“Fuck you, I like guns.”

Edited to add: I can’t thank you all enough for interacting with this post. I am actually surprised that it’s become this popular. This is the first time more than ten people have read anything I’ve written here. I’m probably going to turn off commenting soon because everything that can be said already has been. In general, I’d like to point out that this is an opinion piece. I wrote it on a 15 minute coffee break and posted it unedited. It’s raw, and that’s the whole point. The tone, the language, and the style are intentional. This was written for people like my mostly conservative Army buddies who will never click an article that is titled “Gun control is your friend”, and tend to assume those who support such legislation have never seen a gun before. I’m not a professional writer, nor a particularly prolific blogger until about three days ago. I’m just a person trying to sort it out like everybody else. Thank you for stopping by. I really do appreciate every one of you. Please find us on FaceBook.BCMCarryHandleAR-15-3

America, can we talk? Let’s just cut the shit for once and actually talk about what’s going on without blustering and pretending we’re actually doing a good job at adulting as a country right now. We’re not. We’re really screwing this whole society thing up, and we have to do better. We don’t have a choice. People are dying. At this rate, it’s not if your kids, or mine, are involved in a school shooting, it’s when. One of these happens every 60 hours on average in the US. If you think it can’t affect you, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. So let’s talk.

I’ll start. I’m an Army veteran. I like M-4’s, which are, for all practical purposes, an AR-15, just with a few extra features that people almost never use anyway. I’d say at least 70% of my formal weapons training is on that exact rifle, with the other 30% being split between various and sundry machineguns and grenade launchers. My experience is pretty representative of soldiers of my era. Most of us are really good with an M-4, and most of us like it at least reasonably well, because it is an objectively good rifle. I was good with an M-4, really good. I earned the Expert badge every time I went to the range, starting in Basic Training. This isn’t uncommon. I can name dozens of other soldiers/veterans I know personally who can say the exact same thing. This rifle is surprisingly easy to use, completely idiot-proof really, has next to no recoil, comes apart and cleans up like a dream, and is light to carry around. I’m probably more accurate with it than I would be with pretty much any other weapon in existence. I like this rifle a lot. I like marksmanship as a sport. When I was in the military, I enjoyed combining these two things as often as they’d let me.

With all that said, enough is enough. My knee jerk reaction is to consider weapons like the AR-15 no big deal because it is my default setting. It’s where my training lies. It is my normal, because I learned how to fire a rifle IN THE ARMY. You know, while I may only have shot plastic targets on the ranges of Texas, Georgia, and Missouri, that’s not what those weapons were designed for, and those targets weren’t shaped like deer. They were shaped like people. Sometimes we even put little hats on them. You learn to take a gut shot, “center mass”, because it’s a bigger target than the head, and also because if you maim the enemy soldier rather than killing him cleanly, more of his buddies will come out and get him, and you can shoot them, too. He’ll die of those injuries, but it’ll take him a while, giving you the chance to pick off as many of his compadres as you can. That’s how my Drill Sergeant explained it anyway. I’m sure there are many schools of thought on it. The fact is, though, when I went through my marksmanship training in the US Army, I was not learning how to be a competition shooter in the Olympics, or a good hunter. I was being taught how to kill people as efficiently as possible, and that was never a secret.

As an avowed pacifist now, it turns my stomach to even type the above words, but can you refute them? I can’t. Every weapon that a US Army soldier uses has the express purpose of killing human beings. That is what they are made for. The choice rifle for years has been some variant of what civilians are sold as an AR-15. Whether it was an M-4 or an M-16 matters little. The function is the same, and so is the purpose. These are not deer rifles. They are not target rifles. They are people killing rifles. Let’s stop pretending they’re not.

With this in mind, is anybody surprised that nearly every mass shooter in recent US history has used an AR-15 to commit their crime? And why wouldn’t they? High capacity magazine, ease of loading and unloading, almost no recoil, really accurate even without a scope, but numerous scopes available for high precision, great from a distance or up close, easy to carry, and readily available. You can buy one at Wal-Mart, or just about any sports store, and since they’re long guns, I don’t believe you have to be any more than 18 years old with a valid ID. This rifle was made for the modern mass shooter, especially the young one. If he could custom design a weapon to suit his sinister purposes, he couldn’t do a better job than Armalite did with this one already.

This rifle is so deadly and so easy to use that no civilian should be able to get their hands on one. We simply don’t need these things in society at large. I always find it interesting that when I was in the Army, and part of my job was to be incredibly proficient with this exact weapon, I never carried one at any point in garrison other than at the range. Our rifles lived in the arms room, cleaned and oiled, ready for the next range day or deployment. We didn’t carry them around just because we liked them. We didn’t bluster on about barracks defense and our second amendment rights. We tucked our rifles away in the arms room until the next time we needed them, just as it had been done since the Army’s inception. The military police protected us from threats in garrison. They had 9 mm Berettas to carry. They were the only soldiers who carry weapons in garrison. We trusted them to protect us, and they delivered. With notably rare exceptions, this system has worked well. There are fewer shootings on Army posts than in society in general, probably because soldiers are actively discouraged from walking around with rifles, despite being impeccably well trained with them. Perchance, we could have the largely untrained civilian population take a page from that book?

I understand that people want to be able to own guns. That’s ok. We just need to really think about how we’re managing this. Yes, we have to manage it, just as we manage car ownership. People have to get a license to operate a car, and if you operate a car without a license, you’re going to get in trouble for that. We manage all things in society that can pose a danger to other people by their misuse. In addition to cars, we manage drugs, alcohol, exotic animals (there are certain zip codes where you can’t own Serval cats, for example), and fireworks, among other things. We restrict what types of businesses can operate in which zones of the city or county. We have a whole system of permitting for just about any activity a person wants to conduct since those activities could affect others, and we realize, as a society, that we need to try to minimize the risk to other people that comes from the chosen activities of those around them in which they have no say. Gun ownership is the one thing our country collectively refuses to manage, and the result is a lot of dead people.

I can’t drive a Formula One car to work. It would be really cool to be able to do that, and I could probably cut my commute time by a lot. Hey, I’m a good driver, a responsible Formula One owner. You shouldn’t be scared to be on the freeway next to me as I zip around you at 140 MPH, leaving your Mazda in a cloud of dust! Why are you scared? Cars don’t kill people. People kill people. Doesn’t this sound like bullshit? It is bullshit, and everybody knows. Not one person I know would argue non-ironically that Formula One cars on the freeway are a good idea. Yet, these same people will say it’s totally ok to own the firearm equivalent because, in the words of comedian Jim Jeffries, “fuck you, I like guns”.

Yes, yes, I hear you now. We have a second amendment to the constitution, which must be held sacrosanct over all other amendments. Dude. No. The constitution was made to be a malleable document. It’s intentionally vague. We can enact gun control without infringing on the right to bear arms. You can have your deer rifle. You can have your shotgun that you love to shoot clay pigeons with. You can have your target pistol. Get a license. Get a training course. Recertify at a predetermined interval. You do not need a military grade rifle. You don’t. There’s no excuse.

“But we’re supposed to protect against tyranny! I need the same weapons the military would come at me with!” Dude. You know where I can get an Apache helicopter and a Paladin?! Hook a girl up! Seriously, though, do you really think you’d be able to hold off the government with an individual level weapon? Because you wouldn’t. One grenade, and you’re toast. Don’t have these illusions of standing up to the government, and needing military style rifles for that purpose. You’re not going to stand up to the government with this thing. They’d take you out in about half a second.

Let’s be honest. You just want a cool toy, and for the vast majority of people, that’s all an AR-15 is. It’s something fun to take to the range and put some really wicked holes in a piece of paper. Good for you. I know how enjoyable that is. I’m sure for a certain percentage of people, they might not kill anyone driving a Formula One car down the freeway, or owning a Cheetah as a pet, or setting off professional grade fireworks without a permit. Some people are good with this stuff, and some people are lucky, but those cases don’t negate the overall rule. Military style rifles have been the choice du jour in the incidents that have made our country the mass shootings capitol of the world. Formula One cars aren’t good for commuting. Cheetahs are bitey. Professional grade fireworks will probably take your hand off. All but one of these are common sense to the average American. Let’s fix that. Be honest, you don’t need that AR-15. Nobody does. Society needs them gone, no matter how good you may be with yours. Kids are dying, and it’s time to stop fucking around.

On Imagery, Progression, and Engineering

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I picture the precipice of human understanding as a wall of mist, concealing just barely, the vastness of the universe beyond our understanding. It is the colors of a desert sunset, and it is warm. We stare into this balmy, orange mist, not knowing what is beyond it, but solemnly understanding that our role is to find out as much as we can while it’s still our turn.

Research has always felt profound to me, and frankly, I’m glad to be back. The three years I spent away from research made me a better engineer, but this is home. This is where I feel as close to the divine as I ever will.

This week, I am reminded of more symbolic imagery, in an entirely unexpected context. We have a maiden-mother-crone situation in our current research, and I don’t know that I have seen anything so beautiful in this entire profession.

Tangential to our group is an engineer who has spent her career conducting some of the most brilliant Portland Cement Concrete Pavement research I have encountered. She announced several years ago that she was retiring this year because she wanted them to be able to find her a replacement. She has no assistant, no direct supervisor, and no research group. Her work is hers alone, and has been for some time. Our director tried to assign a few people to work on her projects, but none were a good fit. Earlier this week, he assigned me.

I went to see her on Tuesday. When I walked into her office, she smiled, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “I have told them for years to send me someone new to take over this work. I won’t be here forever, you know. Look at you! You’re young. You’ll be here a long time. They told me you used to design bridges. You’ll be great at this. They sent me a few others, but they didn’t know anything about reinforced concrete. You know a lot about that, don’t you? Here, let me show you around.” And she showed me her life’s work. It was beautiful, and she’s right. If the part I’ve done this week is any indication, I am good at this. She seems pleased with me.

The entire thing feels right. I am back in research, and it brings together everything I have done as an engineer. Nothing I have ever learned is wasted. It all fits together, and makes things just a little clearer than they were before. With my new study, I take one tenuous step into the mist. I will soon see just a tiny bit further than I could.

I think the best part of this is that I have an intern this summer, and she has been watching all of this. She assisted me in building 3D models needed for simulation trials. She watched as I wrote the first of the code that will ultimately help me develop the design equations that guide implementation of the method we are studying.

As I do this work, with her at my side, I am so acutely aware that before I know it, the day will come that I will be handing off my research to some younger engineer, hoping with my entire being that they have what it takes to carry it forward, not my way, but their way. I have a lot to accomplish between now and then, but it feels like yesterday that I was my intern’s age. She is only 5 years older than my daughter. It goes by fast. It all goes by fast.

When I picture the precipice of human understanding now, I no longer only see those of us who are currently there. I see those who came before us, guiding us at our side, gently and wisely, tempered by a lifetime of taking step after step into the mist. Then there are those who are where I am, stoic and wide-eyed, peering into the mist, hoping to see just a tiny bit more than we did yesterday, occasionally taking a tiny, shaky, tenuous step. And half a step behind us are the maidens, the ones whose turn it is next, watching us, furiously taking notes, learning all they can about the tiny bit of the mist that they can see from where they are.

Maidens. Mothers. Crones. Engineers.

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Before you give advice to poor people, read this.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few years, you have probably noticed that America really hates poor people. In a relatively well known pet group I belong to on FaceBook, the admins approved a member’s GoFundMe post this morning. She was earning less money than usual because her job is weather dependent, and it has been raining. Therefore, her entire checks were taken up with rent, and she was at risk of having her utilities cut off. It seemed like an unfortunate situation that could happen to pretty much anyone who works outside for an hourly wage (and let’s be honest, that’s a lot of people). I felt bad for her.

Then I made the cardinal mistake of the internet. I read the comments, and had an immediate flashback to seven years ago when my ex-husband got out of the Army and my family slid from solidly middle class to The Poor in a matter of months. Apparently, people haven’t changed at all in that amount of time, and they still love to give totally horrible advice to poor people. To paraphrase Al Bundy (and my husband’s reaction when I read him a draft of this post), these people’s response was like, “Where’s that hundred dollar bill I use to light my cigars?”. They act like they’ve never struggled a day in their lives, and that it could never happen to them. What I want to do here is unpack some of that horrible advice as a person who’s been poor and also gotten out of it.

“Get a different job/a second job/a job”

Without contention, this is the most common piece of advice given to poor people, and on the surface, it seems reasonable. Jobs result in money, right? This is pretty indisputable. The problem is that working isn’t free. The person whose GoFundMe I saw today can’t get a second job because her first job has variable hours, and nobody will hire her part time without knowing her availability. She explained this patiently to the dozens of people who insisted that all she needed was an extra shift at Ye Olde McDonald’s.

My ex-husband tried this one on me, too. At the time that we slid into poverty, I was a stay at home mom to a 7-year-old who needed speech therapy, occupational therapy, and specialized dyslexia therapy, a 2-year-old, and a high-needs newborn whom I was breastfeeding. I averaged three hours of sleep a night, cooked all our meals from scratch, grew a lot of our food in a garden, and sewed things to sell to other people for grocery money or to trade for other things we needed.

For me to do as my then-husband suggested, and pick up a few shifts at the gas station, I would have had to work when he was home, so night shift. Then I would have had to come home in the morning, get my oldest to school, spend my day caring for a toddler and a newborn and coordinate my oldest child’s therapies, pick up my oldest, somewhere in there, do all the prep work, all the gardening (because honestly, we mostly ate what I could grow in the dirt at that point in time), and then go off to work at Valero. When would I sleep?

My milk supply would have tanked instantly (it was never good, and required intensive work on my part to maintain at any reasonable level) so then we would have had to buy formula. WIC covers some, but we would have had to buy more no matter what, so in addition to the toll it would have taken on me physically and mentally to essentially function on no sleep indefinitely, there would have been a financial cost as well. The few hundred dollars a month I could have made doing this would not make up for the cost. Even if the dollar amount lost would by my no longer being able to breastfeed would have weighed out in our favor, the physical and mental cost is unreasonable to ask of any person.

The details of everyone’s story will vary, but the reason a lot of people don’t just pick up a second job, or a stay-at-home-parent start working, the minute financial hardship hits, is never laziness. There is always some reason that they can’t do that. Variable scheduling, children’s needs, medical issues, it can be anything. We have become a society that forgets that people are not machines, and that life has to include more than just working nonstop for a hand to mouth existence.

“You should move to a less expensive place.”

This is another favorite of the average asshole if someone is having a hard time making their bills. It’s also something I looked into when I was the person struggling. Let me tell you about moving to a cheaper place, and why a lot of people who have fallen on hard times don’t do it.

First of all, moving is expensive. I shouldn’t have to explain this. We’ve all moved before. Remember how much money you had to pay your last landlord before you moved in? You had to pay your first month’s rent and a security deposit. Some places, those deposits can be pretty high. If you have pets, you probably had to pay a deposit for them as well. This can be hundreds more, and often non-refundable. Some places, you even have to pay your last month’s rent up front. Even in the cheapest areas known to American mankind, the dollar figure to move into a new place is going to have four digits. Some utility companies will also charge you to move your service, or if you end up in the service area of a new utility company, you’ll probably have to pay deposits at least for some things, so add probably a couple hundred for that.  I’m no accountant, but I know it’s hard to come up with that kind of money when you’re already struggling to pay for the basics.

In addition to that, you’ve got the move itself. Unless you own a truck, or have a really good friend who does, you’re going to have to rent one. I know U-Haul always has signs out that say you can rent one for $40 or something similar, but it never ends up just that much. I’ve done daily truck rentals before, and even the cheapest one was still close to $100. That one was uncommonly cheap, too. We moved our stuff from one end of our apartment complex to the other, racking up the most minimal mileage charge possible. If we’d moved across town, it would have been more. Also, you’re likely to lose some hours at work for this move, so you’re losing money for that as well.

Aside from those costs, which should really be obvious to anybody, you’ve got the elephant in the room that I ran up against when I attempted this myself. Most landlords have an income requirement, and if you’ve fallen on hard times, you probably won’t make the cut to rent a different place anyway.

There will be a few people who suggest getting a roommate at this point. That could actually work for single people, or childless couples, but for families who are trying to afford a 2 BR duplex in a questionable neighborhood and just missed the income requirement, getting a roommate isn’t the remedy they need.

“Sell all your stuff.”

People make this suggestion all the time, and I wonder if they’ve ever been to Craigslist as a seller, or hell, even as a buyer. Anyone who’s ever attempted to sell something knows that they’re not going to get very much for it, and anyone who’s ever shopped those types of pages knows that it’s the place to go for a bargain because prices are always negotiable. This is unsurprising considering that the economy sucks, and we are all looking to spend as little money on everything we can. With that in mind, it’s highly unlikely that any of us are sitting on a goldmine that will solve all our financial woes.

The other thing is that this is straight out of the Captain Obvious playbook. From personal experience, by the time a person even tells others that they’re struggling financially, they’ve already sold everything they could.

I will never forget selling off all my high quality baby gear, leaving myself just basic cloth diapers, one sling, and an umbrella stroller. I remember when a woman in a Mercedes came to buy my Stokke high chair, which I’d paid over $300 for less than a year prior, and as she tried to get me to accept $60, I told her, “Whatever I get for this is all the money I have to feed my family for the next two weeks. Please be kind.” I got $90, just $20 less than I asked, and bought beans, rice, cheese, flour, sugar, eggs, and a few new vegetable starts that I could plant in the garden (I’ve never been good at growing things from seed), I even splurged on two blocks of tofu and a bottle of cooking oil since it was on sale. But then those things were gone, and I didn’t have another Stokke high chair to sell.

Soon after, the double stroller sold. That bought a week’s worth of gas. My organic bamboo velour cloth diapers sold on a site that specializes in this (Yes, that’s a thing.) That was two more weeks’ worth of beans and rice, no tofu this time. I sold the gold bullion coin I got as a wedding present. That turned on our cell phones for one month. I sold the high quality baby carriers I’d barely used. This brought enough to turn the electricity back on when it got cut off on a 105 degree day.

Then, there was nothing else to sell, and we still had the same needs. I’m not sure anyone understands just how little you can get for things, or how temporary a bandaid that is. Also, what if I had always been poor? What if I had bought my baby gear at Wal-Mart? What if I never owned an expensive Swedish high chair, or trendy baby wraps and cloth diapers? That’s a lot of people’s situation. What if the highest value thing you owned was never worth much to begin with, and everyone thought all your problems would be solved by selling it? Ridiculous, right?

Use logic. Nobody wants to ask for help. People have usually exhausted all options before they admit to others that there is a problem. A person who is telling you about their issues has already sold anything they could sell.

“Go see a church/a charity. Get a loan. Use a credit card.”

People love to act charitable, and some people really are, but the simple fact of the matter is that there’s not enough help to go around when it comes to charitable organizations. Churches often help their own members, and sometimes there are larger organizations like Catholic Charities that help the entire community, but these resources are limited, and far more people ask than are approved. It seems like a lot of people who have never been in the situation of needing help seem to think that charities are a wellspring of free money ripe for the picking for anyone who needs it.

This is not the case. As I was writing this, my husband told me the story of the time he was unable to pay his ex-wife’s electric bill (This was during their divorce proceedings. He was responsible for all her household bills until it was over.) He’s self-employed, and his business was down a bit that month, and oh yeah, paying two houses’ worth of bills is hard for almost anybody. So he called the electric company and told them he couldn’t pay it all, and asked for a payment plan. They said they don’t do payment plans, and told him to contact the churches on a list they gave him. He contacted the churches, and unsurprisingly, they had already given out their charity funds for the year. There is more need than there are funds. It’s not the fault of the charities or the churches. It’s a statement about our economy.

People often are also told to put it on a credit card. This is problematic for two reasons. First, if the person has a credit card, it’s probably already maxed. As a person who has been in that position, I can assure you, when there’s credit card balance available to put a bill on, that’s what you do. By the time a person is asking for help, that’s no longer an option. Getting another credit card is out of the question at this point because high credit usage scores drop a person’s credit worthiness, and lenders won’t give them the time of day.

Bottom Line

The situations I have highlighted here are not isolated incidents. They are common. Any conversation about a person who needs help is going to focus mostly on what they should be doing to help themselves. People don’t seem to realize that by the time someone asks for help, they’ve already done everything they can do, largely because this country is such a hostile environment for anyone who lets on that they’re not doing great.

Next time you see a person ask for help, even if you can’t do anything for them yourself, at least be kind. If you feel the need to offer advice, before doing so, think to yourself, “If I were in this situation, would I have already thought of this?”

Bitches Get Stuff Done

I was a major bitch at work this week. Just ask my coworker. He’ll probably tell you I must have been suffering from the worst case of PMS in history, because that’s what people say when a normally even-tempered woman gets fed up enough to stand up for herself. I’m normally a nice engineer. I’m the person they can count on to design the stuff everybody finds boring, and never complain about it. I’m the engineer who will always say yes to an extra assignment, who will take on anything, and who will make any move necessary for the organization without a single complaint, except maybe to a trusted friend at happy hour, or my husband. Every boss I’ve ever had has told everyone, “Anastasia is the easiest engineer to work with. Her work is top notch, she works fast, and she never complains.” And it’s true. I am an easy engineer to work with.

This is unsurprising considering my upbringing. I’m a nice southern girl. I don’t take up much space. I move over when someone else is walking toward me on the sidewalk, even if it’s relatively clear that they should. I don’t dare weigh over 120 pounds, probably because I subconsciously don’t even want to take up physical space. For years, I wouldn’t wear heels because they make me taller than most men, and my well above average height mother taught me that that’s something that’s to be avoided if at all possible. Growing up, I received hundreds of messages that basically told me that people were allowed to walk on me. My boss skimmed off my tips? Well, find another job. What an asshole. Don’t ask for them back, though. You might need him as a reference, and you wouldn’t want him to tell people you’re difficult. Teacher gave class officer position to dumb as a rock popular kid when you deserved it more? Don’t make waves. People will think you’re difficult. Friend’s dad made comments about how you’re growing up in all the right places? OK, no more sleepovers for Anastasia, but we definitely will not say anything. You don’t want that kind of reputation. People will think you’re difficult.

This is why I’m the easy to work with engineer. This is why I’ve designed all the projects nobody else wanted, why I’ve served on boards I didn’t have time or energy for, why I did the work other people complained about, why I spent a year of my life practicing engineering at a foldable table half taken up by other people’s file boxes in an actual storage room, while people who didn’t even have degrees got real cubicles. I’d always been told the world was allowed to walk on me, that I was a nice girl and that means you don’t make waves, you don’t offend, you don’t speak up, you stay grateful for what you have, because really nobody owes you anything, which really means you deserve nothing.

This week, something clicked, and all of that changed. I actually spoke the words, “If this guy doesn’t step off me with an urgent quickness, I’m going back to my old job!” to my boss, and then, “Stay out of my files and away from my projects for the rest of your life!” to my coworker. My boss was understanding. My coworker was stunned. My intern looked on with the same face I make when I see any of the women in the Black Panther movie being extremely badass. It felt like an out of body experience, and I liked it.

This didn’t come out of nowhere, of course. That would be crazy. I can explain.

I joined my current working group a month and a half ago, and due to some shifting of personnel, I became the lead engineer after three weeks. The other engineer in the group is fresh out of school. He’s been in the group for five months. They also brought on one other engineer, but he’s been there just a few days, so he’s an unknown quantity at this point. He seems fine. I’ve been with our organization longer than anyone else here, including our boss, and I transferred over from the most respected division because the work this group does is more complimentary to my research interests, and I needed a more field-based position for a couple years in order to advance to higher, director level positions.

The fresh out of school coworker, whom I’ll call AG from here forward (it stands for Arrogant Guy, which is a perfectly accurate description) did not take the shakeup in which I became our group’s lead engineer very well at all. He seems to think that because he’s been in this working group longer, he owns the place, and that it doesn’t matter that I’m actually quite drastically ahead of him professionally, tenure-wise, and everything else. He’s had no mentor like what I had as a new engineer, and therefore has no professional courtesy. I overheard him the other day telling someone he trained me. The reality is, I mostly trained myself, although he did give me some links to videos I wanted to watch from our machines’ manufacturers, so maybe that’s what he thinks training is.

The worst part isn’t his attitude, although that’s pretty horrible, but the fact that he has no sense of boundaries at all. He thinks every project is his, and horns in on everything he possibly can. A month ago, I did a field investigation in conjunction with another engineer who left a week later, and a technician. We got back to the office, and AG, who was not on the mission, took the flash drive of the data, said, “I’ll process this now” and I never saw it again. I didn’t question it because I was still brand new, and I was just learning the system.

A couple weeks later, he was out of town at a training, and our boss told me to conduct an analysis at the request of a client. I did the analysis, and when I finished it, my boss wanted it, but I had an appointment that morning and was out of the office. The boss knew this and was ok with waiting until I got back. AG came back into the office, told the boss, “I’ll do it.”, repeated my analysis, and luckily cc’d me on all these emails. I got back to the office, saw this, worked through lunch to assemble the presentation my boss wanted, ran to his office while AG was still away for lunch, and gave him the presentation. Once again, luckily, it was Ramadan at the time, which meant my boss was fasting, and would be spending lunchtime in his office. Had he or I eaten lunch that day, this would not have worked, and AG would have stolen my assignment right out from under me. It was then that I started to realize that I was going to have to do something about this.

A few days ago, I was talking with my boss about a project that I’m the assigned engineer of. He asked me about the presentation for it to give to the client, and I told him I’d finished it. I showed it to him, and he was happy with it. AG overheard this conversation, and went into my files on the shared drive, changing a few things, adding a bunch of things, and not saying a single word to me about it. When I saw this, I went to my boss. I told him that I need AG to step off me quickly, because I absolutely cannot work like this. Luckily, he understood completely, and said he’d work on writing a policy to address this sort of thing.

The following day, the boss and I were presenting my analysis via webinar to a client, and they asked a question. My boss and I both said we didn’t have the test data they were talking about. AG, who was sitting in on the webinar, blurted out that he did, ran out for his laptop, came back in, and basically took over the webinar, discussing an analysis nobody asked him to do, on a project that didn’t belong to him, with data we have no idea where he got. We were horrified.

When I got back to my desk, AG, looking very pleased with himself, told me that if I wanted to do the analysis myself, that was ok, but he was doing the next step of it, and would contact the client with his findings. I was ready to spit nails at this point, but maintained my composure. I walked over to him, looked him straight in the eye, and in a calm and even tone, told him to stay out of my projects for the rest of his life.

See? I was a major bitch at work this week, but we’re having a policy implementation meeting on Monday, and the boss is going to talk with all of the engineers about staying out of each other’s projects, the procedure for assigning projects, and timelines for completing them, in addition to file management, data processing, and other things relevant. AG will know he can’t step on my toes anymore, and if he does, my boss assures me that he won’t hesitate to take official disciplinary action.

The thing is, this is how he’s been the entire time he’s been here. I talked with the engineer who left, and she said, “Yeah, that’s just how AG is. That’s his personality.” But why should he be allowed to continue that? I don’t think he should be. Frankly, I’m glad I got fed up enough to call this out for what it was, incite the boss to make an official policy, which he allowed me to contribute to the development of, and change things for the good of the group. We’re going to be better off for this, and my boss told me he’s glad I came to him. He is now speaking to me in terms of when I am a director, not if, but when. Apparently, being unafraid to call out a bad situation is part of being leadership material. I have learned valuable lessons from this, and I will continue to learn.

It’s like Tina Fey said, “Bitches get stuff done.”

Sorry, AG, your lead engineer is kind of a bitch, but if you stop stepping on her toes, you’ll be just fine. Stay in your lane, and I am, in fact, a very easy engineer to work with.

We Have to Talk About Immigrants

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In the current episode of the 2018 season of The World Has Completely Gone Off The Rails, have you noticed how much people hate immigrants?

We have to talk about this. I’m the wife of an immigrant. I spent years of my life living on the US-Mexico border. I currently reside in a state heavily affected by the current policies, and I’m a person with common sense who can read, therefore I’m completely fed up with the current national discourse on the subject.

First of all, American white people (because it’s pretty much always white people), do you even understand how stupid we all look when your first question when you see a crying child being separated from their parents is, “Well, did they come here legally?” Take off the MAGA hat for a second, stay away from the tin foil hat, and realize that nobody in their right mind wants to leave their home country unless things are really bad there, or something really good is waiting for them in the new place.

Really, think about it. You may think it would be cool or fun to live abroad, but have you ever really considered the logistics and details of it? I have. My husband is from England. It’s a great place, but I know if we moved there, which we may someday, it would be hard for me in some ways. I couldn’t get my favorite foods anymore. I would have to learn new customs, new laws, new cultural norms. If something happened to one of my relatives, I’d have to take an international flight to get to them, and that’s expensive. My professional licenses would need to be transferred. None of my electronics would work without converters. These are little things, I know, and that’s moving to a country people like to go to, not just whatever is next door and isn’t the situation you’re running from. The latter has no choice in it whatsoever. This isn’t something people are doing for fun. This is the international equivalent of your neighbor banging on your door because their house is on fire. Are you going to let them in or not?

These people are coming here because things have gotten bad where they came from. Have you ever been to the non-touristy parts of Honduras, Mexico, or any other country in that region, or even lived in a metro area that included both US and Mexican cities? Cartels run the show, child soldiers are a thing that exists, and the economy is horrible. When I lived on the border, there was one town in Mexico about 20 minutes from me that went through 5 police chiefs in one year because the cartels kept killing them. If you look at that place on Google Street View, you’ll see a bunch of Mexican Army checkpoints in the streets. Law enforcement is powerless, the government is bought, and people do really upstanding things like shooting up children’s birthday parties (something I used to hear about on the radio a lot when I lived on the border).

These people coming here didn’t want to leave their homes. They had no choice, and I would bet my entire salary for the rest of my life that if you were in that situation, you’d do exactly the same thing. I know I would. Even living on the US side of the border, as I did, it wasn’t if, but when, someone you knew was killed in a cartel-related incident. In the case of the person I knew, it was a case of mistaken identity. That sort of thing isn’t uncommon. They kill innocent people all the time, and are basically never caught or brought to justice. Yes, you absolutely would leave that environment by any means possible if you thought you could give your kids a better life somewhere else. Don’t act like you wouldn’t.

“But, Anastasia, they’re coming here to take all our welfare benefits! We shouldn’t have to support them!”

Where do I begin? First of all, you’re a morally bankrupt excuse for a person if you think that granting political asylum to people is worth less than the cost of some food stamps and Medicaid. That stuff isn’t even expensive. I wish they could all get full benefits, I really do. The reality is, immigrants are generally ineligible for benefits, and undocumented immigrants are always ineligible because they don’t have a social security number. When my husband got his green card, the immigration people were very clear that he could not qualify for any form of public assistance for five years. He’s never gotten public assistance, even after that, but the fact remains, immigrants are not coming here and eating up all the welfare benefits because they’re simply not allowed to get them in the first place.

Plus, social welfare benefits take up a minuscule portion of the federal budget compared to numerous other things. If you’re a real fiscal conservative, maybe you should be demanding the Department of Defense be audited, or check out how many tax breaks Wal-Mart got last year while paying their workers so little that most qualify for food stamps. We don’t need a single immigrant to have fiscal problems. We’ve proven over and over again that we’re fantastic at creating our own.

“But Obama did this, too!”

No he didn’t. Neither did Bush. Neither did Clinton. Neither did the other Bush. Neither did Reagan. Neither did Carter. Do you see the point here? Let’s not make this a Democrats vs Republicans thing. It’s so much bigger than political parties. We’ve got Laura Bush writing op-eds in the Washington Post against separating migrant families at the border. That alone should tell you this isn’t left and right. We’ve got the Southern Baptist Convention making statements against this. Religious Republicans, does that mean anything to you? This is about those with some shred of humanity drawing the line at this, and those completely devoid of humanity refusing to. If you’re a Republican, you should be extra outraged because this administration is perpetrating these acts under your party’s name. If you’re not completely pissed off about having something you identify with associated with this, ask yourself why.

“But there were horrible atrocities against Native Americans, Black Americans, and Japanese Americans throughout history, and I didn’t see you being outraged about that. Democrats are just looking for a pet cause to be outraged about.”

I was born in the 1980’s. I was not alive for things like slavery, Wounded Knee, Native American kids being sent to residential schools, or the Japanese internment. Hell, I’m not even sure my parents were alive for much of that stuff. I do know that those things were taught in history class as things we definitely don’t want to repeat. That’s what makes this so horrifying. We were taught about those other parts of history in school so that we would know not to do that sort of thing again, and here we are, doing it again, and we’re alive for it this time. Of course we’re outraged! This flies in the face of everything we were ever taught was ok!

Now, for you people who actually think this stuff is ok, that it’s actually excusable, or in some way commendable, to separate asylum seeking families, or even undocumented families who made it into the US, I really need you to ask yourself why you think that.

Why do you feel entitled to sit on a high horse just because you won some draw in the birth lottery and happened to be born into a country that was mostly safe for you to grow up in, and in most cases, to be born white, to middle or upper class parents, and therefore at the top of the heap even in this country? We didn’t earn any of this. We were just born here. It’s not like people are walking into our yard and driving off in our car that we worked and paid for. They’re crossing an arbitrary border created by politicians, into a place that is safer than what they left behind, and you feel self-righteous just because you were born on this side of that border? That’s illogical.

We all need to realize that every one of us has more in common with any given one of these immigrants than we do with the elites who are having them put into cages. That’s really what this comes down to. We’re not the rich. We’re not the powerful. Any one of us could be taken from any security we thought we had at any moment. We live in a country where people lose their homes and livelihoods because they got sick, or injured, or had a kid who did. We live in a place where millions of people are homeless and just as many homes are empty because the banks got bailed out when the economy crashed, but the homeowners never did. We live in a place where we’re told that we don’t deserve a living wage unless we get a highly sought after degree, and that we’re stupid for going into debt for that degree. We live in a place where fertility rates are falling, not only because people want fewer kids, but because an entire generation cannot afford to have children in the numbers needed to sustain our economy, and our social security system is not going to be around for those of us working today because of it.

Everything about our place in the food chain of class is precarious, and I think half the reason some people cast metaphorical stones at migrants is because they don’t want to admit to themselves that that could be us. The shoe isn’t on the other foot now, but it could be, and our government is comprised of some people who wouldn’t mind a bit if it were. The rich will always be fine. The poor will always be screwed. It’s those of us in the middle who feel the differences, and that’s got to have something to do with why so many middle class white people want to excuse putting migrant children into cages. “No, that couldn’t possibly be me or my kids. I’m here. I work hard. I’m ok. Right? Right?”

We have to do better. Donate to RAICES, the ACLU, and any other organization you know of that is providing immigration attorneys to help. Children in cages is not our legacy. It can’t be. We draw the line right now.

I Was the One at Career Day

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Two skinny boys with fade haircuts and soccer jerseys sat next to each other in the front row as I was about to start my presentation on civil engineering. It was Career Day at my kids’ school, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. The boy on the left, tan with black hair and eyes the color of dark chocolate, asked me, “Mommy, can I wear your hard hat?” and so I handed it to him. He sat there the whole time, wearing my hard hat, proud as could be that his mommy had come to the school to meet his friends and tell them about engineering. “My mom builds the biggest bridges ever!”, he told a girl sitting behind him. She smiled approvingly. Apparently, when you’re a few days shy of 7, this is worth some street cred.

At the end of my presentation, the boy sitting next to my son raised his hand. He said, “Have you ever heard of [consulting firm]?”

I said, “Yes, I know it well. I almost ended up working there.”

He replied, “My daddy works there. He’s an engineer, too.”

“What’s his name? I probably know him.”, I asked.

The boy told me his father’s name, and sure enough, he was the CEO, and I do know him. He interviewed me twice, passed me over once, and made an offer the second time. I told the boy that his father is a brilliant engineer, and that he does work that everybody respects, because that’s true. He smiled, probably mostly amused by the fact that his schoolmate’s mom knows his dad. Civil engineering really is a small profession.

As the kids filed out, I thought to myself how glad I am that I chose my employer over that firm when I had both options in play.

It was a significant crossroads in my life as an engineer. I could go to the fastest growing consulting firm in our region of the country, receive bonuses for every project I completed, drink free craft beer out of the office fridge, and work in a hip looking office in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood just east of the Central Business District and right by a train station. That firm looks so shiny on the surface. They have the best looking and best dressed engineers, and they roll into local government meetings with the precision of an Army unit (not surprising, as I served in the Army with one of their VP’s), the flare of a fraternity step dance team, and the smoothness of every politician up the hill in the capital building combined. They do the kind of work that gets written up in the paper for its originality, its relevance, and its sheer good looks. Their permit parties draw a crowd that includes the Mayor, Senators, and sometimes local actors and musicians. They are a shiny firm, and I wanted in since the day I arrived in this city.

At the last minute, I stopped short and accepted an offer from a state agency to work in an ugly building in an area with terrible traffic, and do work that nobody would ever hear about unless I messed up badly enough that people died. It came down to a gut feeling, and the fact that I trusted my first boss here at this state agency to let me be there for my family. I did not trust the leadership of that firm to have my interests in mind in that way. The hours they worked, it was clear that they were relying very heavily on their spouses or hired help to care for their kids, and while I don’t judge them or anybody else for that, it would not have worked for my family, and it didn’t seem like they were flexible on it.

Could I have made more money at that firm? I’m not sure. I might have been able to, but I’ve done better than expected here. The one thing I do know is that of the two civil engineers with kids in that room at that moment, I was the one at Career Day. That’s worth something, too.

 

For the new engineering grads

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Judging by my university’s Instagram last weekend, and the preparations at work for the impending arrival of interns (I’m expected to mentor officially this summer! That’s both exciting and concerning.) it appears graduation just happened. With that in mind, I want to talk to the new engineering grads for a minute about what I’ve learned in this field over the past few years. There’s a lot I wish I’d known going in, and maybe I can impart some of that. I’m new enough in the field that I remember my thesis defense like it was yesterday, but experienced enough that I’ve passed the PE exam, and some other people have passed it since I did. Career-wise, I’ve held three jobs, my current one being a promotion within the same organization as the last, and my salary has gone up 48% in three years due to strategic moves and promotions. As of two days ago, I’m officially in charge of a few people, which scares the shit out of me at this point, but I’ll get used to it. Anyway, that’s who I am, and I’ve got something to say to recent grads. Maybe some of this applies to non-engineers, too. I don’t know. Take what you will from it.

I had a shitty job when I was an EIT, and it’s ok if that’s how you start out, too.

Being that I was, at that time, a single parent, I couldn’t sit around and wait for my dream job to show up, so I had to take what I could get in the highly competitive city I needed to move to. I was an out of state applicant from a school most people hadn’t heard of, and while I brought with me an impressive paper count, glowing references, and an EIT certificate, I was still competing with the graduates of a huge program at a university that had been named, that very year, the top public research university in the nation, and the graduates of another well-known and nearby university that takes pride in graduating more engineers than any other university in the country. The deck was heavily stacked against me, and I knew it. I took what was offered, a contract position with a well-respected government agency, for a project that looked impressive on a CV. I knew going in that it was crap. It involved a part of my field that I wasn’t particularly interested in (and that was reaffirmed for me every day that I was there), the pay was horrible, and not having paid time off or health insurance was extremely unsustainable in the long run.

Yet, that job was exactly what I needed at the time. It put me in touch with hundreds of other engineers, government and private sector alike, and it did look impressive. I also learned a lot there. That’s an important thing to remember. Even the shittiest job in the world will teach you lessons that you are better off for learning, so focus on that part, and be positive. Know it’s not forever, be actively planning your next move, and take what there is to be gained from it.

Your employment needs may change quickly.

At any given stage in your career, you’re going to need something different out of your workplace. At first, I needed a paycheck sufficient to cover rent, utilities, daycare, food, and the payment on a used Mazda3. After that, I needed a place that knew how to develop engineers from EIT’s to PE’s. Now, I need an environment that grants me the freedom to research and analyze in line with my own interests.

I can’t stress enough that early in your career, you need a boss who knows what to do with EIT’s. You need support at that stage, and one of the biggest lessons going from my first job to my second was just how much I couldn’t do this alone. When my state decoupled the PE exam from the experience requirement, I decided to take the exam ASAP. I told my boss at my first job this, and he was happy about that, but also had no idea how to support me in it. Nobody could tell me where to get the manuals I needed. There was no allowance for prep courses. There was no time given at work to study. Nobody knew what to do with an EIT in that place, and I’m glad I didn’t take the exam while working there.

My second job was the complete opposite. It was a PE factory. There was an established procedure. Our director would decide which two EIT’s would take the exam each time it was given, and we would be sent to a prep course during working hours, two days a week for three months. We were given all our manuals and an inclusive reference book, along with access to a database of practice problems and solutions. We were allowed several hours a week to study at work during the month prior to the exam, our workload was lightened, and we were given the week of the exam off work, free of charge, to study and rest. Not surprisingly, everyone from there passes. Nobody can remember a time when someone failed. I took the PE exam a year and a half after arriving at that job (I had to wait for it to be my turn), and passed with a respectable score on the first try. I do not think I would have passed on the first try if I had still been at my first job when I took the exam. Your first four years in this field are crucial. Spend at least half of it somewhere that knows how to develop an EIT into a PE. I am a drastically better engineer for coming up in a place like that for the majority of my EIT years.

Six months after I passed the PE exam, I was promoted and moved to a different division, one that doesn’t develop their EIT’s as intensively, but allows the intellectual freedom I need to be the kind of engineer I really am. There’s far less oversight, and it’s not nearly as structured or regimented, which means EIT’s are kind of on their own for seeking out development opportunities that exist within our organization. I no longer have a mentor. I am no longer sent on job rotations. I’m not encouraged to take field trips anymore. Yet, I’m allowed to do my own in-house research. I can recommend changes to policy, software, and procedure, and people listen and potentially implement it. This is where Anastasia PE can thrive. It isn’t that my second job was a bad place to work. It was actually a fantastic place to work. This place meets more of my needs at this stage than they did, though, and that’s why I was able to promote in this direction.

Be honest with yourself about what your needs are. If you’re a new EIT, you need a mentor. You need a development program. You need a peer group, and people just above where you are to tell you what the next stage looks like. I can’t recommend those things highly enough. It costs $350 to take the PE exam. You only want to do it once. This gives you much better odds.

Keep a journal of your projects.

This was told to me by my mentor on my first day at my second job. Since you’re going to have to write about all these projects when you apply for your PE license, you need to remember them very well. Keep a record of what they were, who else worked on them, and unique things about them. This will make the process of writing your Supplemental Experience Record (SER) far easier when the time comes. The time will come much quicker than you think it will.

You will quite likely make more money if you move around strategically.

I’m a government employee, and our salaries are public record. That means I know exactly how much my bosses and coworkers are being paid. As it turns out, I’m out-earning all my peers, and have nearly caught up to my non-management coworkers who have been with our organization for a decade longer than I have. It’s not because I’m a better engineer than they are. In fact, some of them are drastically better engineers than I am. The difference is, I’ve entered salary negotiations every 1-2 years. I switched jobs twice as an EIT, once being a promotion, and then the standard 10% PE raise resulted in two raises in a single year, causing an 18% pay increase and completely changing my salary trajectory. Those I am quickly closing in on have been in the same job since they graduated from college. They are excellent at their jobs, so I know why they stayed, but it has pretty clearly cost them.

If there is one thing the past year has taught me, it is that moving around is good for the bank account. Do a good job wherever you are, and always have your ear to the ground for news of new opportunities that suit you. If you make it clear to the people you apply with that you’re quite happy where you are, but you’re really passionate about the work that they do and would transfer over if the terms are right, they will make the terms right. You’ll have glowing references wherever you go, and decent raises every couple years. You’ll probably also do better work.

Yet, it’s important to be strategic. Don’t just take any old job that offers you a good paycheck. Make sure it puts you in line for where you actually want to be. Ask people who have been in the field for a long time what their experience looks like, especially those in jobs you yourself would like to have someday. Our profession is big on mentoring. People will advise you if you ask.

Be honest about what kind of engineer you are.

I remember my first trip to the state DOT. It was for a research symposium, and I was presenting. We were hoping for a million dollars more in funding, so a lot hinged on our success at this. We drove to the Capital, and rode the elevator up to the top floor of the state DOT building, and I just remember being impressed the whole time. The engineers we met there were brilliant. They asked tough questions, talked about exciting design projects that were in the works, and tossed around the most innovative ideas I’d ever heard as if they were not a big deal at all. These were state level engineers, and I wanted to be part of their world. For a long time, that’s what I thought working at the state DOT was. It was the only side of it I had ever seen.

I’m glad I saw the other side before I began applying for jobs. One day, a professor of mine invited a couple of local area level state DOT engineers to speak with our class about ongoing projects and their role in them. They talked about managing traffic control contractors, and pulling permits. They told us about heavy equipment issues, and how many times in the course of their career they had to pave the same road. They talked about the times they were called in because a culvert had washed out, and showed us pictures of ditch failures during storms. I came away from that seminar knowing that I wanted no part of that type of work.

Our field is huge. Sure, everybody pictures civil engineers as the people sitting at a computer with AutoCAD, drawing plans for a bridge. That’s a fraction of who we are. In fact, I don’t even like AutoCAD, and I love this field. Know who you are and determine what you want out of it. If you’re someone who thinks heavy equipment is cool, and you majored in engineering because your parents told you that you were too smart to just go work construction all your life, then you need to be in the field. You need to manage construction. If you’re one who joined civil engineering because the job market is better than it is in physics, but you’re really into that highly analytical side of things (this is basically me), then you need to find a position that will allow you to do extremely detailed analysis and preferably publish your findings. Maybe you’re one who thought architecture looked cool, but the closest your local university offered was civil engineering. You need to go design structures. You probably like AutoCAD, too. Freak. (I’m kidding.) My point is that there’s something for everybody in this field, and you need to figure out what aspect of it actually suits you so that you can move forward in that direction without getting stuck doing something you don’t even like. Just because you CAN do it doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Lead when it is indicated.

I remember the first time someone said I had leadership skills. I was a TA, and had to take charge of something that I wasn’t really comfortable taking charge of, but I did it anyway because nobody else was stepping up, and it went really well. My professor commended me on my leadership skills. Later on, at my first job, I had to coordinate meetings sometimes between multiple government agencies, contractors, and engineering firms with conflicting interests. I always came into it with a goal of understanding all their needs and finding a solution that suited everyone. My boss received emails raving about my customer service and, you guessed it, leadership skills. In my previous job, I was asked to lead projects, and even serve on the board of a group for engineers under 40. Then I got hired in a position that requires me to serve as a team leader. I am not a person who craves power. It actually makes me super nervous when people look to me for the solution to things, but one of the most important things an engineer can do is get right with the idea that most of us will be expected to lead in some capacity throughout our career. Learn how to be the type of leader that people want to follow.

Understand our role in society.

This is the fun part. We have a really cool job to do. When you tell people you’re an engineer, they will often be impressed by that. They’ll think you’re really smart, and ask you a lot of questions. Engage with the community. We’re here to serve them. We have a duty to understand what they need and want from us. Yes, people are going to complain to you about their least favorite intersection, ask you why there’s so much traffic, and tag you in whatever pop-sci video the internet is obsessed with. Be patient, explain that no, we really don’t need solar roadways because asphalt is actually a really environmentally friendly material that works great for what we need it to do. Empathize with their concerns about traffic, and let them know the way to request an intersection analysis to see if that traffic light that’s driving them nuts is really working the way it should be. Get them involved. These are taxpayers. We need their support, and ultimately, we work for them.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to speak to groups of students. This is an opportunity you should cherish above all others. Some of these kids might become civil engineers because you showed them a side of the profession they had never seen before. Maybe they thought engineering was boring until you put a human face on it and told them about something cool you got to do. You might be the only engineer some of them have ever met. If you are a woman or a person of color, maybe you are the only engineer they have ever met who represents that. You may be the only person who has ever told any given child what it takes to become an engineer. They’re going to have a lot of questions. Answer all of them, even the silly ones, and be honored that that you’re the person who gets to do that. Sometimes the kids ask better questions than adults.

Be generous with your time. Judge the science fair. Do the volunteering event. Sponsor the youth basketball team. Advise the elementary school STEM club. Show your community that you’re more than the person responsible for the orange barricades they dodge on their way to work. People will trust your judgment more if they know you’re in this right alongside them.

Finally…

Four years as a working engineer go by fast, way faster than college did. One day, you’re a new grad, not sure what this will hold for you, and then one day, you wake up and you’re a PE with interns and EIT’s looking up at you like you’re the real deal they aspire to be. Make the most of it. Learn from everybody. Above all, enjoy it. It’s a real trip to get to do this. People are going to pay millions of dollars to build or research stuff that came from your head. Isn’t that wild?

Welcome to the world’s second oldest profession. We’re glad you’re here.

On Imposters, and Ponds

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I said to my friend, as we walked back from the corner market where we buy coffee, “Do you ever feel like you’re supposed to have your shit together a lot more than you do, and that you probably never will? Like, do you feel like we’re supposed to know a lot about this, but that you don’t actually know enough to talk about the things people ask us about? I feel like that a lot.”

He laughed and said, “I can’t remember ever feeling any way but that. It hit me in grad school, and never left. It actually makes me extremely nervous that people listen to what I say about engineering stuff, like one day, they’re all going to realize I’m actually a total fraud.”

I said, “But you’re such a good engineer. You’re moving up faster than any of the rest of us who were hired together. I am not moving up as fast as you. Maybe in my new job, I will, but that would never happen for me here because I don’t have the aptitude for this subject.”

He looked confused, and said, “Anastasia, you’re a really good engineer. I don’t know why you think you’re not. OK, I do know, because we compare ourselves to each other, and to people nobody has any business comparing themselves to, but the thing you have to remember, and so do I, is that we are working at a level that only a tiny percentage of our profession will ever make it to. What are your college classmates doing right now? Just think about it.”

He was right. We are, objectively speaking, high level engineers, and since we live in this world every day, we tend to forget where we fit in the food chain of our profession. We design projects we never dared to dream of until we were here. We have published our research worldwide. We have reluctantly reached a station in life and in society, such that when we speak, people tend to listen, and when we show up on a project site, or to a seminar, or a community outreach event, people ask us the questions everyone wants answers to. We’re just in our 30’s, and know we have far to go from here, but people treat us like we’re already there.

None of our superiors are unclear about it. We’re on one of the paths that makes directors, tenured professors, deans of research, and other people with intimidating sounding titles. So we chug our coffee, and we design, and we move into positions that suit our skills, him within this division, and me, as of two weeks from now, at a different facility, with a different group, one which has promised me that I can do research again, and we strive, because we’re just in our 30’s, and we’re not done yet, and we have no idea how this ends for us.

Due to my current foray into the design side, I haven’t published in three years, and I die a little inside when I consider that if I stayed here, I may never publish, or even conduct research, again. And then I think to myself, who even considers publishing, or conducting funded research for that matter, a necessity? Who actually gets to design cool stuff like this, and then presumes to say, “OK, that was fun, but I want to do something different now because I like it better.”? For most people, the salary in this place alone would be enough, the nice people a serious bonus, and the retirement plan a true blessing. For me, while I am grateful for all of that, I know I can do more if I return to the side of our profession where my strengths lie, and so I am. It helps that it’s an internal transfer, and comes with a raise. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could leave a good job like my current one.

My friend understands this completely. He nods and says if he hadn’t been chosen for his current job, he would be feeling restless, too. We met during what amounts to a rite of passage for those who succeed in this field, time spent as design engineers in a place with a name people recognize. Then we both applied for a position within our department that is half design and half research. They interviewed us both, and chose him. His PhD is relevant to it. I would have chosen him, too. So to the other side of the office he went, and I stayed put, in my windowless cube, to continue designing, knowing that the experience would benefit me in the long term, but knowing on some level that it wasn’t forever, while telling myself I would be fine if it were.

I waited another year, and then my opportunity came a month ago. I was hired day before yesterday. It isn’t real yet. For the past two days, everyone at work has been telling me how surprised they are to hear that I do not think I am a good design engineer. They all emphatically disagree, but wish me well on my return to the field of my research, reminding me that if I ever want to come back, I’ll be welcome. It is comforting, in a way, to know that they see me better than I see myself. Maybe I am a good design engineer, but I know I can do more in my new role, and I would regret for the rest of my life if I let it pass me by.

Today, a comment on another friend’s status made me conscious of how I relate to life, and especially work. I was talking about how tough the housing market is in cities where young professionals need to be in order to work to our potential, how it’s easy to get a cheap house in a place with limited opportunities, but if you want to do high level work in STEM, you have to go to certain cities, which tend to be hot markets. His reply was, “Better to be a big fish in a small pond.”

I have always disagreed with that sentiment. I get uneasy when I am the most knowledgeable person in the room. There’s no way to grow in that environment, and I’m not done growing yet. I can’t be a big fish in a small pond. I have been in that situation in the past. In fact, it almost completely describes my first marriage, and my entire life until 2013. I was restless, snippy at everyone, and miserable, because I knew I wasn’t going to reach my potential in those surroundings.

The past couple years, however, I’ve been a tiny fish in a big, ocean sized pond with unfamiliar terrain and strong currents, and that was almost as anxiety inducing. While I could theoretically work to potential in this environment, my barrier to it wasn’t external anymore. It was internal. When I am in the company of 50 engineers who can do any given project better than I could, who can understand the relevant concepts in half the time I can, and who will extrapolate things from it that I never would, there exists the overwhelming knowledge that I would never move up in this place.

My boss tells me how much she appreciates my positive attitude, grace under pressure, and willingness to do any project I’m assigned. But I can’t help but notice that my projects aren’t moving up in complexity along the same trajectory as my peers’ projects are. I will top out here relatively quickly. I can do well enough to score decently on a performance review and pull my weight as a team member, but I know I can do more than just tread water. The pond may be too big, I may be too small, or maybe I just relate to the eco-system differently than my fellow inhabitants.

When I think back on it, my former lab, which was a perfect fit, isn’t a smaller pond than my current workplace. It just has different attributes. I can move freely in that pond. I don’t feel that I’m running into a wall built of other people’s limitations or my own. I can lead. In my new capacity, I’ll be required to. I can publish, and people will want to read my work. I can influence, and I can do it without feeling like as much of a fraud as I so often do here because I will be working within the area of my strengths again. I don’t need a smaller pond, I just need the right large pond.

My boss brings up another point often. We only understand how small our knowledge is compared to the vastness of our profession because we have enough education and experience to see the reality of it, and put that in perspective. We could live to be 100, and never know enough to consider ourselves knowledgeable, but that’s why there are a lot of us. We each know something different, and we share that knowledge as necessary. It is, however, easy to lose sight of that in our relentless pursuit of further understanding and innovation, and take every small failure and setback to mean we are actually not that good at this. We compare our outtakes to our colleagues’ highlight reels.

I would say, of all the things I have done as an engineer, more than anything I have designed or published, I am proud that every place I’ve worked would gladly hire me back if I decided I’d made a mistake by leaving. I suppose that, of all things, reassures me that when it comes to my work, the good outweighs the bad, even when I know I am not working to potential, and that is worth something. Even so, I think this new endeavor of mine will turn out very interestingly.

So here’s to engineering, and imposter syndrome, and ponds with all the right traits. To new opportunities, valuable experience, and continued research. To big mighty structures, and tiny little molecules, and every one of us who lives on the precipice of the vast unknown.

A Lesson on Voting, Courtesy of a Hotdog

ballot_box_1

The year was 2009, and it was fall in west Texas when a hotdog changed my entire perspective on life.

My kids and I had been attending one of those Army events that people refer to as “mandatory fun”, the ones where the commander shows up in cargo shorts with his impeccably dressed wife and children, and talks about making memories, the kids run themselves tired on the playground, officers and enlisted play football against each other, and everyone pretends the imminent deployment orders don’t exist. So there I was, minding my own business on the sidelines of that football game when my eyes wandered to the left, and I saw it. Someone I sort of knew was giving their son, who couldn’t have been two years old, a hotdog. I was instantly horrified. The choking hazard! The nitrates! What part of what animal is that even made of?! Who eats that?!

When I got home, I did what any judgmental internet mommy would do, and I hammered out the rant to end all rants about “people feeding their kids garbage”, on a message board whose focus was cloth diapering, babywearing, and breastfeeding. The final sentence of that rant was, “What planet are these imbeciles from that it’s ok to feed small children a hotdog?” I hit “post”, and sat back as smug as a South Park resident who just bought a Prius, waiting for my vindication. I was absolutely certain everyone on that site would see this my way. I was dead wrong.

The comments were about 90%, “Well, I feed my kids hotdogs. What’s wrong with that?” and “You really need to chill and stop judging other people’s food choices.” Apparently, to the vast majority of people, hotdogs are a pretty valid food choice at nearly any age. Having never eaten one in my entire life because my parents raised me to believe that processed meats are disgusting and never to be consumed, I had no idea that most people actually kind of like them. What’s more, a lot of those people cannot imagine why I would eat something like tofu. To them, it’s nasty! After the knee jerk cognitive dissonance wore off, I had to recalibrate my thought process. What if it’s all just food?

I have still never eaten a hotdog, nor have I fed one to my children, but the lesson I learned from the hotdog incident has stuck with me. We all come to situations thinking our life experience is the default setting, that we’re the normal ones. Some people do this to a greater extent than others, but we all do it to some extent. When we are conscious of this fact, we can adjust our actions and reactions accordingly, and things can be very different than they are.

Consider that all of us are working with an extremely biased sample. Ask ten people to finish the sentence, “Everyone I know thinks…” and you’re going to learn a lot about what kind of people they surround themselves with, where they come from, and what influences them. The real eye-opening part of this exercise is that there is actually no right or wrong answer. It’s all perspective.

I may say, “Everyone I know thinks Bernie Sanders would have made a great president.”

Another person might say, “Everyone I know thinks that socialism is a way to subjugate the people.”

This is where division happens. We’re a tribal species, and we all think our tribe is the normal one because it’s the one we know best. If we had been born into different circumstances, a different tribe, we would think something else was the normal way. It’s also part of how we end up with surprising outcomes, the sort of thing 2016 seemed full of. Follow me on the Bernie example.

What if I told you that a huge reason Bernie didn’t win the primary is because people like me didn’t show up to vote for him (I voted for him, but most of my generation didn’t show up), and that a huge part of the reason for that is because, according to us, everyone we knew was voting for him? The algorithms on social media that intentionally create echo chambers contribute to this phenomenon as well, but the fact is, a lot of us were in a situation where we didn’t really know anybody who wasn’t voting for Bernie. This made going to the polls seem a lot less urgent than it really was, so a lot of people simply didn’t. If we had been conscious of the fact that our tribe where everybody was voting for Bernie was actually not a resounding majority of the population, this probably would have changed attitudes toward voting quite substantially, and maybe we’d be talking about President Sanders right now.

You can even extend Hillary Clinton’s loss in November to the same sort of mentality. In other words, we didn’t learn our lesson. Sure, Hillary wasn’t many people’s dream candidate. She wasn’t mine either. When a Democratic Socialist was an option, it’s hard to look with favor upon a mainstream Democrat, even for someone like myself, who has voted for countless mainstream Democrats prior to 2016. Even so, everyone I knew thought Clinton would mop the floor with Trump. Even Nate Silver, whose analytics are usually on point, had her winning by a wide margin going into Election Day. “Everyone we knew was going to hold their nose and vote for her.” Or “Everyone we knew wore pants suits and said #ImWithHer.” Depending who we ask. The problem is, of course, that even people who are generally fantastic at analytics totally underestimated the limited scope of “everyone we know”. Voter turnout was horrible. I don’t think that would have been the case if we hadn’t thought, and even been fed by the media, that everyone was already voting for her.

The lesson here is, always show up. If you believe in someone who’s running for office, show up for them even if you think everyone else in town is going to vote for them and your vote won’t matter. If 2016 taught us anything, it is the lesson of the hotdog. We may not be part of the majority we think we are. Vote as if your preferred outcome has a chance, but that every vote is important to fulfilling it.

So why doesn’t this apply equally to the other side? Why do they seem to show up in droves no matter what? I think the explanation lies in neuroscience. Studies have shown that conservatives have an enlarged amygdala compared to liberals. The amygdala is the part of the brain that manages the fight or flight response, and all things fear. To put it simply, conservatives are scared. Of what? That depends who you ask and what everyone they know has observed going on in the world that is concerning, and frankly, the details are really not important in this context. The important part is that that fear stemming from their large and active amygdala, propels them to show up for every election. Large turnout favors the most liberal candidate. Low turnout favors the most conservative. This means we have to count on the fact that most of the conservatives will show up.

We have to counterweight that by appealing to liberal logic. There are more of us. That’s not just what everyone I know says. That’s what polls show. We could elect candidates who will truly serve the people to every elected office. We can’t do it if we don’t show up, though. Everyone you know may be voting for the good guys, everyone I know may be, too. Let’s all remember we don’t know many people, relatively speaking, and show up in November. They’ll be there. It’s on us to determine how much influence they’ll have.

Ex-wives, the IRS, and Software

money-bags

I am a divorced person. My husband is also a divorced person. Maybe you are, too, and you know exactly what that’s like. Maybe you’re not, and you think we’re a little questionable because of it. Maybe you’re just curious about what went down. One thing I’ve learned is that being a pretty unapologetic divorced person often gets a reaction. I don’t think it’s anything shameful, or tragic, or mysterious. It’s just a societal custom that a pretty significant percentage of us take part in at some point, some more than once. It doesn’t have to be awful, although it certainly can be, but whether or not it’s awful, it’s always interesting.

One thing I have learned in my half decade or so as a divorced person is that divorce is kind of a taboo, even though it’s so common, and because of that, we divorced people tend to get blindsided by a lot of weird stuff. This keeps happening to me, even though I come from a family that has been divorcing one another with reckless abandon, much to the Catholic church’s chagrin, since long before it was cool. (Oddly, my own parents have been married 47 years, and happily from what I can tell. Yet, my sister and I are both divorced. It’s a family tradition, even if they choose not to partake.) Even these people do not talk about the day to day weirdness that comes with existing in the world as a divorced person, and I really wish they would.

Anyway, this morning, I was blindsided once again by some weird divorced person juju that the once-and-done married, happy singles, and never making it legals could not conjure up in their wildest imaginations. I am absolutely certain we are not the only people this has happened to, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of it, so I want other people to know about this because it can happen.

It all started a month ago when my husband and I got a letter in the mail from the IRS. Nothing you ever wanted to hear began like that, but we soon realized they just wanted to verify our identities. We were told it was probably due to a breach of Equifax data the year prior, and assumed it was a technicality. We were annoyed, but what choice did we have? We needed our tax return processed, and this was the way that was going to happen. I grabbed a snack, the documents they wanted, and messaged with some friends whose meme game is strong while I sat on hold for 58 minutes. When someone picked up, I cheerfully explained that I just wanted to verify my husband’s and my identities because we got a letter in the mail saying that we needed to do that.

It was all going great until she asked me for my name, social security number, and birth date. I told her these things, and her entire tone of voice changed to the one you’ve probably only heard from the campus police they caught you double fisting Pabst Blue Ribbon at Kappa Sigma while being not a day over 18. Anyway, she said in the campus cop voice, “Are you a third party or something?” I said, “No, I’m Anastasia. This is mine and my husband’s tax return. I’m listed as spouse.” Continuing in the campus cop tone of voice, she said, “You’re going to have to verify your identity in person, Ms. Bernoulli.” (nonverbally adding, “if that IS your real name”) and transferred me to another department.

They were much nicer, scheduled us for an appointment a month out, and told us the giant stack of documents to bring with us to it. We mulled it over for that entire month, wondering what the problem was. Were we compromised in the Equifax breach even though Equifax told us we weren’t? Was there another data breach at the VA and my information was leaked this time? Was it because we have different last names? Was it because my husband is an immigrant? Was it because this is our first year filing together? Nothing made sense, and we did a great job of driving ourselves crazy over it.

This morning, we walked into the IRS office with our giant stack of documents, well dressed and looking as official as we could ever be capable of. They called us back immediately, and started asking for ID’s and various other things. Lucky for us, the agent was much nicer than the people on the phone were. About five minutes into this, she asked me, “When did you change your name?” I was confused. She said, “You had a different name last year. When did you change it?” I showed her my tax return from last year, showing that I had the same name. I was still confused. Then it hit us like a wrecking ball what had happened.

My husband spoke up, “Is the birth date May 4, 1976, and is the name Mary? That’s my ex-wife. How did she even get on there? This is Anastasia. She’s my wife. We filed together this year for the first time. We got married last June.”

While the agent could not confirm what was on her screen, we knew that’s what it was because she had a major lightbulb moment right about then, and started working at sorting it all out so our return could move forward. It wasn’t easy, and required multiple system overrides, but as far as we are aware, this issue is now taken care of. We were in the IRS office for about 45 minutes from start to finish, which is better than I was expecting.

The takeaway lesson from all this was that since his ex-wife’s information had been in my husband’s Intuit account when he filed taxes in years past, it somehow repopulated in some of the pages when it was being transmitted to the IRS, but my information was on other pages, so there were massive inconsistencies. It was not like this when we assembled the return. We checked every page multiple times before submitting it, and only his and my information were in there. This was very unexpected. It never happened to me when I got divorced because I got my own Intuit account after separating from my ex-husband, and had never filed taxes with him from there. There were no wires to cross, whereas my husband used his same account, removing her information and adding mine. We had no reason to believe this would cause a problem, but it did.

While I don’t expect this is a broad sweeping problem, our case proves it can happen, and I want people to know about this. In fact, I want people to know about a lot of the weird and unexpected things that happen when you’re divorced, especially the things that can come up years later, the stuff nobody ever tells you about. This is one example, but there are many others. Maybe I’ll write a book on that one day. In the comments, if you’re also a divorced person, why not tell me something unexpected that happened to you.

Let’s Talk About Bridges

highway-overpass

As the Civil Engineer Friend to many, people often talk with me about infrastructure. This is cool. I enjoy being able to inform, debunk, and even foster enthusiasm for a topic a lot of people never think about until a disaster hits the news. I have seen a lot of misconceptions floating around, though, and I want to address a few of them today. The Miami bridge collapse is on everybody’s mind lately, and people wonder if they’re safe on the bridges they use daily, so grab a cup of coffee and let’s talk about bridges.

Misconception 1: The Romans built better bridges than today’s engineers do, and if we funded our state DOT’s better, maybe they could build us things as good as what the Romans had.

While I’m not one to turn down funding, this isn’t what we need it for. In fact, due to advances in Ultra High Performance Concrete (UHPC), we could build bridges that last as long as the Roman ones do, maybe longer. There are materials out there so strong that demolishing them when needed is actually a real challenge. So why don’t we build entire bridges out of that, and just use them for centuries on end?

The answer is pretty simple. When I sit down at my desk to design a bridge, I have a challenge that the engineers of Ancient Rome did not have. The population is growing at a much faster rate than it was back then, and I have to consider traffic projections. Today’s bridges reach functional obsolescence long before structural deficiency. If we spent the money to build an entire bridge out of UHPC, everybody would be demanding for it to come down within 40 years because it would be too small for the demands of those times. Who cares that it would have probably lasted for centuries? If it isn’t serving its purpose, the extra construction costs were a waste.

With the way populations are rising in most major cities today, we need to be focusing more on taking the focus off car commuting, and expanding public transit, including light rail, than on showing each other pictures of Roman bridges and saying, “Why can’t our engineers do this anymore?” We can. You don’t want us to. Trust me.

Misconception 2: Accelerated Bridge Construction means “build a bridge fast”. It’s far better to take our time and do it right.

Everyone is talking about Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) ever since last Friday when an ABC bridge dropped a span in an open street in Miami. While I’ll refrain from speculating on the cause of that collapse, I will say, without hesitation, that ABC technology was not to blame for it. ABC is not just building a bridge faster than usual. It is an entirely different set of methods for construction. Things that would normally be cast in place are instead precast, and moved into place in large units (girders with the deck already on, entire abutments, etc), held there by UHPC, like a giant Lego set. It’s actually an amazing process that we should be fascinated with, not fearful of.

There are numerous reasons to use ABC. Some bridges go through the habitat or migration path of protected species, meaning long lasting construction projects are not an option without severe environmental consequences. ABC can allow a bridge to be replaced for the good of the human users without negative effects to the local wildlife. The same can be said of fragile marshes. In some areas where the ground freezes, bridges through protected marsh land have been replaced through ABC during months when the ground is frozen, allowing the construction to be completed with no disturbance to the marsh. ABC is a more environmentally friendly way to replace a bridge.

Economics are another important reason that we should be using more ABC, not less. A major roadway that’s shut down or restricted for months to years on end for a standard bridge replacement, costs millions in commerce and productivity. Plus, in states where construction cannot happen year round, this can be exacerbated further, and the benefits of ABC become even more substantial. ABC is more expensive than standard bridge construction, but when costs to society are factored in, it’s practically a steal in many cases.

ABC is safe. There are countless guides, methods, checks, and balances for how to do this, and how not to do it. More contractors are beginning to understand it, and there are nationwide initiatives to educate engineers and contractors about it (I attended a seminar on it earlier this month, in fact!) We cannot let one bad incident detract from use of a technology with such an otherwise positive history. There are ABC bridges all over the country. You’ve probably driven on one, maybe more. You were fine.

Misconception 3: Someone from the state DOT said there are 60 bridges in my city that need repairs! What are you people even doing?! I can’t possibly drive on a bridge that needs repairs!

Bridge repairs are one of my favorite things ever. Given the choice, I’d rather fix an old bridge than design a snazzy new one any day of the week. (I do both, but I really love old bridges that look like lost causes.) Let me tell you about the most common repairs that I do:

Rail retrofits are far and away the most common repair request we get. What this means is that the rail on a bridge is functionally obsolete. Usually, they’ve put a lot of asphalt overlays on the bridge, causing the rail to be a couple inches shorter in relation to the roadway surface than it was when installed, so it doesn’t meet today’s standard for height. Sometimes the rail is just old, and a style the district engineer does not prefer. Sometimes it’s had a lot of vehicle impacts and looks nasty. We then retrofit a new rail that meets today’s standards, and will hopefully be good to go for decades to come. The old rail probably wasn’t unsafe, but the new rail is better.

The next most common repair that I design is surface repair of concrete. What this means is that over the years, usually when the bridge is around 50 years old, the concrete starts to delaminate in certain places. This doesn’t mean the bridge is bad or that you’re going to fall through it. It just means we need to chip away that delaminated concrete, clean the reinforcing steel in some cases, and replace it with new concrete that is of better quality. This is far more common in some districts than others since concrete composition is highly regional, deicing salts are not used everywhere, and some bridges are in marine environments, but overall, it’s an extremely common repair.

Other repairs that should never ever scare you include heat straightening of steel girders due to vehicle impact, addition of a drainage flume, shot blasting a deck to apply a new overlay, addition of new riprap at slopes, cleaning and resetting of steel shoes and bearings, cleaning and sealing of expansion joints. I’ve designed all these repairs and then some, and every single bridge stayed open to traffic, never had a questionable load rating, and nobody was ever unsafe on them.

We do these repairs so the bridges won’t become unsafe. All of those bridges needed repairs so they wouldn’t pose a hazard to anybody. They didn’t need repairs because they were already a hazard. We do everything we can to keep them from getting to that point, and there are programs that exist that prioritize exactly that (these are my favorite programs to participate in at work).

That’s not to say there aren’t some repairs that are more concerning, and some that result in dangerous situations. There are. You wouldn’t be allowed on those bridges. We risk our licenses on keeping the people safe and we’re extremely picky when it comes to what bridges we allow to stay open for that exact reason. We have boots on the ground on all of our roadways every day, and when something concerning is observed, we don’t hesitate to close a bridge. If you get hurt, we never practice again. It’s really that simple. We have a huge interest in keeping you safe.

Oh, and one last thing on this one. Sometimes there’s something that looks really scary, but actually isn’t, like a big hole in the concrete (Riprap) slope under a bridge, or a cracked wingwall, really ugly stuff that makes it look like the bridge is falling down. The only way that could hurt you is if you fell in it or tripped over it. It’s not a structural problem with the bridge. There are numerous other things that look scary, but really aren’t structurally damning. However, I have been part of a team that closed a bridge permanently over a pattern of cracks that we could not see until we got out of the truck and walked the deck slowly. The really scary stuff, you probably can’t see as you drive by. That’s why bridge inspectors are out there doing their job every day, and bridges are on a schedule of inspections that allows us to catch problems before they become dangerous to users.

Bottom line:

I’m glad we’re talking about infrastructure. This is something people need to take more of an interest in, not just when there’s a disaster and it becomes cool to criticize engineers and weigh in on our chosen methods, but every day. It’s like anything else, there are a ton of misconceptions. It isn’t that people tell lies about us, but that most members of the media don’t really understand what goes into designing things that are meant to be used by every person in society. It’s a big job, and I’m glad to do it, even on the days when it seems like everyone has an opinion on how it should be done better. If I can ask one thing, I would want everyone to keep focused on facts, research, and expert accounts, and not to get sidetracked by sensationalism and pithy memes. We can appreciate our Roman heritage without thinking we should go back to their methods. We can acknowledge a tragedy without scrapping everything associated with it. We can, and we should, keep all things in perspective in order to do our best work.