climb the ladder as far as they'd like to go and accomplish what they'd like to, in as much as that is reasonably possible and knowing that goals shift.

If we really want to enable women to succeed -- and by virtue of their success, all of us -- then we need to work to improve matters on both fronts, together. United.

Also, we need address the other two elephants in the room:

1. Generational differences in experience and belief
2. The much changed work environment of the 21st century

When I entered the workforce, I was given two pieces of advice by a female attorney friend of the family: never let them know you can type or make a pot of coffee. She also suggested growing nails just long enough to inhibit typing.

As a writer, this would never have worked. But I caught the message, the meaning between the lines. Despite having the same JD from the same school as many lawyers in her firm, she was still grouped with the secretarial pool. That's how things were back then. I learned to discourage men from ever complimenting my appearance, which is how many had been taught to interact with women, because of rampant sexual harassment and the problem of being viewed as "Woman" instead of coworker. I wore shapeless suits and pants.

My experience is different than women entering their 20s and the workforce today, as it is different from women the generation ahead of me. We've experienced change, but I'm not ready to commit yet to calling it progress. Progress is defined as steady improvement of a society. We have not, actually, steadily improved in equality, though we have made advances on a number of fronts. Many have mistaken potential as true opportunity, thus believing in progress for women's quality.

However, one of those changes -- the current economic downturn and recession -- are full of potential to create true progress. Today's technology combined with a heavy opportunity for small, niche businesses can be the way to foster equality and women's success. Smaller business can also better mentor young women.

Flexibility, telecommuting, improved technology and other tools plus an entrepreneurial environment opens up the door for women and men alike to better achieve their personal and professional goals with solid balance.

But we must work together and we must acknowledge that this benefits everyone -- not just women, and it's not a selfish goal -- and it requires improving the system for better true opportunity while fostering girls and boys to realize their own personal potential.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A short merciful trip to Chi-town (not the one in Illinois)

Photo of lily pond at Ocean Palace Restaurant in Chintatown, Houston. Photo copyrighted by Julie Pippert, 2011. Do not use without permission.

Believe it or not, Houston has a thriving Asian section. Last week, on a school holiday, along with other parents we took the kids from my daughter's World Explorers club on the Asian Heritage Discovery Tour. Here's their general description of the tour (you can customize it somewhat, as needed, for your group and they did a great job of making it very kid-friendly):
The route begins at the Chinese Community Center, 9800 Town Park and continues to Asian market and stores at the Hong Kong City Mall. A dim-sum lunch is provided at Ocean Palace Restaurant, one of the largest Chinese restaurants in Houston, followed by a visit to the Buddhist Temple. A traditional tea ceremony or Chinese calligraphy presentation concludes the tour.
It was an amazing experience and really let the kids see, hear, touch, smell and taste snippets of Asia. They had just finished studying Asia in their club, so it was an opportunity to be a part of things they'd read about, without even leaving town.

In the Asian section of Houston, signs are in Mandarin, including road signs. Businesses are specialized to serve the diverse Asian community. The architecture is modern and typical but also includes flairs from Asia, such as ornate corners and dragons. As we drove, we gawked at strip malls labeled with signs we could not read -- in our own city!

"How does it feel," I asked, "To see signs you can't read? To see things so foreign to you?"

"Weird!" the kids yelled, giggling.

"Imagine arriving in Houston as an Asian immigrant, how weird our city would look, how strange and foreign, maybe even scary," I said.

"I would not even know where to go or what to do!" said one child.

"Everyone would be talking around me and I couldn't understand them!" said another.

"How would you know where to get your cat food?" inquired one pet loving child.

"It would be hard, but maybe also exciting, maybe frightening and exhausting, interesting, and you'd have to figure it out, learn," I said.

It's good to get out of your element and feel foreign. Better yet if it is merely an hour's drive from home. The kids got a sense of what it was like to be an ethnic and cultural minority, just a little, just for a bit. They got to be like fish out of water. Luckily, they had a guide. Plus it was a small, safe taste of being alien.

It was good for me, too. It made me pause and be mindful for a while.

In the Taoist temple, the guide explained a short overview of Buddhism and introduced us to the Gods. We each got a stick of incense and at the end, were asked to choose a God to honor. Which one, I wondered. My younger daughter selected the Monkey King, and I felt glad for that because it seems necessary that she be blessed with the courage needed for an interesting journey. My elder chose the large urn at the front of the temple, a general offering to all Gods. She is good about covering her bases. I decided that I would select Vishnu, because "unimaginable, unthinkable and unbelievable" is a true life theme right now. I know Vishnu is very complex, but truly, that seems the right one for ladies in their 40s. Maybe men, too.

A very pregnant woman paused, knelt, shook sticks, rolled what looked like rocks, and stood, then repeated herself, until finally she went to the wall and pulled out a pice of paper. The guide explained the purpose of this ceremony and how so many elements had to align for you to receive a message back from the god you spoke to. Ritual. Forcing you to pause, seek and find. Forcing focus and mindfulness. I understood this completely.

However, the single moment that has lingered with me daily since our tour is the lesson about calligraphy.

In China, calligraphers are revered as the highest artists. One does not just use a character, one gives thought to the best character choice and then artfully sketches it. Several of us on the tour had the same name; however, we did not all get our names written in Chinese in the same way. It matters who you are, the person. My name included the character for jasmine, and she explained it implied grace and a reliable strength. That's flattering, but it's also something to aspire to. In English, my name merely means youthful appearance. One is about character, the other superficial.

Most importantly, though, was the lesson of chi in calligraphy.

Calligraphers, our gracious guide Ms. Chang told us, tend to live long lives. It is because they practice breath with each brush stroke. Breath, qi, ch'i, life energy. Breath is the base, remembering to breathe and breathe mindfully while doing restores, reinvigorates, balances.

I watched Master Zheng, the talented calligrapher. He was so connected to what he does. The pen flowed from his hand like an extra appendage, and from his pen, graceful and elegant brush strokes glided effortlessly across the page. When my younger daughter got fractious, he deftly drew the hint of a rabbit, with just a few brush strokes.

Be connected. Breathe. Take your time. Let it flow.

Each thing I do has purpose but it is perhaps not always that mindful, and believe it or not, I am horrible at breathing. I tend to pull air in only to the top of my lungs, breathing shallowly and quickly too often.

My fingers may fly across my keyboard but there is not any true connection. This is a tool I pound, not a tool that flows from me.

Since our trip I have wondered how I can work in breath and connection to my work, to everything I do.

I think at first I am going to try to start each workday by closing my eyes, breathing one full breath, and then, using a pen, write as slowly and neatly as I can what I hope to bring to the day.

I went on the field trip because I was curious. I scheduled it because I thought it would be a neat learning experience for the kids. They came home loving jasmine rice, liking jasmine tea, and with a pair of beautiful and ornate chopsticks. I came home with breath. We all got a lot from it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

TV is Getting Dirty (and I'm getting to be an old fogey)

Soaps are coming to an end. ABC even cancelled All My Children. In its place, a cooking show.

I suppose it's a little silly to feel a bittersweet twinge at the thought. I've never really been in to soaps, never really watched them, not the daytime ones anyway. It wasn't out of snobbery or anything; I was into other things. That didn't mean I was ignorant of them. In one of my early jobs post-college, a producer for the studio where I worked was obsessed with Days of Our Lives, and that's what the lunch room TV was tuned to, end. of. discussion. Layne was this brilliant producer, organized and charismatic, who had gorgeous girl next door looks and a tomboy personality. We had so much fun at that job, the young crew of us. Inside jokes, tons of creative and diverse work, and a really neat end result. I kind of knew at the time it was a good gig, but only now, twenty years later, do I really know how amazing and blessed that time was. It's fun to remember. Those soaps, they make me remember. Days of Our Lives, that one in particular, the theme song comes on and I'm back in the lunchroom arguing over the merits of crackers versus bread, while Layne's eyes crinkle and she wins the argument because that's how it worked there and then. But later we will leave little packets of crackers all over her office, and she'll shriek and laugh and give us the point but then will tell us to clean it up.

It was fun.

There was always a lot of fun around -- and made of -- soap operas. Haven't they been part of our lives? (Punny ha ha.)

Don't we all think of Ridge and Thorn as male soap opera character's names? Don't we joke about someone's mother's sister's husband's cousin who came back from the dead, twice, and a coma, once, only to choke on a fish bone at her 10th wedding? Don't we all use "soap opera" as a common adverb and adjective?

It's really about the end of a way of life, and taste in entertainment.

It's good and bad.

Maybe it's hitting me more because of other losses. Maybe it's my age, and the way time and change has seemed to speed up. It feels as if there is not constant any longer, except--as the saying goes--death and taxes. The point of that is really that certain good or comforting touchpoints are dynamic, not static.

In some corner of my mind, it was comforting to know that Susan Lucci as Erica Kane was still on TV doing the same thing on the same show as ten years, twenty years ago and beyond.

On the one hand, I'm keeping up with the times just fine. I know social media! I have the new Facebook! I have an iPhone! I know how to connect a bluetooth! I'm digital, connected, modernized, and up-to-date. I wear polish on my toe nails that is a color off the red or pink color wheel. I've gone to Mermaid! And Midnight! I'm modern!

On the other hand, I feel what I can't help but call fogeyness creep in. What do you mean iPhone 5, what's wrong with this 3 that I got about 10 seconds ago? What do you mean iPad, what's wrong with this phone or my laptop? Books on electronic devices? Does it come with a "smell the new pages" app? New big chain stores? Forget you, I'm sticking to as many local mom and pop as I can.Upgrade my appliances? No way. I bought this house because it still had a dial A/C control; I hate computer panel controls on appliances. They're designed to break after 9.8 years.

Once upon a time things were designed to last a lifetime: houses, appliances, cars, jobs, communities, families...and now a five year plan is long term.

We used to gauge time on a life line. Now we are in what I call tech time, where two years is long and old. We're off slow paced baseball minutes and in to hockey minutes, dizzy speed. My eyes can barely follow the action.

And I'm becoming reluctant to even try to keep up -- why should I?

Me? I'll schedule in lazy Sunday afternoons where we just sit on the back patio and watch the kids play. Remember kid time? When a week felt like forever? I want to feel time drag again.

Watching the kids, though, reminds me why we live in a neighborhood stuck in 1968 and why it feels so precious: kids running the neighborhood is also a passing way of life. I'm not at all ashamed that my daughter is in late elementary school and is struggling to type on a computer. I'm not worried that she's better at climbing trees than fooling with technology. It doesn't bother her, either, or at least not enough to change her ways. I want her to remember simple days and time that drags. I want her to have a time to look back on, a feeling she can pull up and experience in memory, of when Saturday felt like an age, and you could run 100 different lifetimes of games and play within it. I want her to have that, especially when time feels too short to fit in all that needs doing.

I want her to have something that lasts, and I'd love to provide a touchstone for her to bring it all back, like coming to the home she grew up in. The way you can smell vanilla and sugar and remember your grandmother baking pie crust leftover popovers for you.

That's unlikely, though.

So while I'd like to turn around and find one thing still there tomorrow that was here today--something other than death and taxes--that's unlikely too. It really is the intangibles, in the end. It's just nice to have those tangibles, like a soap opera, to remind us. I'll hear the theme of Days of Our Lives and remember Layne, that job, and that time vividly. So long as that show was on, I could turn it on, see the same characters, and in some way, it felt as if that time was still there. It kept it real.

But that time ended, and so are soaps. Time doesn't drag anymore, but it does seem to drag me these days.

So I tell myself, as I'm dragged: Live life at your own pace. Pay attention to what's wonderful now. Quit missing here for trying to figure out where there is going to be. What matters is this minute, not just what's hot tomorrow. Enjoy this moment, log it into memory, without always planning and worrying for the next thing.

At least sometimes.

Bye soaps, and thanks for all the fun and funny you provided. Without you, TV will be a little dirtier, and we'll archive one more tradition.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A sense of place

My mother lives in Bastrop. For years my family trekked to Bastrop for vacations and holidays. For years we walked along the Colorado River, either enjoying the Christmas displays or just the pretty scenery. For years we visited her little church and got to know the congregation, her friends. For years we hiked the woods behind her house, and bird watched in the pine trees in her front yard. For years we ate at local hotspots such as Maxine's and got dessert from the soda fountain at the drug store. For years we fell in love with this adorable and quaint little town, whose main downtown street was preserved through the Texas Main Street program, a program my husband learned about back in college and that we admired greatly.

For the last week, we've watched Bastrop burn:
BASTROP, Texas -- The massive wildfire is now 70 percent contained. Tuesday morning, firefighters cleared areas for more residents to return home.

Police removed the barricades at 10 a.m. for the neighborhoods of ColoVista South, Wilderness Ridge, Harmon Road, Cottletown Road, Bastrop State Park, Beuscher State Park and Park Road 1C South.

Inside many of those areas, the ground is burned completely. If feet don't crunch, they sink. The dirt across Bastrop is now like fine sand. Pine trees that once stood full and tall are now bare and charred.
34,000 acres, over $200 million in damages, over 1400 homes, 2 people…gone. One of those homes? My mother's house, the one where we built so many happy memories -- my daughter's second birthday, hurricane evacuations, cousins playing and doing punk hairdos with spray in hair color, our dog casing the yard for errant squirrels while waiting for a hike, Easter egg hunts with plenty of spots to hide eggs under pine needles, sitting on the deck reading, Mother's Day photos framed on my wall taken on the patio, a series of ranunculus photos that were among the first photos I ever sold, maneuvering backwards down her curvy long drive, the feeling of home and holiday we had each time we saw the big white mailbox at the end of her drive that signaled the end of our journey and time for family and fun.

She wasn't living there at the time. She'd leased her home to another family, so it was that couple who lost all their things, a lifetime of photos and music albums the first they named as lost. But we lost that house, that place.

Don't worry, people said, your mother has her other house and she can always rebuild, it's just things.

Oh no, it's not just things, it's a place. It's a place lost, a neighborhood lost, a community lost. Things, yes, they can be replaced, but a place cannot.

Odds are whatever is rebuilt next door will not be the green-trimmed log cabin where two elderly sisters lived, nor will it include their brave, exquisite little garden working to survive under such a canopy of pine trees that dripped daily spiky threats on the fragile flowers.

A canopy of trees now gone, land laid flat and bare for years and years now.

Quirky Tahitian Village, a strange Polynesian paradise themed neighborhood with homes of local stone and brick incongruously resting on streets named Mauna Kea Lane that wind and curve and rise and fall in the hilly country. Gone.

The Spanish hacienda, with full stucco wall around it, that sat arrogantly in a verdant lot surrounded by towering trees rather than dusky mountains and sand. Gone.

"Will they rebuild, do you think?" an older man at a local donation center asked me on Saturday.

Such a question. So many just assume. They think, with sympathy and good-intention, that the phoenix of this small, tight-knit community will rise from the ashes.

"I don't know," I said, truthfully. "My mother won't. A lot of her neighbors were elderly, a lot didn't have insurance. I just don't know. I imagine a lot of people will, if they can. I think a lot will decide this is it, a sign, or something, and they'll move somewhere else, maybe to a retirement home or nearer to kids."

He nodded, "I thought so. Yeah, I thought so. It's too bad, to lose their place."

I nodded too, my eyes stinging, a hot hole in my upper chest. He understood. I understood. It's gone. It will never be the same. The biggest loss of all is the place.

Please donate to American Red Cross, who has been such a help and savior for so many in Bastrop, and beyond. They helped in places of fire, flood, hurricane and storm. All at the same time. Thank you.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The cost of growing (older) kids

The clerk told me the total and I flinched. Literally. We'd just finished gathering all the school supplies specified on the list for my oldest daughter, now in an upper grade of elementary. The expectations are much higher. And so is the cost.

It's also a lot harder. Her questions are more complex, and her moods more mercurial.

Once upon a time I could have gone to the store and bought the supplies for her. Now, however, she has a vested interest in this and all purchases, as well as many aspects of life…because in her mind, they all reflect on her. She sees herself in a new way. She's becoming self-conscious about the music she listens to, the clothes she wears, how she fixes her hair and accessorizes, the way she talks…everything.

When did all this happen and what do I do? I swear five minutes ago she was just starting to talk!

So, after shopping, I came to Facebook and stated that back to school shopping was a physical pain and added a few melodramatic OUCH comments. What I really wanted to say was, I just go a sock to the gut that my baby girl is growing up, and it is getting to be a higher cost, on all levels.

I got a lot of commiseration about the money aspect -- which added perspective -- but what I really wanted to say was less about the dollars and more about the sense. It's just more taxing the older kids get. That's a statement of fact, by the way. Not a complaint.

It just so happened that my friend Jenn commented on the same day that all these parenting magazines, website, blogs, etc. are so baby-centric. So focused on the tiny people. Once they enter pre-K, it's assumed we're well on our way or something because the supportive and instructive sites fade away. And yet, that's just we need it most. Truly.

If I ever thought the baby years were challenging, it's only because I hadn't yet hit the pre-teen years where you see this amazing journey ahead, with a couple of train wrecks that there is no avoiding (I suppose), and suddenly the stakes, you feel the stakes, and man, are they high. This is another person's life.

I was watching the Millionaire Matchmaker (yeah yeah judge not blah blah blah) and this guy thought it would be cool and unique to do a photo session with the girl on the first date. It was clearly a test, clearly a power play. Such an ass, I thought. You could tell the girl was uncomfortable with the date and idea, but feeling some form of compulsion, she went through and did it anyway. I didn't see her enjoying it at all. But I got the sense she felt as if she had to be game, had to go through with it, had to meet the test, had to play the game.

I flashbacked to college. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend and truly wanted some alone time. I needed to figure out a few things, and heal. But a good friend told me her boyfriend's fraternity brother had wanted to ask me out for a while. She and her boyfriend pressured me fiercely to "be nice" and "give the guy a chance" and on and on. I felt as if my friendship was at stake and so I buckled. I felt as if my self, my identity, was at stake, and so I went out with the guy, who cut up super nasty on me when I made it clear up front this was just a date, just one time. And then I lost the friend anyway. Much later, of course, I realized these weren't friends worth having. They didn't value me. But then again, I didn't value me enough either, to say no.

So while I reeled at the cost of growing up, financially, I started reeling about the cost of growing up, emotionally.

Buying pricey school supplies is the least of the expense I have as a parent.

"How do I raise girls who don't feel they have to subvert themselves and their reasonable boundaries to please someone else, at great personal cost," I asked my husband. That matchmaker is horrific -- telling girls to look some one way to attract a man, as if the most crucial thing is to be attracting men by being hot. But she's just one small voice in a loud chorus.

Folders are "girl" folders and "boy" folders, so are notebooks, some of which now offer stickers and markers so you can write I Luv U! messages on your binders. Those are aimed at girls, of course. Boys don't need to share their feelings.

No wonder there was this photographing ass and uncomfortable girl on this horrific date. It was inevitable that this scenario played out. No wonder there was this dedicated romantic guy and this reluctant girl on an awkward picnic date. It was inevitable this scenario played out. No wonder the reluctant girl lost friends over it; she was supposed to be flattered above all and set all aside to receive this boy's attentions.

In middle school, this girl carried spiral notebooks that her mother bought her for school. They were filled with lists of boy's names because she was supposed to have a boyfriend, and she tried so hard to find likely ones. Some she really, really liked, but they didn't like her back so she thought she had no value. One day, though, she finally built up some spine to decide she had value, in and of herself, period.

Just as composition and spiral notebooks are required, some life lessons are required too, to grow up and get the education you need.

I understand that.

But still, it breaks my mother's heart.

And on some level, I resist. I still want to raise girls who carry folders of whatever color and design they like best. Who have the power and authority to say, "real friends don't pressure friends into dates," and believe it. I want to raise girls who grow up carrying pink folders (which they prefer) and black belts.

I'll fork out the dollars to buy expensive school supplies, that's the easy, albeit it pocket-ly painful, part. If only all the good sense I need in the coming years was as easy to pull out of a wallet and hand over to a clerk to pay the bill.

I have to trust I have a card with enough balance on it in my wallet for that sense. I will trust it. I will also trust my loving friends, who go ahead of me and can advise.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Keeping Stress from Kids

It's been a little stressful around here lately.

My husband's car, which we just invested a couple grand in back in the Spring with hope it could last a couple more years, went kaput. Both of us are working a lot, and let's just say that while we're glad for employment, the dollar doesn't stretch like it used to. Due to emergencies like the car, some of the less pressing "need to dos" for our house keep getting pushed further down the priority list, which is a bit of an issue. You know, life. Life is a little rough around the edges for a lot of us.

As adults, we're more or less equipped to deal with it. Age brings perspective, and if you're lucky, a good set of tools and community to lean on while dealing with it.

Kids don't have this, though.

It's hard to say no to kids about things you once said yes to. It's hard to cut things from their lives that you all once enjoyed. You know it's a good example, and the right thing to do, but that doesn't make it easy.

It actually adds to the stress, the stress you are trying to keep from them.

Kids can have a natural obliviousness, but they can also have a sharp perception.

What I think I've noticed most of all with our kids, as we navigate through the current choppy waters and "crisis management fire fighting" stage we're in, is that our kids are aware that we're stressed and that there are some challenges, but they remain light-hearted and typical of themselves. When I puzzled over this, I decided the truth is, they have what they need and they trust that we (me and my husband) will manage it. They see us working at solutions, and taking breaks to do things such as build a tent in the playroom for fun or watch a movie while eating ice cream out of the carton -- together.

I don't think you can really keep stress from kids, but I do think you can make it a sort of "not their problem" deal so they don't get stressed out themselves.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Love is king, but is content?

This image is from Shelly's Pybop "Content strategy Success in 5 Steps." It's a really clear visual of the flow and process that I think is crucial. It's very worth studying.

This week I've been training nonprofit arts groups in the art of social media. In one section, I discussed "worthy content." I flinched a wee bit as I did so. There's plenty of worthy content out there that barely sees the light, and there's plenty of unworthy content that sees way too much light. Who am I to judge?

The consumer of said content.

That said, it's subjective.

But people want a formula.

So there's a book.

Ann Hadley & C.C. Chapman wrote a book, Content Rules. In the words of Beth Kanter,
The book shares the secrets to creating good content on social channels that engages your audiences. They offer principles, how-to steps and tips, and case studies. My favorite chapter is “Reimagine: Don’t Recycle: Anatomy of Content Circle of Life.”
Beth does a fairly detailed review, so you can read that at her site.

I'm more intrigued by the question one of the authors, Ann, asks, "Can you have a social media strategy without a content strategy?"

For what it's worth, here are a few things I've learned after doing this for a few years:

1. We do need to create good and interesting content. It starts with listening though. It's more important to share what your community needs and wants to hear. Just as in any other real conversation.

2. You need an overall communications strategy. Within that, you need a social media strategy and within that, you need a content strategy. These all aim to achieve the ultimate goals of your organization and need to be designed to work together. They should not be niched in silos.

3. Within each strategy, you need well-designed and organized tactics that aim to achieve the strategy.

Are these statements of the obvious? Sure.

But they also answer the question. You do need a plan.

In a training class yesterday, I talked about creating a micro content strategy. Working with arts groups, I talked about looking at your calendar for the year, and deciding which pieces you wanted to do social outreach for, then determine your strategy and within that, design your tactics.

For example, a theater group might do four plays in a regular season, but beyond that they might have an apprentice program for youth. That's a great point of outreach. It offers interesting content, compelling visuals, and a group you can likely reach in social media. It enables the organization to humanize their social media, show ways their community can engage beyond merely viewing shows, and opens up opportunities for interaction, especially if they do a special event such as live improv (opportunity for crowdsourcing in advance, for example).

The point of creating a strategy for the content is to ensure that each action and tactic remain focused on the ultimate objective and work to accomplish this goal as well as the overarching organization goals.

You can have social media with a strategy, and you can have content without a strategy, but how well will it work, and ensure your organization accomplishes your main goals? Not that well, in my experience.

So what do you think? Can you have a social media strategy without a content strategy? To answer and win your copy of Content Rules, please comment on the Zoetica site.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Curious Case of Delicate Steve (and what it may teach us about PR and pr)

On All Things Considered, Frannie Kelley told a story about a band she learned about from a press release. Except, it turned out, the story was very little to do with the band and very much about the press release.

Delicate Steve is a sort of indie instrumental style, based on the clips I've heard. It's mostly upbeat, I think, and reminds me a lot of movie soundtracks. If you like Badly Drawn Boy, I think you'd like this. The band is lead by Steve Marion. Steve is a 23-year old Jersey boy who plays multiple instruments. Steve is currently on tour.

But that's not what the press release said.

The press release was conceived of by Yale Evelev, who runs the label Luaka Bop, and executed by Chuck Klosterman, former Spin writer, and author of two books (Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story).

Yale Evelev thinks band bios are boring. Frannie Kelley quotes him as saying:
"I've watched how writers write about things," Evelev says. "[With instrumental music] they are left with just kind of describing a sound. We thought it would be interesting if we kind of came up with something that they could grab onto a little bit more."

"And I thought, since I'm really tired of bios for bands," he says, "wouldn't it be great just to tell Chuck to write whatever the hell he wanted as a bio for the band? So I wrote him an email and I said, 'Chuck, would you do a bio for Delicate Steve? You don't have to talk to the band and you don't even have to hear the record.' He wrote me back: 'I don't do bios.' And then, 2 minutes later, he wrote back again: 'Wait a minute. Do you mean I don't have to talk to the band or listen to the record? That's AWESOME! OK, I'll do it!'"
The press release uses hyperbole along with random strings of words loosely hung together in a fashion reminiscent of a metaphor. In fact, if I knew Chuck Klosterman, I might know that yes, indeed, he is having a Lewis Carroll phase. For example,
Like a hydro-electric Mothra rising from the ashes of an African village burned to the ground by post-rock minotaurs, the music of Delicate Steve will literally make you the happiest person who has never lived.
"They were just sitting around in lawn chairs, dressed like 19th century criminals, casually saying the most remarkable things," recalls Glasspiegel. "It was wild. It was obtuse. One fellow would say, `Oh, I like Led Zeppelin III, but it skews a little dumptruck.' Then another would say, `The problem with those early Prince albums is that he spent too much time shopping.' I really had no idea what they were talking about, but it all somehow made sense. `We'll be a different kind of group," they said. `We will introduce people to themselves. We'll inoculate them from discourse.'
Reading these two examples, you might think, "My 4 year old's cat could grasp this was satire of some sort." You'd think the media would do some due diligence to prevent them from buying it hook, line and sinker. You'd think they'd Google the band at least.

I don't know what each individual outlet did, but if you Google the band, they're real. Also? Quirky.

But then you read a line such as this one from the press release
Those studio sessions led to Wondervisions, the indescribable 12-track instrumental debut that reconstructs influences as diverse as Yes, Vampire Weekend, The Fall, Ravi Shankur, 10 cc, The Orbital, Jann Hammer, the first half of OK Computer, the second act of The Wizard of Oz, and the final pages of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.
and you think, okay,'s just a copywriter who really wants to be Franzen and the record label is just quirky enough to let the writer take the facts and write them uber-creatively.

Certainly a lot of media did. Frannie Kelley admits she was nearly hoodwinked, along with others
A lot of music writers ignored it – as they do most press releases. But many of the rock clubs and venues that booked Delicate Steve published the release – in full – on their web sites, no questions asked. And some people that cover music got taken, including NPR. We fell for the 40 instruments line. So were we all just lazy?
The fallout

Kelley ponders whether media is lazy, and asks whether this was a good-natured prank or a lie.

I think Klosterman uses his words really well to answer that:
"The whole idea of public relations is to stop journalism," says Klosterman. "It's to basically give journalists an opportunity to write something without really asking any critical questions or investigating at all. It's really antithetical to journalism. So that's why doing this ... I mean, I wouldn't say it's really a media hoax or something because no one in the media really cared."
Kelley replies:
I care. And I bet all of the other writers and people who buy music and tickets to shows out there who fell for this fiction care too.
Klosterman adds:
"One person asked me, 'Will you feel bad if someone goes to this show or buys this record based on the fact that you wrote this fictional piece? And then you're kind of ripping them off in a way.' I'll be honest — I don't feel bad. Because to me, I've probably helped that person to learn that you should not make consumer decisions based on some random media message that someone just fabricated for no reason. And I'm just not talking about my press release, I'm kind of talking about all press releases."
Oh. So Klosterman's existential disdain of public relations and press releases not only explains but also validates his actions. Never mind that he and the label utterly missed the whole boat and completely failed the client...the band, remember Delicate Steve?

Missed a boat so big it makes caribbean cruise ships look minuscule

It's true that the purpose of press releases is to spin positively. It's also true that, if only facts were cited in a straight up list, stories are often fairly boring, or mundane at least.

Look at two presentations of me, for example:

Julie -- suburban, work from home mom of two with a college degree, some advanced education

versus my Twitter Bio

Julie -- Has words, not afraid to use them, liberally & civilly. Believes in always having fresh pico de gallo at hand, re-lyricing popular music, & potty training cats.

Both are true. One is a litany of facts, with no character to them. The other displays individuality. One is a paper cutout. The other is a real human being, who someone might like to know more about.

And that's the real purpose of a press release: to take what's there -- really there, as in the truth -- and pull out the best bits, then put them together in a really intriguing and attention-getting way. Because that's the number one purpose of a press release: to be so interesting that you capture media attention, who then share their newfound enthusiasm with the masses, thereby introducing your client to the world--hopefully then achieving X goal (such as album sales or club bookings).

It's not that clever to manufacture an utter fiction, designed to be so outlandish that people read it just for the jaw-dropping crazy of it. Any writer worth his or her salt can do that.

I'm not sure what Klosterman, or more Evelev, were going for here other than a self-congratulatory "aren't we clever." What they achieved was a gimmick. Delicate Steve is, in fact, the sort of music NPR might include at the end of a broadcast or in All Music Considered. But I imagine Kelley is going to be very reluctant to give any press releases from Luaka Bop any attention.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

What it should highlight (and what we should learn)

The real issue, the most valid point, is trust and ethics. When I write a blog post, a press release, a story, etc. I am ethically obligated to the truth. I may make a mistake or use a faulty resource. My bad, and I'd correct it. But I'd never betray my readers or media connections by deliberately misleading them. I'd never send out a press release without meeting the client, getting to know who they are and what they do. I am fairly skilled at pulling interesting stories out of people that truly highlight the neat ways in which they are amazing.

Because everyone has something amazing in their lives, in some way.

And as a storyteller, that's my job: to get the amazing story and find the right way to present it to the right people.

When I get a press release, I need to be able to trust that when I dig through the spin, there's truth and accuracy in there. For example, in my last blog post, I cited some statistics about women in tech. I got those from my source. I need to be able to trust that my source is being honest. I do have an obligation to think critically about the information--depending--and figure out if the numbers are the whole story, for example.

But let's be honest, it's a hurry-up world.

I know my responsibility and I don't shirk it, on either side of the press release. It's true that we've gotten to a place in which media is likely to run full throttle with a press release with little to no research, especially about a topic such as a new band. It's also true that resources are stretched thin.

Press releases may look like a good suspect, but they aren't the actual murderer of journalism.

I expect the murder investigation will reveal that the death of journalism was very Orient Express, with a lot of factors taking a stab at it. In this case, Lying dealt the worst blow.

The truth

The truth has fallen to the wayside in pursuit of a larger agenda.

A United States Senator publicly yelled out a completely, not even close to true, statistic to fulfill his own personal agenda. Later, when called on it, he said he didn't intend the statement to be factual.

Are you kidding me?

He sacrificed the truth on the altar of personal agenda, just as Klusterman and Evelev have done.

The world is not a big psychology experiment, in which you can behave any old way just to make or fulfill a point. You can't lie, and lie big, and say it's someone else's fault for buying it.

The person at fault is the liar.

Here's a short recap of what's wrong:
Blaming the victim

Here's a short recap of what's right:
Being professional
Being accurate

I have only hypotheses about potential ramifications of this fake bio press release, except for one: lost trust.

It's lazy and small-minded to fall back on lies to be persuasive, because you can't think how to make the truth interesting and compelling enough.

Be better than that. Be truthful and compelling.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

There are girls in tech...but there can be more (with your support)

While researching girls in tech topics, I consistently run across these awesome women doing so many things in tech...around the world. For example, while searching Twitter for Girls in Tech (on any given day) I found an international array of people supporting girls in tech in Indonesia, Africa, Asia, Israel and more. I set up Google alerts for the same search and was bombarded. I ran across a great article that explained in Africa, across the continent, young women lead the tech scene. The Silicon Sisters just released a new iOS game, made by women for girls. You've got Girls in Tech with chapters spreading around the US.

But then we see a few other sides to the story, too.
And there are the statistics:
  • Girls represented just 18 percent of Advanced Placement computer science (CS) exam-takers in 2009; that’s the lowest female representation of any AP exam.
  • In 2009 women earned only 18 percent of all CS degrees. Back in 1985, women earned 37 percent of CS degrees.
  • Women hold more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S. but only 25 percent of all computing-related occupations.
  • Only 11 percent of corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 technology companies are held by women.
  • A study on U.S. technology patenting reveals that patents created by mixed-gender teams are the most highly cited (an indicator of their innovation and usefulness); yet women were involved in only 9 percent of U.S. tech patents.

Is it two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward and two steps back? I think depends upon the day. And how much is talk and how much is walk.

Today is the day I walk instead of just talk. It's time.

I joined the NextGen Tech Women team with Danny Brown, Geoff Livingston and Allyson Kapin, along with Kami Watson Huyse, and a growing number of others, to support girls in technology, specifically, real girls, at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). NCWIT is a coalition of over 250 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase the participation of girls and women in computing and IT. They offer Aspiration Awards (among others) each year, with a financial prize, for young women who aspire, and are, working in technology (any type, and it is varied!).

And we, through NextGen Tech Women, are supporting them by trying to raise $25,000 to help this next generation of women fulfill their tech dreams. They're incredible. Check out a few of the recent winners:

Amanda is a senior at the prestigious Kansas Academy for Math and Science. She advocates for continued funding for her school at the state legislature, is an engineer on her school robotics team, and is proficient in Photoshop, Indesign, and web design including HTML. In addition to her challenging academic schedule, Amanda works on a college level research project involving researching web and graphic design technologies for the Paola Tourism association. She receives college credit for her work at KAMS and plans to study computer science and information technology when she enters college in the fall.

Arushi joined a lego robotics team at age nine, and has immersed herself in computer science since. She’s participated in science fairs since third grade, her most recent entry using image processing techniques and machine learning to diagnose melanoma cancer. She's working with Intel, and published a paper in 2008 titled, "Using fuzzy Quantum Logic to Learn Facial Gestures of a Schrödinger Cat Puppet for Robot Theatre” at the 17th International workshop on Post-Binary ULSI Systems in Dallas, Texas.

Daria will graduate this year from the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology. She started her school’s first all-female robotics team — robo chic. She's primarily interested in biomedical engineering, which led her to an internship with dr. Andrew B. Williams and the SpelBots at Spelman college in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is programming an exercising humanoid robot as an intervention method for the childhood obesity epidemic.

I'm impressed and eager to see these young women walk into our future, bringing their incredible creativity, intelligence and drive to benefit us!!

Join me in supporting them -- I'm hoping to get 10 people to give $10, and hoping each of those ten people will ask ten others to give $10 (even $1 helps!). (PS I'm competing against my team for fundraising so every dollar helps me keep my current lead! Check it out: My Team on Crowdrise)

Thank you!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Great Love Story: The Young and the Chemical

Driving home from school with my girls is what I think of Quality Catchup Time but they probably think of (or will soon) as Suffer the Mom Inquisition. The latter title comes from an inside family joke about Suffer the Mom Love, which is when I give hugs to children and pets because they want and need them even as they pretend they don't. Trust me, I can tell the difference and respect a sincere no but give a smiling "Oh Moooooooommmmm" a good squeeze.

While in the van, I ask each girl very specific questions so as to avoid potential monosyllabic responses.

My younger daughter has been trying out her storytelling skills and we've been working on the "that's a great story, what a neat imagination" distinction from "that really happened, how interesting."

Sometimes it's hard to tell. Such as in the telling of the story/report from the other day:

Daughter: Today I have a romantic tale! *giggles*

Me: A...romantic tale?

Daughter: Yes! *giggles*

Me: All righty then, let's hear it!

Daughter: At recess Jane* and Jim* had to sit on the bench!

Me: And that's romantic how? Because it's a boy and girl on the bench together? (Wondering if I need to define romance.) (Wondering where she picked up the word.) (Was it home? Valentine's Day? Elsewhere?)

Daughter: Moooooomm, no it's because they were kissing!

Me: They were kissing on the bench?

Daughter: NO! They were on the bench because they were kissing.

Me: Maybe you should start from the beginning. Set the scene, where were you, who was there, what were you all doing, and then what happened...

Daughter: We were playing family outside (names cast of characters and roles) and then Jane said to Jim that they could be the mommy and daddy because they were in love.

Me: Wow, really? She said that? They're in love? How long has this been going on?

Daughter: A long time! All week!

Me: That long! I wonder what the one week anniversary gift is!

Daughter: What? Mom, are you talking to the wall again? (This is what they say when I sotto voce.)

Me: No no just saying go on...

Daughter: And then Jane said they should go to a romantic spot and kiss. So they did.

Me: What? Wait, really? Jane said "go to a romantic spot" just like that?

Daughter: Yes she did!

Older daughter: Oh GAH your class is crazy. What is with all the kissing and romance?

Daughter: We aren't crazy, we're chemical.

Me: Chemistry, baby, you have good chemistry.

Older daughter: Whatever they have I hope it's not catching! What if the whole school went that crazy.

Me: I think you're safe, sweetie. So listen, Jane said go to a romantic spot and then what happened, no, wait, what is a romantic spot?

Older daughter: Mom, you don't know? It's a spot. That's romantic.

Me: Right, I get that, thanks. I meant, what, specifically, is a romantic spot there, like where did they go?

Daughter: To the pirate ship.

Me (impressed): Wow, the pirate ship, that's definitely got romantic potential, pretty good thinking on Jane's part. So what did Jim think.

Daughter: Jim thought it was a pretty good idea and he grabbed her hand and they ran.

Me (choking laughter)

Daughter: Then they thought it was private and romantic so she kissed him and he kissed her but the teacher saw and she said "I have said and said no kissing so to the bench Jane and Jim!"

Me: So that's the end of that I guess.

Daughter: No, they were happy to be on the bench because they were together. Even though they couldn't play. Or kiss.

And I was touched, really, that was sort of sweet. Also, really really awesome because not my kids!

* Names have been changed.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

In which Hollywood plays the best April Fool's Day joke ever: Hop

Yesterday, after an admirably long run of successfully avoiding April Fool's Day pranks, I got punk'd but good by Hollywood. I went to go see the new movie for kids: Hop.

Ha ha Hollywood, you really tricked me with your great cast lineup, all of whom had me totally fooled that they'd never do anything except creative and clever cinema. I was lulled into a false sense of security between that and the Toy Story series. That's the best con, you know: get to know your mark, build a sense of trust and then WHAMMO!

I fell for it! You got me with your con of "worthwhile artistic cinema."

Friday afternoon, I made one of those infamous "it seemed like a great idea at the time" decisions. I joined a group of friends and we took a gaggle (honestly, it was a gaggle -- I lost count at the sheer number; I know I brought four and it seems as if everyone else brought about that many too) of kids to see Hop.

If you have kids, you probably won't be able to avoid this movie. To which I say I am so, so sorry. I felt the compulsion last night to watch The Caller, in an effort to slipcover the empty calorie crap that was the "I Want Candy" scene in Hop. And that might have been the closest to comedic (my apologies to comedy) moment. That's two hours and about $40 I'll never be able to get back. I thought, as mothers like to think, that my children's enjoyment would be enough. Yeah, it wasn't.

My husband later asked, "How was it so bad?"

Me: I don't know, I mean, right? So much talent and creativity, such potential to build a new myth and this is what they come up with!

Him: No, I mean, what I meant was...what was wrong with it?

Me: The easier question to answer is what was right with it.

Him: Okay so...?

Me: The animation was impressive.

Him: And...?

Me: I don't think any real bunnies or chicks were harmed in the making of the movie. Although, they sort of owe the entire animal kingdom an apology, maybe a big donation to an animal rescue organization, sort of "damages for pain and suffering," and maybe also to some parents group, for the same thing, and also for defamation of character.

Him: That bad?

Me: Oh yeah. Thready and pathetic story line, unredeemable and unlikeable characters, and an unapologetic co-opting of the whole Santa myth for the Easter bunny, including the closing line, which was a shameful rip-off of Night Before Christmas. It was the Grey's Anatomy of kids' shows.


Me: ...and then? Set terrible expectations of Easter, candy, baskets, crap and so forth. Do you know what the six year old said to me? She asked why we have to send donations to Japan, can't Santa and the Easter Bunny just help them out! I feel like a salmon parent here, swimming upstream against a riptide!

Him: Do rivers have riptides?

And that right there pretty much sums it up: no, rivers do not have rip tides, oceans do, but sometimes the mouth of a river causes a rip tide. Looking that up was a way better use of time and far more interesting than Hop. I'm just glad I went with friends. Bonding experience.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Delicate Steve Press Release in Its Entirety


Newton, N.J. – Every 30 or 40 or 500 years, the DNA of culture itself emerges from the translucent blackness of the not-so-shallow underground. You hear a new band, and you think, "This is really something. This is like My Bloody Valentine, minus the guitars." But then you think, "No, that's not true. That's not what this is like at all. Plus, there are lots of guitars here. I'm a goddamn idiot." You want to walk away, but now it's too late; now, you start to wonder what makes this music so deeply arresting. You wonder why you are dancing against your will, and you wonder why every other sound you've ever heard suddenly sounds like the insignificant prologue to a moment you're experiencing in the present tense. You find yourself unable to perform the simplest of activities — a cigarette becomes impossible to light, a mewing kitten cannot be stroked, a liverish lover cannot be ignored. By the album's third track, there is nothing left in your life; everything is gone, crushed into a beatific sonic wasteland you never want to escape. This, more than anything else imaginable, is the manifestation of artistic truth ... a truer kind of truth ... the only kind of truth that cannot lie, even with the cold steel of a .357 revolver jammed inside its wet mouth, truculently demanding a random falsehood.

Welcome to the work-a-day world of Delicate Steve.

Like a hydro-electric Mothra rising from the ashes of an African village burned to the ground by post-rock minotaurs, the music of Delicate Steve will literally make you the happiest person who has never lived. Discovered firsthand by Luaka Bop A & R man Wills Glasspiegel in the parking lot of a Newton, N.J., strip mall, Delicate Steve was signed to the label before anyone at Luaka Bop heard even a moment of their music – all he needed to experience was a random conversation about what they hoped to achieve as a musical five-piece.

"They were just sitting around in lawn chairs, dressed like 19th century criminals, casually saying the most remarkable things," recalls Glasspiegel. "It was wild. It was obtuse. One fellow would say, `Oh, I like Led Zeppelin III, but it skews a little dumptruck.' Then another would say, `The problem with those early Prince albums is that he spent too much time shopping.' I really had no idea what they were talking about, but it all somehow made sense. `We'll be a different kind of group," they said. `We will introduce people to themselves. We'll inoculate them from discourse.' I was immediately intrigued. I asked them if they wanted to have dinner, so we walked to a Chinese restaurant that was right up the road. I suggested we all get different dishes and share everything family style. They agreed. But then they ordered five identical entrees! So we sat there and ate a mountain of General Tso's chicken for three straight hours, talking about music and literature and box kites and dystopias. Twenty-four later, they were signed to Luaka and inside a studio."

Those studio sessions led to Wondervisions, the indescribable 12-track instrumental debut that reconstructs influences as diverse as Yes, Vampire Weekend, The Fall, Ravi Shankur, 10 cc, The Orbital, Jann Hammer, the first half of OK Computer, the second act of The Wizard of Oz, and the final pages of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Originally conceived as a radio-friendly concept album about the early life of D.B. Cooper, de facto Delicate Steve leader Steve Marion decided to tear away the lyrics and move everything in a more experimental direction. "We don't need the middlebrow to dig our music," says the soft-spoken Marion. "We write for the fringes – the very, very rich and the very, very poor. That's the audience we relate to, and that's who these songs are about."


Steve Marion, 23 (guitar): A polymath who plays over 40 instruments, Marion recorded his first "bedroom EP" on a four-track as a 12-year-old ("It was sort of a second-rate Slanted and Enchanted," he scoffs today, "and more than a little derivative."). Already a Jersey legendary for his worth-ethic and perfectionism (he once studied a single Jandek guitar riff for an entire summer), Marion's the piston behind Delicate Steve, and — somewhat paradoxically – the group's harshest critic. "I named the band Delicate Steve as a reminder that we've accomplished nothing," he says flatly. "We are as delicate as the wings of a butterfly with AIDS. Anything could crush us. And until we all decide that art is the only thing that makes life livable, we'll just be another instrumental five-piece from New Jersey. Emotionally and intellectually, I'm not sure if the rest of the band is there yet. But I am."

Steve's goal is to create music that lasts "substantially longer than forever."

Mickey Sanchez, 22 (keyboard): A freewheeling hoaxster (and Marion's best friend from Hebrew school), Sanchez provides Delicate Steve with off-kilter music flourishes and a necessary dose of common sense. "Steve can be difficult to work with," says Sanchez, "but I know how to handle that hoss. Sometimes he just needs to look into the mouth of the lion – and I'm the lion." An avid horseback rider and pastry chef, Sanchez also intends to pursue a second-career as a city planner.

Mickey's goal is to make people hate Bruce Springsteen.

Rob Scheuerman, 21 (guitar): Previously featured on axe in the teen-pop power-trio Yesterday's Airport of Tomorrow, Scheuerman is probably better known as the alleged one-time paramour of Gossip Girl star Blake Lively (a rumor he sheepishly denies: "I was too tired to make it. She was too tired to fight about it."). What he adds to the band musically is akin to what he adds personally: cobalt charisma and a hunger for flesh. "Do you remember that old song `I Know What Boys Like' by the Waitresses," he asks. "Well, let's just say the scythe slices both ways."

Rob's goal is to seduce every female journalist he encounters.

Adam Pumilla, 23 (bass): No member of Delicate Steve has taken a more circuitous path than Pumilla. A three-sport athlete who rushed for 1400 yards as a veer option quarterback in high school, Pumilla received scholarship offers from several Big East football powers before opting for a career as a bassist – despite the fact that he'd never played the instrument in his life. "There was always something about the bass," he says today. "Four strings, sublime heaviness, living inside the pocket, locking into the drums. It spoke to me in its own bass language, long before I ever possessed the object itself. I knew that bass guitar was something I could excel at. I am a bassist. I have a bassist's blood." After spending five exploratory years in rural Scotland ("I needed space to invent my bass style"), Pumilla returned to the U.S. and met Marion at Ed Westwick's Halloween party. "I knew he was the man for this band from the moment I met him," recalls Marion. "When he shook my hand to introduce himself, he didn't even say his name. He just said, `Bass.' Just that one word. Nothing else. He was a serious person."

Adam has no defined goal.

Mike Duncan, 21 (percussion): Don't let his boyish looks fool you – Duncan is no choirboy. Raised on a steady diet of Stewart Coupland, Neil Peart and economic desperation, Duncan views drumming as a way to turn his self-described "sociopathic inclinations" into something the world can appreciate. "I love to brawl," he says. "I'll fight anyone, for any reason. I'll fight a dog for no reason. I've seen the inside of juvenile hall. I've tasted blood in my mouth. I've stepped on throats and I've thrown bottles at strangers. But that was all in the past. It's still part of me, but – now – I use that intensity for good. I want to attack people with music the same way I used to attack them with my fists."

Mike's goal is the political liberation of Quebec.


This is a press release, and press releases are supposed to be wholly positive. That's the shared expectation, both from the writer and the reader. Typically, press releases hide a band's true reality. But not this one. We need to be straight with you, potential rock writer: It's hard to predict what will happen to Delicate Steve. Emotions run high in this band, and most of these songs are both too musical and too insane for the typically dim-witted American consumer. In all likelihood, even you won't understand it, because you're probably a fraud. This music doesn't directly threaten the status quo, but it certainly makes the status quo nervous. It's not on par with hearing the Velvet Underground in the summer of 1965, but it's probably like hearing the Velvet Underground in the winter of 1966. Can Delicate Steve become the wordless New Jersey U2? Sure, maybe. But maybe not. There might be too much at stake (and too many people in the way). Still, one listen to Wondervisions will irrefutably prove the only thing you really need to know: Delicate Steve makes music. And in today's awful world, that's almost all that matters. Right?