Dear US: Divided We Fall – Now What? – November 9, 2016

In the wake of the United States’ staggering election of an apparently unqualified, sexist, racist hate-monger, I feel abandoned by my fellow Americans. As a woman, I feel that no matter how hard I try or how qualified I am, I will always have to fight harder for a lesser result.

In addition to feeling absolutely heartbroken, I am also scared. Uncertainty is terrible for economies and societies, and we just served ourselves a heaping portion of it.

Although my initial feelings are fear and despair, I hope they will fade and be replaced by determination, hope, and drive to take action. Because giving in to fear is a terrible response, and falling into anger is even worse. That is how entire societies fall apart. And ours is falling apart. That is how this vicious election happened in the first place.

I offer this prayer for myself and ALL my fellow Americans:

May I choose not to live inside the hate machine.
May I save my energy for worthwhile action instead of escalating
pointless arguments.
May I take positive action when you are not looking, and when you are looking too.
May I wish the best for you…. but may I wish the best for the country as a whole more.

May I admit that I am not the arbiter of what “the best” is.
May I let shouting and rhetoric slip past me like fog and focus on what is substantial and real.
May I not participate in violent words, thoughts, beliefs, or actions. May I oppose them whenever I can, to the extent I can.
May I say the truth as I see it.
May I pray, and stay steady, and trust that the clouds will part and we will remember we are all linked together on this adventure.
May I keep loving you and hope you will keep loving me.
May I try to lift you up instead of shoving you down.
May I replace complaints with ideas.
May I replace hate with hope.
May I not
give up.

This essay and prayer were originally published in The Coffeelicious on Medium.

Finding the Courage to Leave My 9-5 and Find Balance – September 2, 2016

“You are so full of fears,” my ex-boyfriend said.

He was right. That time, I was afraid of drinking a beer on the beach. I was afraid we’d get caught. Booked. Handcuffed. Tarred and feathered. Unable to be employed ever again.

I thought potential missteps were my kryptonite.

I was wrong. Fear was my kryptonite, because in the end, my fears destroyed my relationship, which I cared about much more than my job.

I wasn’t always full of fear. In my twenties, I moved across the country with no job and no apartment lease, intending to stay permanently. I wrote what I wanted. I said what I thought. Everything worked out.

Then I went to grad school.

I accepted a scholarship that required me to get a particular type of job for two years afterward. As soon as I signed the paperwork, I regretted it. Even after I graduated and got a job, I felt constrained. If I resigned or was fired before two years elapsed, I’d owe a portion of my grad-school tuition.

Fear ruled my life. I was afraid to do anything even slightly outside the lines. Because of strict rules about accepting gifts or credit, I was afraid to do normal things too: split a check at a restaurant with friends; go on a date with someone in my field; even open a bank account. Starting a side business was out of the question.

Eventually, I was afraid to communicate how desperately unhappy I was becoming. My career was going well, and six years had passed instead of two, but I was feeling farther and farther from who and what I wanted to be outside of work. My relationship had failed, I’d had a health scare that impressed on me the uncertainty of life, and I knew it was now or never.

Of course, I was afraid to leave my job. But I was more afraid of continuing to march down the wrong path without taking time to explore alternatives. The farther I’d walked down that path, the more fears I had accumulated. That felt like a “Wrong Way” sign. Life should be a process of busting through fears, not building a monument to them.

After leaving my job, and after the initial jolt of relief and freedom, I kept expecting to wake up and also feel fear about my decision to leave. But I never did. I felt stress, sure, and uncertainty. But the suffocating fear of holding myself back was gone.

The only fear left was, “What would my former coworkers think of what I’m doing?” And, yes, it limited me. It took 18 months for that fear to lighten enough for me to rediscover creativity.

I still feel that fear, but the more I face it and produce my work, the more I realize it is possible to be a full human being and still be accepted. That’s the greatest positive feeling I could have, like a spark inside me that keeps growing the more of myself I reveal. It’s a fact of life that some people are just not going to like me, no matter what I do. So I might as well do the things that are pulling at my soul.

This essay was originally published in Medium’s Hello Fears publication on September 2, 2016.

50 Shades of Going Gray – August 17, 2016

I dyed my hair. I promised myself I’d never do it. I was 24 when I made the promise, and just two silver strands reminded me I’d someday grow old.

Through my thirties, my hair stayed mostly brown. I cut silver hairs with small scissors as they appeared, sweeping the evidence into the trash. But in front, dead center, it was undeniable. A white streak was blooming, and my hairstylist told me if I kept cutting hairs there, I’d get a bald spot. I had to let it grow in.

I stopped snipping as much as possible, except when I had a special event, meeting or date. I tried to snip only the white strands and none of the surrounding brown ones, but I never succeeded.

Snip. Snip. Snip. More hairs turned white each week. A clear streak ran from the top of my forehead to the cowlick I inherited from my dad.

It’s amazing how a few veins of white hair can erase a woman from the world. I struggled with the idea of looking 10 years older because of 100 strands of hair. I also struggled with the knowledge that I could erase those strands, like a sketch with a few wrong lines. I cared, and I was beating myself up for caring.

I visited my haircutter. I told him the white streak was bothering me more than I’d expected. He suggested I was too low-maintenance to start a cycle of appointments to cover roots. I agreed; I get my hair cut two or three times a year and go natural the rest of the time.

But I wanted to dye the streak. I asked if a conditioner could apply gold color subtly to the white strands. Then I could do it over time in the shower, mimicking my summer highlights.

That product exists. But it only exists in crazy colors like blue, purple and red.

We joked about dyeing my entire mane lilac, fulfilling my fantasy of a crazy, spiky ‘do. But I’m afraid if I cover up my natural hair I’ll never see its real color again. I still envision allowing my hair to go silver-white someday.

So he suggested dyeing my hair a light gold with semipermanent gel. The gel would turn white hairs gold wherever they grew, but would not cover my normal brown shade. My hair would look shinier, and the dye would fade over two months, blending into any roots.

It was a way to try new things without getting locked in forever. I let him mix the gel and tried not to panic when I saw its carrot-orange color. With it applied to my scalp and a plastic bag over my head, I looked like a bright freak. I wondered what it would look like if it dried that way.

It worked better than I’d hoped. The end result was not carrot orange. It looked subtle, a gold that covered only white hairs, just as promised. Walking down the street afterward, I felt five times as visible and immeasurably more confident.

I’ll probably dye my hair again. I can’t give up such a simple solution to my aging insecurities. I feel like a traitor to my younger self, and to the older woman I’ll be someday, but I feel more like myself than ever.

This essay was originally published in Medium’s The Coffeelicious publication.

The Art of Imperfection – February 9, 2015

I took art classes in high school with an amazing teacher. Several of my classmates became illustrators.

I didn’t. I studied journalism instead. But I never forgot the most important lesson from Mr. Hess.

I messed up an art project during my senior year. I’d spent weeks outlining a harbor scene in pencil, then shading it in colored pencil, and I’d just done something immensely stupid. I zig-zagged a dark red pencil across the sun’s rays because I wasn’t paying attention. It was ruined.

Mr. Hess didn’t seem upset. He was zen calm. “Just keep working on it,” he said. I tried to explain that it was a waste of time to keep working on it, because it was ruined. He wouldn’t listen.

“Find a way to integrate it with your artwork,” he said.

I didn’t want to integrate it. It was a mistake, that giant red slash, and I wanted to go back in time and remove it and have my beautiful sun rising over the ocean, serene and perfect.

That was impossible. So I sat down in a chair and picked up my pencils and tried to figure out what the heck to do now. I started doodling around with the red slash, tracing a pencil lightly over it. I shaded a nearby ray darker, the one most affected by the slash, until it was nearly red. I traced some letters into another ray of the sun, erasing where I could and blending where I couldn’t.

In the end, my art project won an award at the year-end show. It was much better than my initial, bland vision of a serene sun rising over a serene sea. It was a chaotic scene, with dark orange and red and yellow rays alternating, and messages engraved in them spiraling out toward the edge of the canvas.

Mr. Hess was right. It’s impossible to mess up an art project if you keep working on it. Even if you tear the paper in half, that’s just a new starting point. You always arrive at another place. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s worse. It’s life. And it doesn’t become great through perfection and planning.

This post also appeared in Medium’s Coffeelicious publication. 

What I Wish I Knew About Computer Science in High School – July 31, 2014

I wish someone had explained Computer Science to me when I was in middle or high school.

Not the syntax of whichever language the school’s computer lab chose to use, not the same-old contextless exercise of adding two numbers together and producing a result, but what it would mean to choose a life in computer science.

A life as a maker, not a consumer. A life of flexible work options based on my own skill, drive and preferences. A life of curiosity and endless learning, with earning potential directly dependent on risk taken. A life of developing the ability to benefit society firsthand, either alone or in a team.

That’s what I wish I knew.

I majored in journalism — not a terrible choice in the 1990s, but better as half of a double-major with a more practical complement.

Fortunately for me, I taught myself HTML and Linux, then chose to work in online journalism and enjoyed several years of walking on fresh snow. I never forgot that feeling.

I went back for a technical master’s degree but shied away from pure Computer Science because I was afraid. Afraid I couldn’t compete with people who’d been coding since they were 12, who majored in CS at college the first time around, who were wizards.

I tried a few CS classes or books periodically — C, Python, JavaScript — but always found them incredibly difficult compared to other subjects, so I assumed I wouldn’t be good at programming.

I didn’t realize that intense difficulty is normal in CS. No one told me that everyone goes through it, that the learning curve is so steep you can’t even seen the first base camp when you start climbing Code Mountain. All you see is clouds.

I finally picked up Aaron Hillegass’ awesome Objective-C book in 2012. And an amazing thing happened: From cover to cover, I understood it.

Which is how Objective-C became my first (real) programming language.

I spend a lot of time now thinking about how to change this story for future nerds. Why didn’t anyone mention computer science to me when I was in high school? Why did it take so long for me to find the right explanation? What was it about Aaron’s book that made it the right explanation? And why don’t more people talk about the broader context instead of M_PI when teaching CS?

Simplicity in CS is just plain scarce. Addressing questions like:

  • What are the basic building blocks of code?
  • How can true beginners understand these concepts?
  • How can they transfer those concepts to different languages and build on them in more complex projects? (I found there was a true roadblock as I got deeper into iOS, which I overcame by attending the Big Nerd Ranch bootcamp in person, but not everyone has that option.)
  • How can they climb the intense learning curve successfully? (Just acknowledging up-front that it’s intense for almost everyone would help.)
  • How can they understand what studying computer science means, from a productivity and career-potential and lifestyle perspective, if no one ever tells them?

In short, how is computer science not required by default in public schools yet? And how is it so poorly explained by the vast majority of teachers?

It is not rocket science. And it doesn’t have to be explained that way.

San Francisco, Five Years Later – August 2001

Friday
———

The last time I drove past the lake that separates San Francisco from the peninsula below it, I was heading out of town in the back of a cab at five in the morning. The sun hadn’t come up yet, and a glowing red sign on the Unisys building beside the road was the last thing I saw before I spiraled up and away in a plane bound for New Jersey. When I looked out the plane window, I saw the huge building South of Market where I worked dwindling away to nothing, and I felt a door close behind me.

Now, I’m sitting in an airport shuttle with eight other travelers, heading north past the lake again. I look around for the Unisys building, but I can’t find it. I imagine a lot of things will be different this time around.

Last time, it was the summer of 1996. Dot-com was a new-sounding term, and an undercurrent of excitement pervaded the city like a live wire. It seemed that any conversation you started, anywhere you happened to be, would eventually come round to technology. People really believed they could change the world — and their world was changing all around them, so there was no reason to doubt it.

The mood is different now, even in the airport shuttle. When I climbed in, an old man was talking about Nokia stock, which has plunged precipitously from its peak. A young woman in a black shirt turned around and chimed in, “Everything’s down.”

We’re driving straight toward the China Basin building, where I interned five years earlier in the heady startup days. For a moment, I feel like I am missing my stop. If I get off here, I think, I could take the elevator up and walk right into work. I notice the same old vacant lot on my left, and a new baseball stadium on the right. Then we turn left onto Third Street, and I see that my favorite lunch haunt has been replaced by a McDonald’s, although the trendy Primo Patio Cafe still holds the fort across the street.

I get off the shuttle at Market Street and walk as directed to my old employer’s new home. Inside the building, I wait for the security guard to stop me, an obvious impostor with my carry-on bag, but I go unchallenged past his desk to the elevators. My stomach twists. What the hell do I think I am doing? The elevator doors slide open, and I step out.

It looks different, of course. Much bigger, with many more employees and a vastly hipper vibe than the small, staid offices South of Market. I wander aimlessly, introducing myself awkwardly a few times, until I see someone I know. He returns my wave but doesn’t recognize me. Somewhere between eager intern and in-progress adult, I’ve changed a lot.

I talk myself out of leaving — but only just — and decide to re-introduce myself. Once identified, I am warmly greeted. Eventually, I’m glad I didn’t leave right away, though they’ve changed as much as I have. Still good, but different. Strange, unknown.

I get lost on my way to the MUNI stop. By the time I realize I’ve gone the wrong way, I’m five blocks east of Stockton Street and have to ask for directions. When I finally get on the bus, I’m relieved to collapse into a seat and stare out the window as Chinatown passes, and North Beach with its park that is a lot smaller than I remembered. I struggle to remember street names and sequences as we drive through the Marina. I pull out my map and decide to look like a tourist.

The hotel is right where the map and my fuzzy brain tell me it should be, on the corner of Lombard and Buchanan. I think it is the same hotel my mom stayed at when she flew out to San Francisco with me five years ago, but I can’t say for sure, even though that’s why I chose it. She wanted to help me get settled and make sure I wasn’t living in a rathole.

I wasn’t. I hike up Union Street toward Scott Street after checking in at the hotel. The buildings around here qualify as mansions, well kept and near a crowd of shops and restaurants. I walk up Scott Street, exhausted by the climb, and find the building after a moment of uncertainty. It’s nicer than I remembered, with marble steps and wrought metal covering a glass door.

When I try the knob, it’s locked. I peer through the grating and see it is just as I pictured it, but darkened, with no desk visible in the front room. In the back of the house, I can see the kitchen, where we would all eat breakfast and dinner together, Mondays through Fridays, included in the rent. The big marble staircase curves up to the right. It seems deserted. I am here at the wrong time, perhaps, and no one is passing through the lobby. Business hours may be over. I walk down the steps and back to Union Street. I had wanted to see my old room.

As I walk down Union, I see small changes. A for-rent sign here — unheard-of in the days of jam-packed apartment showings — a vacant shop there. When I reach my favorite dessert place, Bepples Pies, it isn’t there. A friendly waiter at next-door Perry’s tells me it closed about a year ago.

I can’t go back to the hotel without finding something I remember, so I walk down to Chestnut Street, where my friend Kyle and I met up for a movie and ice cream. Like a one-two punch, there they are — the movie theater and the Ben & Jerry’s — so I stop in for an ice cream and a limeade, and then I can go to sleep.

Saturday
———-

I feel less like a stranger today, more in balance, when I board the bus from my hotel to North Beach. When I get off at my stop, there’s an art show going on in the park, so I meander past some paintings on my way to Grant Street, where I expect to find a great breakfast and maybe even an early-morning gelato.

But Grant Street is depressing. Homeless men sit on steps, and vacant storefronts are plentiful. I step into a vintage clothing store to browse but am accosted by the Russian proprietress as I pull a shirt out of a tightly bunched rack. “Let me do that for you,” she says. I assure her I am being careful, but she pulls the hanger out of my hand as I try to replace the shirt. “Is too tight, you will never get it in,” she says. “Can I help you find something?” I tell her I’m just browsing. “Browsing here is quite impossible,” she says. I wish her a pleasant day and leave before I am kicked out.

Hoping for better luck on Columbus, I head west. Almost immediately, I find Caffe Greco, where I ate once before, and have the great breakfast I was looking for. For the first time, I feel like I am home.

Afterward, I visit City Lights bookstore and find that I like it even more than I used to. I buy “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — how could anyone *not* buy a book called “Love in the Time of Cholera”? — and wonder if I will run into any old acquaintances, but most of them are gone, too.

I walk back to Grant and pass Chinatown shops selling tourist junk and others selling unidentified objects. I stop in an art store and buy a wedding card for two friends. It’s cheap until the cashier gives me too much change. I hold out the four dollars she gave me and tell her to take one; she grabs three and refuses to return any. I give up and leave the store, laughing. She tells me I am very nice.

Down Grant beyond Market to the SFMoMA, a place I always intended to visit but never actually did. I spend a few good hours wandering around the museum, then buy an Ansel Adams print without thinking about how I will get it on the plane.

I walk toward Nob Hill, planning to catch the bus, but I feel great, so I keep walking all the way back to the hotel, stopping along the way for Swensen’s ice cream (Swiss Orange Chip) and Jamba Juice (strawberry tsunami with protein boost). Once I get there, my feet hurt and I’m tired, but I feel an urge not to waste time, to keep moving.

I decide to try my old apartment again. I go up the hill, and this time there’s a car parked in the driveway. No one answers the doorbell, though, and the front room is dark and quiet, although two newspapers lie on the table just inside the door.

I turn toward the Presidio and then down to the Marina. Two weddings are in progress at the Palace of Fine Arts — the only remnants of San Francisco’s World’s Fair — but other tourists are streaming past, so I join the flow of people and remember when I was new here. Then I’m hungry, so I grab dinner and head back to my hotel.

Sunday
———

When my wake-up call comes, I’ve actually gotten enough sleep. I get dressed and walk toward the church that’s a block away from where I used to live. The streets are almost deserted. A few cars, flowers, a light breeze, and the occasional pedestrian walking past closed shops.

When I get to the church, I can’t seem to find the door, and when I do find one that looks promising, it’s locked. Maybe I am just here at the wrong time. I see a couple of black-clad clergymen, old as always, in the parking lot as I turn the corner and leave.

I’m passing Rose’s Cafe for the umpteenth time when I decide to stop. I order french toast with strawberries and cream, and silver needles tea, and watch the city wake up at an outdoor table. I realize this is an easy city to sink into. It would be very easy to stay.

I go back to the hotel. I call a cab and sit in the lobby, watching people check in and out. When the car arrives, I climb in and leave the city behind. I still don’t know if I really have.