Monthly Archives: June 2008

A couple of things about my Prius

In honor of hitting 10K miles on the Prius (which is nothing to crow about; I swore to reduce my driving to 6K a year when I bought the car), I would like to say a few things about my car. First, Prius, I love you. You are ugly, with a butt that looks like it was lopped off in an unfortunate factory accident, and a hunched over Quasimodo stance, and you’re blue when I wanted black, but I love you terribly. I love your 40 miles a gallon (I don’t where they got that 60 number), I love the way you cheerfully beep and unlock the door when I walk up to you, and I love your sunglasses holder, big enough to fit my big funky tacky frames. I love the way you came with several very annoying habits, and all I had to do to change them was to look up the magic spells on the Interweb and perform them with accuracy and conviction. If this mechanism could possibly be extended to the other important people in my life…

Second, you are different, and not everyone understands you and accepts you. You are quiet, and that is different from most cars. Seems the people who created you didn’t think through the implications of this to blind people, who have an actual logistical problem with quiet cars.* But the non-blind people who feel it necessary to say “wow, it’s so quiet, I can’t get over it” for the fifth time…well, they are starting to bug me.

Also, you have a back up camera in your very ugly butt. This is necessary because of the limited visibility out of your oddly designed rear. It has been a godsend in the chaotic parking lot of Clementine’s school, since the rear view mirror totally misses people under four feet tall. However, other people don’t know that you have a back up camera, and that I am looking THERE, on the console, and NOT in the rear view mirror, when I am backing up. The driver of the car behind me doesn’t know that even though I am not looking up, I can see what’s behind us quite clearly, and when I start to move backwards, he or she begins honking desperately, as if to save his or her life, which is quite disconcerting. As of yet there is no universally recognized hand signal for “it’s okay, I have a back up camera!” so typically I do something retarded like a thumbs up into the rearview mirror, which has occasionally been taken to mean “it’s okay, I WANT to back up into your car! Wouldn’t an accident be really fun right now?” and sent the other driver into absolute seizures of honking and hand waving. These are just the little wrinkles of personal interaction we as a society need to work out when new technology comes along, like when cell phone headsets came out, and the luddites thought the hipsters had started taking acid and talking to themselves in public, and were afraid.

Lastly, you are different, but you are also extremely popular. Clementine and I have progressed from shouting “Blue Pruis!” when we see one of your kin, to doing it only when we see two at one time, and now pretty much only when we see three in a row at a stoplight. I frequently have to pick you out from a half dozen other identical blue Priuses in a parking lot. This is why I put the large white gash on your passenger side door, and have still not removed the temporary registration papers the dealership taped to the inside front window. Yes, mean people have said things like “you should really fix that,” but I am here to tell you those things make you SPECIAL. Not that you weren’t already special to me.

You are popular because you are the car of the future. You were one of the first, and you are the best. Fuck the Tesla. Yes, I know, you are still a bit self-conscious about your poky acceleration on an uphill, and the Tesla can go from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, but you are smart and cheap, like your owner. The Telsa is Paris Hilton. You are Terry Gross: you are very good at what you do, and you are there for me every day.

* I’m not sure whether this is an unintentionally funny embarrassment or a piece of pure PR genius, but I found this in last month’s Harpers. These are the lyrics to to “The Hybrid Car Song” by Mary Ellen Gabias, originally published in March in Braille Monitor, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind. The song is sung to the tune of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”

Kids and dogs won’t know when to scurry.
Silent death arrives in a hurry.
All who walk have reason to worry
‘Bout the hybrid car.
We all want to stop the polluting,
Save a lot of gas while commuting.
If they made sound there’d be no disputing
With the hybrid car.
Saving the planet we all hold dear,
Nobody wants to destroy it.
Please make cars pedestrians can hear
‘Cause we want to be ’round to enjoy it.
We don’t need a noisy vrum-vrumming,
Just a simple audible humming,
So that we can know when you’re coming
In a hybrid car.
Then we all can walk with safety on the street
Without fear that we will accidentally meet
A hybrid car.

The Only Child Play Date Finder

Will someone please build this product for me? When you have an only child, you can endlessly set up play dates, but you will still inevitably find yourself on a Saturday afternoon, having exhausted your tolerance for playing Vampire Bunnies for the 35th time, and wishing your kid had someone to play with while you prepped dinner. I would like to be able to go to a browser and/or mobile device and set my status to “looking for play date now” and look at a list of other parents in my network who are in the same boat. The service should sort by proximity, age of kid, and/or other factors I choose. I would of course approve everyone in my network so we’re talking about people we already know here; it could just be a Facebook app even, but it needs a mobile interface. It could also ask for proposed length of play date, and match you up the way you find which cars are available on Zipcar. The service should offer the option that of receiving text messages or other alerts when a family in your network sets their status to “looking.” The “invite for play date now” function should be like a poke on Facebook, or even a meeting request in Outlook, in that it should save you the social overhead of having to call and politely ask how the other parent is doing, etc. You can always pick up the phone and chat if you want to, but sometimes you just need to make the date and execute.

Obviously, this doesn’t need to be limited to only children. Kids with siblings sometimes need impromptu dates with kids their own age. Also, I’m sure there are other applications of this same basic mechanic, though I can’t actually think of any.

Oh, but it should also have “going to Ikea” and “going to Target” as two of the status options, and allow you to text your friends the couple of things they could pick up for you while they’re there. And you earn some kind of points for saving your friends trips to the store.

Media Round Up by a Very Confused Working Mom

Okay, here’s the headspace I’m in. Just got back from a week of pretty grueling travel (something like 20 meetings in 4 days) in India. Home this week when I should be at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston. Feeling guilty and left out about not being at E2, but elated to be home with the munchkin, who is totally my crack (but healthier for sure). Leaving next week for Europe for venue tours, advisory board meeting, Ignite Paris, etc. Husband begging me desperately not to go; he’s on final crunch for Spore and under “normal” circumstances would revert to his normal 28 hours on/12 hours sleep work cycles. But guess what: we have a kid, and we both have jobs. How’s this gonna play out?

So this is the headspace I’m in, and here are four articles I read today.

Are There Too Many Women Doctors?
How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart, By Rebecca Walker
The mother-daughter wars
$5 gas? To some, it’s not impossible

Get it? No I guess not. Alright then, here’s a glimpse into my stressed and messed mind. We’ll start with the Walkers: mother Alice (yes, the famous writer) and daughter Rebecca, also a writer (and a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t know her personally). Rebecca has published a very bitter account of her relationship with her mother, one in which she blames her mother’s ambition and feminist ideology for a neglected and painful childhood.

…While she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities – after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.

Well, I wasn’t planning on becoming Alice Walker anytime soon, but I sure as hell could have used a more encouraging message today. That long list, minus the fame, is mostly stuff I thought I could have and also have a child who felt loved and nurtured. I realize this is all relative, but Rebecca implies that you actually can’t balance those priorities without your kid getting the shaft. It would be histrionic of me to suggest that Clementine would consider herself at the bottom of my priority list, or feel as unloved as Rebecca clearly feels (and it seems with justification), but it would be nice not to have the mother’s needs and the child’s needs positioned in such direct opposition. After all, I’m about to leave again next week. And I’ll be spending Wednesday night with my book club, Thursday night with Josh and Helen (visiting from Oz) and Friday night with my women’s circle. And I’m up late writing an unnecessary blog post, which will make me tired and probably grumpy with her tomorrow morning. Do I need to look at my priorities?

When I have thought about my priorities lately, I’ve actually been trying to pay more attention to self-fulfillment outside of motherhood. Yes, I guess I’m lucky that I am so fulfilled by being a mom to an adventurous, sweet, loving, and willful five year old. But I notice something when I spend time doing two things I don’t do nearly enough of: writing and exercising. I notice a sense of taking care of myself, and I think I should do more of it.

Rebecca concludes that she has “discovered what really matters – a happy family,” and decides to model her own motherhood on her stepmother’s traditional approach.

My father’s second wife, Judy, was a loving, maternal homemaker with five children she doted on. There was always food in the fridge and she did all the things my mother didn’t.

To which Phyllis Chelser, writing on Salon, has this to say:

Yes, and Alice did all the things that women like Judy don’t want to do and can’t do: Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women’s rights. Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.

Chelser is just warning against pretending you can do everything and be everything, and hey, that’s something many women, including me, probably need to hear daily. But ouch. Again, I’m not as ambitious as all that. And I think I have a pretty decent role model, which clearly Rebecca lacked. My mother struggled with the demands of school and then her midwifery practice, with its long shifts and odd hours, while raising two daughters. My sister and I were often what they called “latch key kids” back then (maybe they still call them that) and there were times I wished for a mom who was big into the PTA. Her divorce from my dad wasn’t exactly fun. But I never felt unloved, and I don’t think I ever doubted that I was high on her priority list. My mom needed her career to be fulfilled, and I think it was good for her daughters that she pursued it. Only now do I realize how hard it must have been.

I’m with Rebecca on one thing: I think motherhood is Da Bomb. But I’m not with Rebecca on throwing the baby of feminism out with the bathwater of her personal pain. While I feel the weight of daily, even hourly choices in a zero-sum game, pulled in multiple directions and constantly disappointed not to have lived up to my potential, I try (sometime unsuccessfully) not to blame anyone but myself. Mostly because I am personally too privileged to get away with it; my job is flexible, my boss is understanding, and my husband has always been willing to play Mr Mom whenever I need to leave town for work(current circumstances excepted). But things still aint right in our culture, not by a long shot. Pick up The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi and read a page, any page. Or check out this truly bizarre exercise in sexist illogic, a Business Week article that takes the following data:

  • Women doctors tend to work 20% to 25% fewer hours than their male counterparts,
  • Women are willing to take on lower-paying specialties that male doctors are moving away from, such as primary care, pediatrics, and obstetrics,
  • Doctors who work fewer hours have less burnout; there is a strong association between long hours and medical errors

and concludes that perhaps there are too many women doctors. Apparently we are projecting “a shortfall of anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 physicians in the U.S. relative to demand by 2020,” and I guess there must be someone to blame. Somehow the fact that more women than ever are becoming doctors (up from 10% of the physician workforce in the 1970s to one third now) is a bad thing, because we don’t have enough doctors overall. Huh? Wait, let me explain. Turns out motherhood is to blame.

“It’s pretty much an even bet that within a year or two of entering practice they will go on maternity leave,” says Phillip Miller, a vice-president of the medical recruiting firm Merritt, Hawkins & Associates. “Then they are going to want more flexible hours.”
Such demands tend to irritate older doctors. “The young women in our practice are always looking to get out of being on-call,” says a male internist at a large New York-area medical group who asked not to be named. “The rest of us have to pick up the slack. That really stirs up a lot of resentment.”

Well fuck you very much, Dr Asked Not To Be Named. No chance that making the profession tolerable to human beings who may also be parents might actually help recruitment? And fuck you, Dr. Brian McKinstry, of Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, who concludes that “in the absence of a profound change in our society in terms of responsibility for childcare, we need to take a balanced approach to recruitment.” In other words, let’s not let so many women into medical school. Unless we can effect a profound change in responsibility for childcare, in which case, what? Then we let in fewer men?

(I should clarify that the author of the article isn’t entirely to blame here. I think she chose a rather unfortunate title and I think she implies some really stupid things, but she is really just reporting on an article in The British Medical Journal by Dr. McKinstry titled “Are There Too Many Female Medical Graduates? Yes.” The Yes is IN THE TITLE. I didn’t add it. Just to be clear here.)

All of this, of course, brings me to the price of gas. Basically, my thought is that it’s going to kill the airline industry and do serious harm to the events business, assuming that a lot of people fly to the conferences and tradeshows we produce. Maybe I should just get ahead of this curve, can our overseas business, and spend less time on the road. If only it were my decision alone, and if only I were confident and quick to act. I would not only decrease the stress on me and my family, I would dramatically reduce my carbon footprint, which is more like an asteroid crater than a footprint at this point.

The truth is that I kind of hold on to the travel. Remember that profound change in our society in terms of responsibility for childcare? Yeah, well that’s one part Dr. Fuckwad got right. It’s not really here yet. Chris is an amazing dad and husband, but when I am at home, things have a tendency to just kind of drift. Responsibilities designed to be shared slip slowly and quietly downhill… towards the mom. I let them. I’m supposed to go to my boot camp class in the morning, but if Clementine wakes up before I leave, I spare Chris the early rise and stay with her. Chris is supposed to clean up the kitchen but when I’m up I might as well load and unload the dishwasher. Taxes, bills, camp applications, school forms, doctors appointments, travel plans; those don’t slip, they’re just mine. When I go away for a week, which I do a lot, Chris deals with everything, and it feels like our roles even out. He likes it (except, understandably, during his crunch time). He gets quality time with Clementine, he gets to be in charge of the house, he gets to feel super-competent and independent. And Clem gets to see Domestic Daddy.

I don’t know what the right thing is. I know that I want to accuse my employer and the entire capitalist system of always wanting more – more events, more revenue, bigger brands – but that wanting it all feels familiar. The list of things I have not done is so much longer than the list of what I have done, or at least it seems that way. Small thing: in the course of writing this, I decided to shorten my trip to Europe next week. London only, instead of the three cities planned. I will do the advisory board meeting, but skip venue tours, Ignite Paris, and the salon in Amsterdam. It’s too small a decision to be a tragedy, a victory or even a true embarrassment (though I am a bit embarrassed). I think it just is my life: little things here and there. Hoping each little decision heads me in the right direction.

You’ve been repaid!

I got an email today from Kiva that began:

Dear Jennifer Pahlka,
Good news: you’ve been repaid!

Indeed, and with karmic interest. Kiva is a non-profit that facilitates microloans from individuals to other individuals in the developing world, helping people start businesses and hopefully escape poverty. I’ve loaned three times on Kiva, and get periodic emails on the progress of the loan repayment. Since multiple lenders fund each project (generally), lenders get paid back once the entire amount has been paid back by the entrepreneur. This particular loan, to a 22 year old Mexican craftswoman, was paid back in a little less than a year. I’ve reinvested the amount I got back; this time I’m funding a 47 year old woman in Tajikistan who has a small dairy and wants to buy another cow. It’s truly gratifying to be able to help, and other than some miniscule interest I might have otherwise made on the money (possibly nothing), it doesn’t actually cost anything.

And speaking of being paid back, if you really want an emotional boost, try donating to DonorsChoose. The concept is similar, in that you choose from thousands of projects to fund, but these are projects in schools, put up by teachers who lack funding. Once the project is fully funded, the funds are distributed, the materials purchased, and the project proceeds. The last one I did was just buying some books for a classroom; some are for computers or science materials, or just a bookshelf. It takes a while for all the steps to happen, so just when you’ve forgotten you contributed, you get a big fat envelope with letters from the kids and pictures of them in the classroom reading the books. My friend Stacy got a similar package from the project she funded, and we both had the same reaction upon opening it: we blubbered like babies. Granted, it doesn’t take a lot to make me cry; really, the idea that kids write thank you notes is enough.

Anyway, I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m saving the world, but I do appreciate what these organizations are doing. Part of me wonders if the whole “direct to an entrepreneur” or “direct to a teacher” thing is a little…I don’t know…Republican, as if we can’t trust the larger organizations who try to help on a more systematic scale. I could angst about it but instead I’ll just give to both types.

But speaking of being repaid, while I logically know that whatever tiny contributions (financial, I didn’t have the balls to phone bank this time) I have made to his campaign, Obama did not actually win the primary FOR ME IN PARTICULAR, but I sure feel like I got a really nice present last week. Then, while I was writing this, I also read this post by Tim O’Reilly, and it’s been feeling a lot like Christmas in June around here.

India 2.0

The first time I was in India was 1994. I had left my job at the Healthcare Forum, where we worked on dummy terminals. There was one internet connected PC in the office with something called Mosiac on it. Aja knew how to use it, and did mysterious things on it. I did not have an email address.

I traveled for a year on that trip, about two-thirds of it in India. The place blew my mind. I fell in love. Colors, chaos, complexity, simplicity, landscape, culture, food, smells, spirituality. It was like tripping for a whole year. We traveled light, and very very cheap. We took trains from stations that did not have computers and so could only sell reservations out of their quota. Sometimes you had to wait a week if you wanted a confirmed seat. Sometimes that was just fine.

I’ve been back once since, in 1999, with Semi. There were internet cafes by then, and I was heavily flirting with Chris at the time and made up every excuse to stop in and see if he had sent me mail. Generally, you would boot up, log on, and just when you’d gotten your mail page open and typed something, the power would go out and everything would shut off. Then you’d fight with the guy at the desk about paying for wasted time online, since you hadn’t hit send. I liked to fight about stuff in India. I thought it made me something more than a tourist, or something.

Now I’m back and I’m writing this from my laptop in brand new Toyota with a leather interior, being driven by a guy in an all-white uniform to my first meeting this morning in Bangalore. Sorry — Bengaluru. Even the names have changed. I’m online with my cellular modem in the car, confirming the afternoon appointments by email. Young men are speeding by on motorbikes with their Oracle Developers Conference backpacks thrown over their shoulders. Cell phones not just ubiquitous, but completely in charge. There is no culture of sending a call to voicemail; every ring and beep is answered immediately. The constant ringing of mobiles complements the constant honking of cars stuck in constant traffic.

Technology has changed India, but not tamed it. You still can’t find anything. Buildings must go up daily, by the look of things, and they are sometimes assigned numbers, but not sequentially, so they are no help in finding the building you are looking for. Addresses commonly read like this one:

#1132, 4th Floor, 100ft Road
Above Food World, HAL 2nd Stage
Indiranagar, Bangalore – 560 038

As far as I can tell, the only helpful pieces of information in this address are the neighborhood (Indiranagar) and Above Food World. People know where Food World is. Google maps can sometimes tell you where you are, generally, but even if it knew your exact location, don’t ask it to tell you how to get from one place to another. Navigating in Indian cities is simply beyond Google’s algorithms, and it doesn’t even try.

Information in India still resides in people. The landscape and economy are not designed to allow for easy extraction into databases. There are no Yellow Pages even. Luckily, there are a lot of people, so even though there is a lot of information, you can, as AskLaila is doing, hire a LOT of people to catalog your lots and lots of data. AskLaila has 4,000 outsourced workers going door to door gathering detailed data about every local business in the 5 biggest Indian cities. Can you even imagine how much work that is? Chain stores are starting to come to India, but it’s still overwhelmingly mom and pop shops. But even that doesn’t describe how insanely fragmented retail is here. I don’t know how much of the retail scene is comprised of street stalls, but I’d guess… a lot. Stalls that are seriously about the size of the average suburban American walk-in closet. Maybe AskLaila is limiting themselves to stores with four walls, but it’s still a gargantuan task.

The Indian middle class seems better educated and harder working than the American middle class, but the sheer number of people in India is still the characteristic that hits one over the head. (Stat from ShiftHappens presentation on Slideshare: the 28% of the population of India with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of North America). Jobs that would be staffed by one person in the US have six or seven here; there were literally seven women staffing the desk at the business center at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai. I was the only customer for most of the time I was there. Each of them helped me: one got me an Ethernet cable, one got the scratch off code card, one opened the door, one took my credit card, another wrote up the receipt. Not all at once, mind you, but consecutively, so it took the same amount of time as it would have it there’d been one staff. And many of the poor still seem to be engaged in mind-bogglingly Sisyphean tasks; women who sweep dirt streets or endlessly mop bathrooms, moving the layer of dirty water around after each customer makes fresh shoe prints on the wet floor, and ensuring that one of the two stalls is busy at any given time, being mopped.

As I write this, the windows in the car are up, which is probably for the best as the fumes from the idling cars can’t be good for you, but I miss the smells of India. People always think I’m joking when I say that, but I don’t mean the toilets. I mean the way the air smells of blooming trees, things burning, and dust. People aren’t burning cow dung cakes or those little briquets like they did once, which is maybe a good thing, but I really liked the musky tone they added to the air. Even though the smells have changed, they still evoke that whole year, and everything it meant to me. It would be silly of me to miss the India of my 1994 trip, and I am really enjoying being here as something other than a tourist, engaging with Indian entrepreneurs and business people, a potential participant in the economy, less of a voyeur. Not sure who’s changed more, me or India.