Monday, August 30, 2010

Things to Say to a Lady In The Family Way

When my boss was expecting her first child a couple of years ago, I really had no idea how to act around her. I had zero friends with kids, I had just gotten married, didn't even know if I wanted kids, and the whole thing was like an alien ritual. I would let her bring the subject up, and try to ask very boring questions. When are you due? Can you still have coffee? And then I would drop the subject like it was hot. I didn't want to ask invasive, annoying questions and display my vast ignorance. At the same time, I wish I had had a stockpile of polite things to ask or say to her just so I wouldn't look like a childhater.

Now that I too am in that delicate condition, and remember how very, very intimidated I was (and still am a lot of the time) by pregnancy conversation, I am very attuned to how people react to my ever-expanding body. There is a funny axis I measure this on:

Blissfully ignorant
Uninterested------------+------------Very very interested

Needless to say - but I'll say it anyway - the vast majority of people fall into the middle or left of this axis. They'll ask about the sex, say something about how fun babies are, and let it go. They'll hold the door, but won't give up a seat on the train. They'll have something charming to say about the experience (e.g. "I was three weeks early, but I think I knew she was coming because I was nesting like crazy"), but don't proselytize.

And, needless to say - but again, I'll say it anyway - there are a few, a very very few, people who do not fall into the middle. There are a few people who fall towards the right of this axis - they are either blissfully ignorant or know-it-all, but one way or the other, they are extremely interested in talking about your pregnancy. The know-it-alls usually have a bunch of kids, or have just had their first and just want to pass along their suddenly infinite wisdom. The blissfully ignorant are usually childfree, but unlike bewildered two-years-ago me, they are chockful of questions or remarks, many of which are wildly inappropriate.

And before anyone reading is like, "OMG IS SHE TALKING ABOUT ME?" - the answer is probably not, because usually you get these remarks from strangers or super-casual acquaintances, like someone on the bus or in your yoga class.

Some examples (and my real or imagined responses):

Know-it-alls: "You're not giving birth in a hospital, are you?" [Unless the baby comes out on the way over there, yes, yes I am.]
Blissfully Ignorant: "So was this pregnancy planned?"
[::Sob:: no and I regret it every day. Will you please take my baby?]
Know-it-alls: "You shouldn't be lifting weights this late in pregnancy." [Whoa, did my doctor get plastic surgery? Because my doctor is cool with my workout regime and you do not look like one bit like my doctor.]
Blissfully Ignorant: "Wow, you're getting huge, you must be due soon. Any minute now, huh? Har har." [I am four months pregnant, actually, but thanks.]
Know-it-alls: "Trust me, you do not want one of these, they are a pain in the ass. Do you want mine? Ha ha ha." [Wait, what? You mean something that my husband and I have worked through two miscarriages, four rounds of Clomid and untold doctor's visits to get to is a pain in the ass? Thank you, good Samaritan! I have reconsidered.]
Blissfully Ignorant: "So are you worried about losing the baby weight?" [I am more worried about keeping a small human alive, not only through the bone-crushing, flesh-tearing adventure that is childbirth, but also for the rest of that human's life. Ask me why I haven't lost the pre-baby weight.]

To be fair, I truly think that most of these comments come from a place of caring and interest. And I am really open to talking about any aspect of my pregnancy with anyone who asks - I will gladly discuss breastfeeding, miscarriage, fertility, weight gain, circumcision - I'm an open, if mostly ignorant, book. But there are some things you should just not say to a pregnant lady, and I think the six remarks/questions above are good examples of the "just-nos" or "find another way to say/ask thises."

On the other hand, I've heard some lovely comments and questions from various people, parents and childfree alike. I'm sure some would disagree with my assessment of all of the below as appropriate, but I say, you can always say "I can't," or "we're not really ready to talk about that," or whatever. For example:


  • "Wow, that's so exciting. Congratulations."

  • "You look great." [Never fails.]

  • "I would try to take a long leave if you can. I took 10 weeks and it goes by so fast."

  • "I know a great maternity store/book/pre-natal masseuse you should check out."

  • "My sister was also born in August and my mother really found swimming relaxing."

  • "Oh, my brother's wife is due in February, she just passed through her morning sickness phase." [or some kind of story about someone you know - no birth horror stories plz]


  • "Are you excited?"

  • "How are you feeling?" [So simple!]

  • "What's your plan for the birth?" [Please don't be judgmental if you don't like the answer.]

  • "Do you know the sex? Will you find out?"

  • "Are you picking out a name ahead of time? Are you keeping it a secret?"

  • "So what doctor are you seeing? Do you like him/her?" [If a local]

My perspective is slightly compounded by the fact that I try not to speak about my pregnancy unless spoken to or asked about it* - I would hate to end up on stfuparents. Doing a facebook pregnancy announcement was scary for me because I was sure I would jinx something and it felt so indulgent, I almost decided I didn't want to do it at all. Other than that, I'm trying to stay as classy as a 40lb-heavier+ragingly-hormonal+overheated person can possibly stay for the next few months.

And then, hoping all goes well, I'll get to listen to strangers talk to me about parenting instead of pregnancy. Except instead of nine months of unsolicited advice and judgment, I'll get a lifetime of it.

Can't wait!

*I know, no one solicited this damn post. But I consider it to be a PSA on behalf of expecting mothers everywhere. Hope it helps!

I Hate Myself so You Will Love Me

I am going through the academic hazing ritualright-of-passage writing my materials for the academic job market. For those who have never seen this process, it consists of boiling down all of your research into as few paragraphs as possible in such a way as to seem interesting to someone who might have no knowledge of what you study. In other words, describing an article in no more than two sentences, a book in a few paragraphs, and your future research in something akin to a tweet. Needless to say, it's not fun boiling down my life in the past six years to, ideally, nothing more than a paragraph each (though, I am unlikely to succeed at this goal).

All this is to say that I am really sick of thinking about myself. I don't know what it is like to be on the Bachelorette, but I imagine it to be akin to this experience. I spend days agonizing over and polishing my image so that some member of a hiring committee will like me and, if she doesn't, I'm tossed to the side.

At the same time, I am very fortunate to have a job and to have prospects for one in the future. I cannot imagine what it is like to be one of the thousands of people in the United States who have been writing similar letters for over two years with no employment prospects in sight. I guess, in that perspective, there's not much I should be complaining about

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bureaucracy and Cupcakes

I love food trucks. So I started following my faves on twitter. The day I started following Buttercream, a popular and delicious cupcake truck, owner Kate Carrara's followers were alerted to a trying situation for the dessert-peddler: the cops and the City's Department of Licensing and Inspection, who had given Carrara a warning about not being able to vend in a particular spot a few weeks prior, drove her truck away from said spot in her presence. She paid $200 to retrieve the truck.


It's the kind of thing that, if anyone besides cops had done it, would basically be robbery and grand theft auto.

Granted, Carrara should have made sure she was in the right place. But the bigger issue, she says, is knowing where she is allowed to vend. The city's labyrinthine maps and codes do not make this at all clear to a lay person/small business owner/anyone. In a functioning city, a permitted vendor should be able to call up the proper department, name a spot, and be told definitively whether one can vend there or not.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia has not historically been the best example of transparent city government in our great nation. Among the comments in the Inquirer story linked above: "She should have just paid off the L&I everyone else does" - ouch. But this city, including L&I, seems to suffer continuously from stories of corruption and incompetence.

We could say that Carrara is planting this story as a stunt, a campaign to raise her business' profile and drum up sympathy, and, therefore, publicity. But even if she is, it's working for me. This is a woman, a small business owner, who already has a cadre of followers in a city that is notorious for bad government. Even if she's overselling the story, the mere facts are enough to make me feel that the city is more concerned about padding its coffers than helping citizens sustain their livelihoods and making Philadelphia a nice place to live.

Team Buttercream.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dog Day Disappointments: A Listicle-Link Dump Combo

With limited commentary, please allow me to present a top-ten list of petty/petit bourgeois annoyances* that always seem to rear their ugly heads and stick their tongues out at me - and maybe also at you, yes, you! - in August, the year's crappiest and most inappropriately named month.

10. Paying your third electric bill of the summer, oh hello air-conditioning overuse
9. Humidity-induced makeup-smeared faces resembling infected characters in Outbreak
8. Realizing that Outbreak came out 15 years ago and you are therefore old for thinking about it
7. Lazy kneejerk political ads, especially ads produced by people with whom you usually agree
6. Doing everyone else's work while they are on sweet vacations (#7 might be related)
5. Sweating without provocation - like, when you are sitting down doing absolutely nothing
4. No built-in three-day weekends like "4th of July weekend" or "Labor Day weekend"
3. The thundering sound of 1,000 18 year olds setting foot onto campus for the first time
2. Reading the sucky news: I mean, you've got your slow news days, and slow news weeks, but August may be the only slow news month**
1. Biting into a bad peach

* They really are petty. The pettiest things you can imagine. I was grumpy this morning and thought it would be funny and possibly therapeutic to draw them out.
** And by slow I don't just mean fluffy stories, I mean stretching stories out until they are unrecognizable. I mean how long have we been talking about this "ground zero mosque that is neither at ground zero nor a mosque" (h/t Mike3550 and maybe Keith Olbermann, too, I think, probably others, for the Coffee Talk joke).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Thoughts on Settling: A Union Armistice

I find it difficult to explain my job to people. There are two levels of confusion. The higher level of confusion is that of people who don't really know what North American unions do, either because they didn't grow up around them or they are from another country. The lower level of confusion is that of people who understand unions but don't understand my job, either from an union-hating perspective or an ally perspective. I admit it is not a job that a lot of people, even union staff, have. I'd say 500 people in the entire country, tops, have this kind of job.

I would describe myself as a strategic campaigner. I design and implement campaigns, develop strategy, do research, build industrial and political relationships, and even (most exciting of all) put data into spreadsheets. I don't negotiate contracts, or process dues, or organize workers myself. ("Huh?" Never mind, I'm a computer programmer. How about this weather we're having?)

But more confusing than my job has been the context in which I have been doing it for the past few years. Before 2008, I had never been part of a merger/acquistion, or a hostile takeover, or an open internecine battle of any kind. But one opened up right before my eyes, a harsh and emotional and difficult struggle. And, after much consideration, I took a side, risking personal and professional relationships that meant a lot to me. I took a side because I believed it was the right thing to do. I would do it again.

Still, it's hard to explain to people what actually happened. The short story is, the elected leader of our organization wanted to continue to run it, but he didn't have the votes to do it, so he took his staff and merged with another, bigger organization, asserting jurisdiction over the same industries that we had organized for years (as well as moving funds and other assets).

If we were talking about a company, these actions might have been seen as a betrayal, but entirely legitimate. It's sort of like (spoiler alert, slowpokes) the last season of Mad Men - people who consider themselves visionaries feel like they are losing control of their world, and they are losing it to people they do not like very much. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce split off to compete for clients and market share. It felt exciting, adventurous, pioneering.

I think that is what some people who decided to leave might have felt. That this was a new energy, a manifest destiny of some sort.

The problems with this line of thinking are (perhaps among others):

1) We're talking about an organization that is accountable to people who serve food and clean toilets for a living, people who would rather see their dues money go towards servicing and organizing, not towards fighting over the right to represent them. These are people whose livelihoods - health insurance, wages, pensions - are directly affected by union decisions. They are not wealthy Lucky Strikes shareholders who have an extensive portfolio that can easily weather an advertising flub.

2) The sense of "competition" in trade unionism is not what it is in business. The movement is stronger when there is real organizing by jurisdiction - an "economy" of scale, an expertise in the industries, strength in numbers. Unlike in business, competition in the union world actually creates stagnation.

3) It was not really a pioneering move. An analogy would read as follows: the American colonies mustered an army to fight for independence from England, only to be colonized by Spain three days later and try to take over the colonies under the Spanish flag. There is no independence, just an opportunity to get away from and even do battle with England, and affiliate with a larger organization that has a history of brutally swallowing up its affiliates.

So I am mostly glad that there is now a settlement that, by and large, restores what's right. But I hope some lessons were learned all around. I know what I've learned.

1) Nothing beats fantastic organizing.
2) Some compromise is almost always inevitable, even when you know you are in the right.
3) Even after an armistice, there are things to be worked out. No settlement settles everything.
4) Take pride in your beliefs. You don't have to be an evangelist, but defend your convictions when called upon to do so.
5) It's worth saying again - nothing beats fantastic organizing. Ever. For anything.