No, it’s not like Blue Apron.

governmentcheese

I’m home with a sick kid today, which means I spent most of my morning catching up with the happenings on social media. My newsfeed is blowing up with one thing, Trump’s proposal on food stamps. Of course, since I surround myself with mostly very liberal or at least left leaning people, everyone I know is horrified by it. Some of my low-income friends who receive SNAP benefits are really insulted by the entire suggestion, and they should be. I’m insulted for them.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the current regime has proposed to cut SNAP (food stamp) allotments and replace half of the value with basically commodity foods. The things mentioned were shelf stable milk, canned fruits and vegetables, canned fish and meats, pasta, rice, and peanut butter. It’s basically every government cheese joke told on the elementary school playground come to life.

I grew up in a somewhat poor town in the rural south. We joked about government cheese a lot because most people got it, and all of us had eaten it. It wasn’t bad, but its presence in your home definitely marked you as a “have not” in a world of “haves”, so we did what kids do, and joked about it. My family wasn’t eligible for that type of help because we owned our land, but sometimes others would share their government food allotments with us, so I’m no stranger to those plain brown packages nor their no-frills, calorie dense, contents. While I was glad to eat it as a kid, the idea of bringing it back just strikes me as crass.

This also reminds me of another lesson I learned the hard way, this time as an adult. People in this country hate the poor. I have been mostly fortunate in life, but in 2011, two weeks before my youngest child was born, my then-husband walked away from his military career, choosing instead to work for $10/hr at a car dealership. This resulted in a situation where we had enough money to pay exactly 1/3 of our bills every month. It was an awful situation in every possible way, and to fully describe what it was like to go from solidly middle class to losing our house, having utilities cut off, and not having enough to eat, would require its own entry, or possibly a book. I do not think I have ever been more scared in my life than I was during those few months. The biggest lesson I learned was that people are really weird about the poor.

There were a few friends who stuck by me. They fed me even if they didn’t have much themselves. They bought things I sewed, even though I know they didn’t need them. They didn’t act like I was stupid. I will never forget the kindness of those few people. Unfortunately, they were in the minority.

Most people say really stupid things to poor people. They ask why you still have a car if you’re so broke, why you can’t move to a cheaper apartment, why you still own a stroller for your baby, why you still own your wedding ring. They don’t understand that not having a car isn’t an option in a city without reliable public transportation, that moving to a new place is more expensive than staying (and that on a reduced income, nobody would approve us as a tenant anyway), that I’d sold just about everything I could on Craigslist already, that that money had already been used for groceries, and what you see is the stuff nobody would buy. They would tell me I needed to put my foot down and make my husband pay those bills, stop blowing all the money, etc. They didn’t hear me when I said nobody was blowing money on anything, that it just wasn’t there.

As we slid down the poverty rabbit hole at fever pitch (all of this took place from May to November) I ended up without a phone. My doctor tried for months to get in touch with me over an abnormal test result, my birth control prescription lapsed and I had no way to schedule an appointment for more because I couldn’t call the doctor, and on two occasions, my kid was stuck at school sick with no way to get ahold of me. The kids didn’t go to the pediatrician because I couldn’t call for an appointment and couldn’t afford the gas to get there even so. When I told people about this, they said, “Cell phones are a luxury. You could still call 911 from yours in a real emergency.” as if that somehow made it ok that I was cut off from the world in general.

They had to believe that the situation I was in was my fault, that I somehow deserved it because I was stupid, and that their rationalizing of it meant it could never happen to them. I honestly think my situation scared them because it proved it could happen to anybody. I had been the wife of an Army Staff Sergeant. I had a brand new house and a brand new car. I had three kids who wore adorable clothes, and one who went to private school. I bellydanced and had lovely costumes. I cooked responsible, consciously sourced, whole foods to rival any hipster housewife. I paid for my homebirth in cash. I was any suburban mom, and when my husband at the time decided that his end of the deal was too much, all of it was ripped away from me and our kids so fast we hardly knew what hit us.

We burned through our savings in a couple months, and it didn’t take long after that for everything to just crash around us. It has only been within the past year that I have stopped fearing the sound of the doorbell, because during those few months, the doorbell meant we were losing our house or a utility was being shut off. I developed anxiety, my psoriasis got worse, and I just generally lived in fear because the basic things I had always been able to count on were not there because someone else made a choice not to provide them anymore. People do not want to believe this can happen to them, so they convince themselves that the people it did happen to, are somehow less deserving, less intelligent, less human. This is how they keep the fear of the reality that it can happen to any of us at bay. I know because I’ve been on that side of it, too.

The new SNAP proposal is born of the same mentality. It’s condescending and dehumanizing. Look at the way the articles in The Hill and several other credible publications are describing it. The administration officials are likening it to Blue Apron meal kits. This is extra insulting because canned goods in government boxes are nothing like Blue Apron, which is a gourmet meal kit service that even I, a working structural engineer, cannot afford on a regular basis. No poor person, no human being, will consider these things similar. The officials and their cronies rib each other, “Blue Apron for the poor, amirite?!” “Ah, good sir, yes, let them eat cake! Actually, wait, no, don’t let them eat cake. That’s an extra! Let them eat shelf stable milk and peanut butter!”

When you’re poor, you know you are, and the entire way you relate to the world is different. Nobody is more intensely aware of “have” and “have not” culture than the “have nots”. Marking the have nots visually in their kitchens is crass and disgusting. People should be trusted to feed themselves. I don’t care if all they want to eat is Cheetos, or if they buy the biggest birthday cake at HEB for their kid and the entire block. I DO NOT CARE. Let them do it. They deserve that tiny bit of normalcy because odds are, nothing else is normal in their lives.

With that said, the average poor person does not want to eat only Cheetos or buy a giant birthday cake. They mostly want what we all want, decent food that their families like to eat, familiar brands, comfort food, all the stuff for grandma’s soup recipe. Studies show that SNAP recipients eat mostly the same way as non-recipients. This idea that they’re blowing their allotments on stupidity is yet another manifestation of the mentality in which people convince themselves that the poor are stupid and can’t be trusted.

I know I got very personal on this issue, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant. The entire point is that everyone who’s in need has a unique story of how they got to that place, and it usually had nothing to do with the horrible failings we’re told usually result in poverty. It was a layoff, an injury, an illness, or maybe they were just born into really disadvantaged circumstances. This stuff is valid, and most of all, it’s human. It happened to me. It could happen to you. When we see poor people as human beings, we don’t want to do things like make them live on preselected survival foods, with no regard for their preferences, allergies, or intolerances, because we wouldn’t like that either. We trust grown adults with their own grocery money because we would want that if it were us.

It also occurs to me that Republicans seem to be the last remaining people who believe upward mobility is a thing that exists in today’s world. This means they think people can overcome bad circumstances, and move up to better ones. In some rare cases, this is true. I managed to get out of that bad situation, and things turned out ok, only due to some very rare circumstances. One big thing we can do to help people try to better their situation is to trust them. My mom taught Kindergarten for years, and she used to always say that kids will rise or stoop to your expectations of them. You tell a kid they’re bad, they’ll be bad. You tell a kid they’re a hard worker, they’ll be a hard worker. This is true of people of all ages. If we tell those who are in need economically that we trust them to choose their own foods, to feed their families the best way they can, to make good choices, they will do exactly that. This is evidenced by the fact that SNAP has the lowest rate of fraud and abuse of nearly any government program. We trust people to manage their own grocery budget, and not surprisingly at all, they do it. If we give them the government foods subscription box, we are telling them they are untrustworthy, and just generally unworthy. What do you think that’s going to do to people’s morale? It’s not going to help, that’s for sure.

Bottom line, can we please not be the country that does this? In today’s economy, with the volatile markets and the constantly changing job market, it could be any of us on the receiving end. Let’s find out every single elected official who supported this idea, and vote them all out as soon as we can. We can’t have this. We’re all people, and demand to be treated as such.

Advertisements

A Week Without FaceBook

bitmoji-20180108021543

A couple weeks ago, I deactivated my FaceBook profile for a week. It was a truly interesting social experiment, and changed the way I think about a lot of things. There are many articles circling the internet lately about the harmful effects that social media is having on social interaction throughout society, many quoting former high level personnel from Google, FaceBook, and Twitter. I’ve read these, as have most people, but until recently, I didn’t take them very seriously. It wasn’t until I actually went without my favorite social media platform for a week that I realized just how good their algorithms are at creating an echo chamber, polarizing people, and being genuinely addictive.

The biggest reason I deactivated my FaceBook was because it was causing problems for me in relationships. My partner had been telling me for the past couple years that I ignore him in favor of FaceBook. This was completely accurate, and I didn’t realize the extent to which it was until I deactivated for a week. Additionally, like most parents, I often tune out and check notifications while sort of helping my kids with their homework, or after they’ve been talking about Minecraft for longer than I find it entertaining to hear about Minecraft (just for reference, the latter is a pretty small amount of time). There is no debate or mitigation on the fact that my time spent on FaceBook was causing detriment to relationships within our home, and deactivation seemed the best way to address that at the time.

During my deactivation, I kept Messenger, mostly because my partner and I communicate with it throughout the day, and it’s functionally no different than text messaging, which I already have on my phone no matter what. I kept my Instagram because it’s a less interactive platform which I spend very little time on (maybe ten minutes a day, and not even every day. I mostly look at my daughter’s pictures, and post a couple times a week.) I have never found Instagram as alluring as FaceBook. I also kept Twitter, on which I have never posted anything, and use solely to follow relevant politicians. Let’s be honest, I kept Twitter because I have to fact check what people claim Trump said, and to take screenshots of the more egregious ones. My deactivation from social media was exclusive to the main FaceBook newsfeed, groups, and profile, but since these comprise well over 90% of my social media interaction, the impact was nearly as substantial as unplugging completely.

The first thing I noticed was that it really is addictive. For the first three days of my deactivation, I still clicked the FaceBook icon on my phone probably a dozen times a day out of habit, only to have it go to the solid blue screen asking me if I want to reactivate my account. At that point, I would close it, and remind myself that I wasn’t on FaceBook now. It reminded me of when I quit smoking, and would sometimes reflexively go outside at certain times of the day, and upon getting there, remember that I didn’t smoke anymore, and go back in. That’s what it felt like to be without FaceBook for the first three days. There were no physical side-effects, of course, but emotionally, it felt very similar to what quitting smoking felt like.

The second thing I noticed was that my sense of time changed. I was still online a lot. I read the news directly from ABC, BBC, The Guardian, and The Hill while I did my hair and makeup in the morning, on breaks from work, and while cooking. I read fashion blogs and vegetarian cooking sites. I enjoyed the very aspect of the internet that made me fall in love with it in the first place, the availability of information. I found, interestingly, that I was able to consume this type of media without losing track of time. An hour spent reading Vegetarian Times recipes or articles from The Guardian while stirring a simmering pot of soup, feels exactly like an hour. An hour spent falling down the FaceBook rabbit hole of notifications, tags, and threads, feels like five minutes. Additionally, it’s way harder to step away from FaceBook than it is to step away from a news article, recipe, or blog entry, if family needs my attention. I found it easier to come and go when I was consuming primarily conventional media or low interaction social media such as Instagram, rather than highly interactive social media like FaceBook.

I would say the biggest realization I came to is that FaceBook is shaping how we interact with each other, and how we view each other. By virtue of the format, we are literally shoving our opinions down each other’s throats all day long. Granted, the newsfeed is highly curated, so the odds of coming to anything we find really objectionable are slimmer than would be natural, but when we do happen upon those opposing views in groups, or occasionally the comments section of a post by that one awesome college classmate whose family is really backward, it’s become so easy to just rip each other to shreds. The reason, I think, is because we come to see each other as less than whole people. We become a set of attributes, aggregate data, views. For all I know, a person on a group who totally makes my skin crawl with their conservatism, which I perceive as hatred of the poor, could actually be a really fun person to hang out with, but I’ll never know it because they probably live on the other side of the country, and in this context, I have no idea that they’re a fun person, because all I see is comments about bootstraps which show a willful ignorance of the economic realities of our country as far as I’m concerned.

Think about it. I guarantee there are people in your life you enjoy spending time with even if they’re completely opposite of you politically or socially. I can think of a lot of people like that. There are people I served in the Army with whom I consider family, and love to hang out with, but would never ever want to talk politics with because we’re so far opposites. I don’t see them as less than human on social media because I know them as whole people. I’ve known them since before social media existed in our lives. I knew them before I knew their views. Now it’s the opposite. We know people’s views before we know them, and this does dehumanize our interactions.

The other aspect of this is that it makes things really awkward when people from various stages of your life, people you’d never introduce to each other, end up arguing on your status. College roommate calls your uncle a racist piece of shit because he doesn’t understand the importance of Black Lives Matter. Uncle calls your coworker an entitled participation trophy millennial because she believes in affirmative action. To you, these are both awesome people that you value for completely different reasons, and you don’t want to smack either of them down, but neither one of them sees the other as a person. They see each other as the factions they’ve relegated each other to in their minds.

Social media had a lot of potential to bring people together, and to some extent, it has. I’ve met some amazing people on FaceBook. I cannot count on two hands and two feet the number of people on my friends list I wish lived down the street instead of across the country or state, because I would hang out with them all the time if I could. There are many others I met in person when I lived elsewhere, and haven’t had the chance to see for years because we’ve both moved. I am so thankful to have social media to keep me in touch with those people. Ultimately, it’s all of these people who keep me coming back to FaceBook. I want them in my life, and in 2018, social media is the tool for that.

With that said, I don’t think my first deactivation will be my last. After the observations that I made during the week I spent off FaceBook, I see many benefits to strategic breaks to keep grounded in reality, and avoid getting sucked into the worst aspects of it. The week I spent off FaceBook felt good. I felt lighter in a way. My partner and I went out on Christmas Eve, and my phone stayed in my purse the entire time. I was focused on him, not on posting a picture of the funny thing he did, or how many people liked that picture. It felt authentic, honest, and simple in the best way.

Social media is not like other advancements in media that we’ve seen over the course of modern history. This is not akin to how people thought TV would do more harm than good, or how certain ancient Greek philosophers opposed books because they thought they’d harm their students’ ability to commit things to memory. This is different. Social media talks back. It’s highly curated, interactive, and tailored to be the drug every person wants. We need to be mindful of what we’re working with. I’m not telling anyone else how they should manage this. I’m saying, let’s acknowledge this for the double edged sword that it is, and consume wisely.

 

The trajectory was, overall, positive.

bitmoji-20171218105549

Do you ever have a moment where you realize that this is your life, and you just kind of observe it and declare that it is good? Last night, I was putting two sick kids to bed. One was complaining of a headache, the other was coughing nonstop. I walked down their hallway, turned into the game room, passed the stairs where our beloved ginger cat, Beowulf, was waiting to grab my foot as I passed, and went into the master bathroom for Motrin and Dimetapp. It was in that moment, right about when I passed Beowulf, that it hit me. I am a structural engineer. My salary got us the mortgage for this gorgeous house. I have a job that leaves me energy for my family when I get home. My kids have their own rooms, good food, medicine, clothes that fit and suit the weather, and a great place to grow up. We even have two adorable cats. This holiday season will be the first of many in this home. Every single day is still a first, and a reminder that yes, we made it. 2017 was the year that we finally made it.

Today, as we celebrate the holidays with a big lunch for the entire division, we’re all festive as we close up our projects for the year, and prepare to start back after the holidays with more enthusiasm and motivation than ever. This is my second holiday season at the state DOT, but the end of my first full calendar year here, and my first full calendar year designing structures. While I am still not where I would like to be as far as my aptitude for the subject matter is concerned, I can say with confidence that I am a better engineer today than I was a year ago. That in itself is something to be grateful for.

I designed four new bridges this year, and designed repairs for five. The repairs ranged from new rails to complete structural overhauls. I have a few more new bridges in my queue for after the first of the year, and was just assigned another one this morning. One thing I learned is that life is never boring when you are a bridge engineer. Every bridge is different, and even the simplest one imaginable can throw you a curveball that makes it require something really interesting of you. The first bridge I designed this year was a simple two-span thing across a gorge on a rural state highway down by the coast. We thought it would be so simple that we could just assign standard drawings for its components, and all the engineering it would require would be quantities calculations and foundation design. Then we realized that the topographical conditions required us to make the first span roughly 1/3 the length of the second, requiring an extensive analysis of the piles supporting the interior bent. I learned a lot from this bridge.

I’ll never forget that analysis. It was during it that I realized I no longer had to consciously make myself think like a structural engineer. That pile analysis was what it took to push me from a pavement engineer who had, for some reason, been hired to design bridges, to a legitimate structural engineer. My work has been much less exhausting since. Nobody can ever tell me the human mind isn’t malleable. In 2017, I learned to think like a structural engineer, and the prospect of doing this for the rest of my life became a lot less taxing.

I have noticed that my bridges have gotten progressively more difficult. I had one that was built in two stages. I had a couple with very different geometric concerns than any I’d seen in the past. I’ve started getting bridges that go over roadways, not just over water. This adds more considerations to the design process. Sometimes I worry that I stagnate in skills development, or that literally everybody in this department is a better engineer than I am, but when I look at my trajectory, and see that it is generally upward, I am reasonably sure that I am a good enough engineer to be here, and that this is a strong foundation upon which to build.

I also received some very meaningful projects, my first extensive repairs. I’d done rail retrofits before, but this was the first time I got assigned to design major structural repairs for bridges to prevent them from becoming structurally deficient. It was amazing, and if I had my choice of what to do forever, it would be that. Designing new bridges is fun and all, but repairing old bridges is amazing. You have to look through plan sets older than your parents, figure out how the bridge was built, why the faulty part of it is failing, and how to fix it without a loss of functionality. Every repair is different. There is no standard for any of it. You never know what you’re going to find when you start looking into an old bridge. It’s amazingly cool. I did three extensive repair bridges this year, and two minor ones.

I inspected my first bridges this year, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get that red clay off my boots! That was an interesting and challenging experience. I don’t know that our local personnel knew what to make of the delegation from the Capitol. We were a bunch of skinny vegetarians with really clean safety gear, and the area engineer correctly pointed out that my cuffed skinny jeans might not have been the best thing to wear in the field. But as the sun rose, and we crossed the river in hip waders, ultimately inspecting all 35 spans of the bridge in question, I think we earned their respect. Their intern had never met a female engineer before. I hope inspecting that bridge with me will influence his perspective positively as he goes on in his career. While I don’t expect I’ll be applying for a position as a full time inspector anytime soon, I enjoyed the experience more than I thought I would.

The second half of the year was mostly consumed by the Professional Engineer’s exam. I prepared for it, and ultimately took it in October. I passed on the first try, keeping the departmental winning streak alive. Nobody from here has failed in years. The pressure was high. I scored a respectable 82. I deserve to be in this profession. I have earned the right to be here, to have the title of PE. I don’t know when this will be real to me. I still haven’t unpacked my books. I need to do that soon.

In all, it was a good year. There’s a lot to celebrate this holiday season. As I submit the design notes for my last bridge of the year, I feel triumphant. Nine bridges are better because I was here. I contributed positively to the PE exam stats for my organization, my state, and my university. I feel less stressed than I did a year ago. I have reached every major milestone of adulthood that had felt distant from me before, owning a home, passing the PE exam, etc. I am not where I want to be. I hope to make major improvements in many aspects of my life next year, earn a large raise, and do better in every way. The trajectory is positive, though, and I can’t complain about a thing.

 

An Economy Scarier than a War

I remember a quiz in a late 90’s issue of Seventeen Magazine, the purpose of which was to tell you where you fall on the political spectrum. By that time, I knew I was a Democrat because I was pro-choice, non-religious, and in favor of social programs and environmental protection, but took the quiz anyway. After all, that was one of the fun parts about that magazine. One of the questions asked what the scariest thing would be for us to hear the president say. I don’t remember what all the answer choices were, but my choice was, “We are at war”. This was years before I joined the Army, years before 9/11, years before I got my own front row seat to my generation’s war. I don’t remember anything else about that quiz, but I remember that that one question seemed like the biggest no brainer to me. What could ever be worse than a war?

I maintained that view for a long time. I’m a member of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, because war is disgusting, and we had no reason to do it in this case. I’ll always believe that. I will never forget the day my battalion received orders. It was cold and rainy, and the roof of the motorpool building where we were ordered to formation was leaking onto my head. My First Sergeant stood at the front of the formation, and told us we were going, and that it would be soon. I remember thinking I had expected better of our country than this, to start a war for oil. Who does that? My Commander in Chief was George W. Bush, a man I did not vote for and disagreed with on nearly everything, and now he was sending my generation off to die for rich men’s bank accounts. Of course, my battalion would be handling the engineering support for this ill-fated endeavor. In that moment, and the years that followed, I could not imagine we could sink any lower than that.

That has changed. 2017 makes George W’s war seem quaint by comparison. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older now than I was when the war started, or because I have more to lose now than I did then, but it feels like the interests of the people are truly at odds with the goals of the government now. There was always disagreement before, but this is different from that. The biggest mistake people are making right now is drawing a false equivalence between what’s going on at present, and things we didn’t agree with from past administrations. There is nothing in our recent history that compares to the current state of affairs.

The economic changes alone are enough to keep a person up at night. Many of us, me included, will fare worse under the new tax plan than we did under the old one. I am in a position where loss of a deduction makes a real difference. I make enough money that I don’t qualify for most tax credits, and that my student loan payments are fairly high for the amount of the loans. Yet, I make little enough that in order to buy a house that fit my family, we had to move to an outer suburb, and I’m seriously considering keeping my car for years after it’s paid off because the idea of not having a payment is more attractive than the idea of getting a new car. If it’s like this for a working structural engineer with a good job, then what the hell is it like for everybody else? Most importantly, what’s it going to be like in a few years?

We all grew up hearing stories about what our great-grandparents had to do to get through the Great Depression. It seemed like ancient history. It could never happen to us. Even when the recession and market crash of 2008 put our gas prices through the roof, and drove up the cost of nearly everything, we figured that was probably as bad as it could get. Plus, Obama fixed all that. I remember driving from Statesboro, GA to Austin, TX for less than $50 worth of gas in 2013.

I am scared of what will happen if the economy crashes again. We cannot use the skills our grandparents used to get through the Great Depression because we are living in a completely different world than they were. Families are spread far apart, most people know more people online than they do in their own neighborhood. Far fewer people grow food or produce anything than did so in those days. We’re a service and data economy, not a production economy. If we fall like they did, we’re going to fall a lot harder. With the way wealth is being shifted to the super rich and away from all the rest of us, it’s when, not if that happens, unless something changes fast.

This is far scarier than the war was. War, as we know it in the US, stays far away. We fought our war in other people’s backyards, and while I’m in no way proud of that fact, my kids, who experienced this alongside their father and me, were largely shielded from the ugliest parts of it. “Mommy served in the Army as an engineer, just like she’s an engineer now. She built stuff.”, “Daddy is far away fixing airplanes.” We never felt they needed to know about good guys and bad guys, especially since we didn’t particularly believe in the mission, so we kept it to the fact that sometimes grown-ups have to go away to do their jobs, but they’ll come back. There was no need to burden them with the scary parts when they were young.

This economy is different. I can’t shield them from it, and that scares me endlessly. I became an engineer so that they would have a better life than I did. I worked really hard to get to a place where I could support them in such a way that they would have a nice house to grow up in, good clothes to wear, plenty of good food to eat, and a college education they didn’t have to go into debt for. When I was a kid, people whose parents were engineers got this. My kids don’t get that. They do have a good home. They do have good clothes and food. We’ll help them all we can with college, but will it be enough so that they don’t have to go into debt? I honestly couldn’t tell you. And all of this, for how long? Today, tax restructuring and loss of net neutrality, with its own set of dire economic consequences. Tomorrow, what else will they do?

If I could answer that Seventeen Magazine quiz today, I would say the scariest thing the president could say is, “We are going to rip up everything about the economy that was working for the people, and start over again.” because that’s basically what they did, and I have no idea how we are going to recover from this, but I know that we have to.

People First, Net Neutrality Always

Demonstrators stage a protest near the U.S. Supreme Court building, on the anniversary of the Citizens United decision, in WashingtonLast night, I came home after a long day of designing bridges, and opened the packages that had come in while I was away. There was cat food and litter from Chewy, and assorted goods from Amazon, all Prime of course. Then I went upstairs and watched some old Addams Family episodes with my partner on Hulu, streaming through our Roku stick. While doing this, I comparison shopped for groceries on Prime Pantry, Thrive, and HEB Curbside.

Everything about what you just read is an almost uniquely millennial way to save money on the things we need, and to maximize the time that we don’t have since many of us have had to move to outer suburbs to find affordable housing once we had children, and face long commutes to work. Every single part of it is vulnerable if net neutrality is lost. How many people do you know under the age of 40 who still have cable or satellite TV? Very few, right? Most of us have found that it is cheaper to just get internet, and then use streaming apps like Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, which charge drastically less than the cable providers charge for TV. It’s actually fully possible to have plenty to watch without ever paying for a single app, which we did for a while when we first got our Roku. Even if you add multiple paid streaming apps, as we did eventually, you’re still coming out ahead.

Most of us discovered this workaround circa 2010, so that means the cable companies have been steadily losing our business ever since. Aside from internet service, they are a relic of a bygone era, clinging to things that nobody wants anymore. I’ll never forget the time I called our cable company to discontinue our internet service because we had saved a little by bundling it with our mobile phone service. Nothing illustrates this point better than the conversation that resulted.

They said, “Well, we offer bundled services, too.” I replied, “Yeah, but not with anything I actually want.” They told me their TV packages were better than any other, and that my partner would love if I got him all the football channels for only $20. I replied that my partner doesn’t like sports, and since he’s British, especially doesn’t like American football, and that we didn’t want cable TV, period. I explained that offering us cable TV when we distinctly don’t want it is like offering us a great deal on steaks whilst knowing that we are vegetarians. This went on for ten minutes as they tried to convince me that I was really missing out by forgoing a service I had lived without, by choice, for the majority of my adult life by that point. I will spare you the sales pitch they gave me for landline phone service. Suffice it to say, they did not take, “I haven’t used a landline since I was 17” for an answer. These people are extremely out of touch with today’s grown adults and what we want, and it’s costing them money. How many millions of us are choosing not to pay that extra $60/mo or whatever it is, for cable TV because Hulu is just as good and costs $7? Do you think the cable companies like that?

So net neutrality goes away, and companies like AT&T (who hawk U-Verse TV at us every time we pay our phone bill), Comcast (who couldn’t believe I really didn’t want TV and phone service along with my internet. Why pay $50 for the one thing you’ll use when you can pay $100 and get a bunch of shit you never wanted?!), and Time Warner (who thought my British partner just needed more NFL in his life and their extended cable package was the answer), are now in charge of how we receive the internet. How many minutes do you think it will take them to implement paid streaming? Do the words, “$100 internet bill” make you feel warm and fuzzy? These people want our money, and right now, they’re not getting as much of it as they were. Do we really want to give them the green light to get it from us by whatever means necessary? I think not.

It doesn’t stop at streaming, though. This is one deep rabbit hole of suck. Who among us has not bought Amazon knockoffs of our favorite clothes? There are entire groups on FaceBook devoted to finding the best knockoffs. It’s huge. We find something on ModCloth, and love it, but because wages haven’t kept up with inflation, and we’re paying $1800/mo for a 2 BR apartment an hour from work, we can’t afford a $60 skirt no matter how cute it is, so we find a good replica of it on Amazon for $15, and order it in two colors. Sure, we’ll have to wait a month for them to arrive from China, and we’ll have to air them out on the balcony when they arrive because the dyes make them smell awful at first, but we basically just cut out the middle man and got what we needed to look professional at a price we can afford. Sounds great. Is great.

Now, consider that ModCloth was just bought by Jet. Jet is owned by Wal-Mart. Therefore, the retailer we all came to know and love as an indie dress shop, is actually Wal-Mart now. This isn’t news to anybody, but it means there are huge corporate interests in keeping our money there. Make no mistake about it, these people do not like that we have found a way to get goods from, quite likely, the same Chinese sellers they go through, via independent Amazon stores. Does anyone actually believe it would be out of reach for service providers to ally with major corporations to filter search results to exclude direct-buys from Chinese sellers?

There are lots of sites that exist for the sole purpose of saving money compared to the OG retailers. Ever bought glasses from Zenni? Ever ordered from Thrive rather than spending your “Whole Paycheck” at Whole Foods? Ever bought party supplies or gifts from Ali Express, Alibaba, or any of the many sites that sell discounted products in exchange for reviews and seller feedback? Ever bought your pet’s food on Chewy because they’re about half the price of Prime Pantry and 1/3 the price of the upscale pet market in your neighborhood? In order for the competition that has resulted in the ability to search and compare for the lowest price on the things we need, we have to have an internet that brings our search results to us in an unbiased way. Sure, we can still visit whatever sites we want, theoretically anyway, and maybe for a price, but to get the full use of this capability, the internet must be neutral, and serve the people before the corporations.

Life is harder these days than it was when our parents were our age. We work harder, and get less, and we need every little life hack we can get to save just a little more. The internet, more than anything else, has allowed us to create these workarounds to mitigate the rising cost of living and our ever stagnated wages. The internet service companies do not care about us. They want our money and they are mad that we’re not giving them as much as we used to when cable TV was popular. We cannot let them do this to us. It is us vs them. It doesn’t matter if we are Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated on the right, left, or center, whatever races make up our heritage, who we like to sleep with, where or if we worship, or how we define our gender. Every single one of us is in the same boat, because sorry, Mitt Romney, but corporations are not people. We are people, and in this, we are at odds with the interests of certain corporations. We matter more than they do. I don’t know how much more simply it can be stated.

On Engineering

mem5-1_091516042106On the way to work this morning, I ended up listening to some of the music I listened to when I was a young soldier in the US Army School of Engineering, practically a lifetime ago. It got me thinking of how my involvement with the engineering profession has changed over the years, and how if you’d told me at 19 that I would end up working state level structural design for the second largest state DOT in the nation, I would have never believed it. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

Most people at one level actually have no idea what the next level consists of.

Remember in high school, how all the teachers in your AP classes would say things like, “If you think this is hard, you’re never going to survive college. It’s way harder there.”? Then remember looking back, after your first week of university level classes, and saying, “Is that all?” I got way better grades in college than I did in high school (at least for the first year) with a small fraction of the effort. After being told all my life how difficult every university level class I would ever take would be, I kind of felt like I must be doing it wrong for it to be as easy as I found it at first. I wasn’t, though. My AP teachers just gave me the wrong information. Maybe it was intentional to make us work harder, but it definitely was inaccurate. Engineering is like that.

“You’ll never survive upper division classes if you don’t totally ace this awful triple variable vector calculus test that nobody in the history of humanity has ever gotten more than a 60% on!”

“You may think that cut rate effort will get you by as an undergrad, but you’ll never get into grad school half-assing it like this!”

“Your future employers will ask for your transcripts, and they don’t like B’s.”

It is never as bad as it seems. Upper division classes are fun because you get to just think like an engineer all day, not switch back and forth. Graduate level classes are even better because you get to just focus in depth on stuff you like. It’s not as hard as you think it is to discover something new or get published to a journal. Peer review is really only scary the first time (it’s annoying after that). If an employer wants to see your transcript, it’s only to prove you graduated. They’ll totally hire a B student who aces the interview. The biggest lesson I took from all of this is that there’s really nothing extraordinary about any of it. Anyone who had enough resources at their disposal and decided to do this, realistically could.

You have to do a good job at something, but your connections matter just as much.

I didn’t graduate with honors. I had about a 3.3 average. I graduated with something that mattered more, a paper count. I also happened to catch the interest of some very well connected people because I did research in a field few people had ever heard of, and managed to present it to university donors with enough flare (and in a very well fitted suit) that donations came rolling in for the lab. Shortly after this happened, my department head decided I would be a really good professor since I had been a good TA and could get research funding, so he contacted a colleague at a university I’d always been told by my parents was way out of my league. Before I knew it, I was scrambling together an application, with things like transcripts and GRE scores a mere formality because all anyone cared about was my research and the votes of confidence from people they trusted on these matters. A few weeks later, I was across a desk from one of the world’s leading researchers in my field, and he was telling me how it was worth a quarter million dollars of his funding for me to come do a PhD in his lab. What the hell just happened, and whose body did I inhabit by accident?

All my life, I’d been told that only people who made 4.0 averages, perfect GRE scores, and were just naturally gifted at this stuff got fellowships like that, or even the chance at a PhD. I had been told all my life that because I’m lazy and disgusting, and can’t be bothered to do very well at things I don’t find interesting or vital to life that could never be me. When it basically fell in my lap, I suddenly understood every slacker looking professor I’d ever met in my life. What if they weren’t misunderstood geniuses who were just too good for the rest of us to understand? What if they were just normal people like me, who ended up behind the right podium at the right time?

Research isn’t better than design. Design isn’t better than field.

I started out in the field. I was raised in this profession on construction sites. I did a little bit of design, yes, but mostly I worked in the field. While I learned a lot, I never enjoyed this. It felt brutish and dirty, and like I didn’t get to use my mind enough. During those years, I idolized design. I wanted to go to work and come home with my boots and uniform still clean like those who worked design side. I had had enough of dust, and diesel smoke from bulldozers, and equipment platoon sergeants who didn’t think I knew anything because they had been in the Army longer than I had been alive. In my mind, everything about this profession had to be better than the field, and to end up in the field would represent a personal failure of the deepest level.

Later, in the lab, I got a taste of the research side. This was the pinnacle of awesome, what this profession was all about, and a completely different world than the field. It was even better than design. Why would anyone settle for merely applying research, when they could conduct it? I won’t lie, research is a hell of a drug. There are higher highs and lower lows than anything else I’ve ever done, and when you finally publish something, or get funded for something important, there’s nothing else that compares. Yet, there are also a lot of days when you sit and stare at the same machine for hours, wondering why it won’t work, or you get tired of literally everything about your project even though you have at least a year to go on it. Research isn’t perfect either.

I ended up in design. This was a transition made by necessity of family circumstances, not by my own preference, and it took some getting used to. What I found is that design has more in common with research than I had previously given it credit for. I also found that my time in the field serves me better than nearly anything else in my current life as a design engineer. It is also more rewarding than I had originally thought it would be. Passing plan review feels a lot like passing peer review.

There is no inherent better or worse in this field. There are only different sides, and it’s probably best to have some experience in all of them if you can.

PE’s are not all-knowing.

When you’re in civil engineering, the Professional Engineer’s license is the holy grail. From the moment you declare your major, you know that four years after you graduate (two years if you’re in California), you’re going to take the PE exam, and finally get your own seal for your plan sets. It will seem a million years off until you sit down in the exam facility, and the moderator says, “Welcome to the October 2017 Professional Engineer’s Exam”. Then you’ll think to yourself, “How did I get here? I’m not ready to be a PE yet. I just guess at things a lot, and see if they work.”

On the eve of my PE license (providing I passed that exam in October) I finally am able to articulate my profession’s dirty little secret. PE’s don’t know everything. They just have better judgment than EIT’s because they’ve been here longer. Ultimately, this entire profession comes down to understanding basic Newtonian physics and certain material properties well enough to make it work in the way any given project demands. As my steel design professor used to say, “These formulas were not handed down from the almighty. You must understand where they come from so you can use them the way you need to in life.” He was right. There is really nothing sacred about any of this.

 “Right” is subjective.

How do you tell an engineering student from a PE? Ask them a question. The student will develop an answer (possibly a very technically correct one), and cling to it as if their life depends on it. The PE will look at you sideways, take a sip of their whiskey, and say, “Well, that depends on a few things.” Then they will ask you a dozen questions about the situation surrounding the thing your question pertains to, mull it over for a bit, tell you a story about how they had a shitty job when they were an EIT that sent them out in the rain to a project just like this one, and then give you an answer with 10 caveats about when it would and would not work, and a few other possibilities for what it could be. You will get annoyed, and ask another PE. They will do the same thing, but give you a different answer. You could ask every PE on earth, and end up with almost as many answers as PE’s. Most of the answers you get would probably work. Serious determinations often come down to the preferences of one PE, and what informed those is their individual experience. This is a far more subjective profession than people know.

The bottom line, I think, is that nothing is as difficult as it seems, and all the pieces fit together. If you join this profession, there’s probably a place for you. It might not be what you thought it would be. At the end of the day, we help our own, and good things come to those who network. It’s like any other profession in that sense. If you get out of your own head for a minute, kick the imposter syndrome off to the side, and actually take the hand up that’s offered, there’s hardly a limit to what you’ll be able to do. The biggest advice I would give to 19-year-old me is, listen more. Stop thinking you know what’s going on. You really don’t know, and you’ll learn a lot more if you just listen to what’s going on around you, and stop considering the source so much. Everyone has something to teach you. Also, you’re totally not too good to spend your days on a construction site. Yes it sucks, but you’ll be glad you did. Do the tough assignments. Learn the uncomfortable lessons. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Nobody else knows what they’re doing either.

Blame….. monogamy?

Adulting these days is weird for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that our society seems intent on living in complete denial of what exists, while we are, in fact, having to live with the reality of it. I’m an information junkie. I always have been. I will read an article or a book about anything that looks even remotely interesting, but if it relates to something I’m going through, I’ll actively seek out everything I can find on it. Blending families is in the latter category. I’m going to break another societal taboo and be honest about the fact that this is the most difficult thing I have ever done. I was in the Army. I went through engineering school as a single parent. I have built huge bridges and mighty highways where the land was rough and the funding iffy. I have passed peer review in countries where I don’t speak the language. I have played rugby despite weighing only 115 pounds. I have taken the Professional Engineer’s Exam, and qualified for a prestigious doctoral fellowship. All of those things are a walk in the park compared to blending a family. Today, I don’t want to talk about the kids, though. I want to talk about ex’s, because they’re important to this story.

One blended family writer, Wednesday Martin, referred to today’s culture of serial monogamy as “slow motion polygamy”, and I thought that was absolutely brilliant. There have always been blended families, but the dynamics were not what they are today. For much of history, they were formed after the death of a spouse, so a stepparent would probably never meet their partner’s first spouse. In more modern times (our parents’ generation), divorce was a thing, but often, fathers just checked out, and were sometimes never heard from again. Their role was financial, if anything. That’s how the culture was then. Today’s culture is different. Today, we pretty universally agree that in all but the rarest cases, kids should have solid access to both parents, and custody should be shared to whatever degree works for the situation in question.

What this means, though, is that the ex is never really gone. If you have kids with someone, you’re going to interact with that person a lot for years to come, maybe multiple times a week. Honestly, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you my partner speaks to his ex-wife almost every day. It isn’t that he means to speak to her. He Skypes his son while she has him, and she talks to him because she’s there, or when we have the kid, she Skypes and my partner is there. They also have basically equal custody, so there are a lot of ongoing conversations around his daily life. Some are civil, others less so, but the fact is, since we moved in together, I have not gone many days without hearing my husband’s ex-wife’s voice.

This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the kind of thing that wears on a person after a while, especially if the relationship with the ex hasn’t been cordial. The really hard part is that there’s no easy answer. No decent person would tell their partner, “Hey, can you just, like, not call your kid? I’m super sick of your ex’s stupid voice after hearing it every day for three years, and if I have to hear her again, I’m going to throw the phone out the window.” You can’t say stuff like that, even though you will wish you could. In my partner’s defense, he often tries to get these phone calls over with when I’m not home. He knows they bother me, and he tries to mitigate that while still getting what he needs out of the deal. I honestly think he is doing the best that could be done in the situation as it exists.

The unchangeable fact is, though, his ex isn’t gone. Her voice can be heard in my home every day. My partner interacts with her. He talks about her. I see the emails she sends him. When my partner goes to school functions for his son, she’s there. I’m not. Only rarely do I accompany him to things pertaining to his son since many occur when I’m at work, or I have my own kids to tend to. She goes to all of them because that’s her kid. So let’s take a look at this. My partner does parenting with her. Then he comes home to me. Or he calls her to talk to his son, then he sits down and eats dinner with me. He pays child support to her, and splits household expenses with me. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like a logistical form of polygamy. No, he’s not splitting nights between us, or involved romantically with us both, but he has an involvement with her pertaining to their son, and a relationship with me otherwise. This isn’t uncommon. Think of everyone you know who’s divorced and has kids. Most have some kind of ongoing interaction with their ex. The more equal the schedule, the greater the interaction. It is, for all practical purposes, slow motion logistical polygamy.

When you start to look at it that way, you have to delve into this a little deeper. Why do we, as a collective society, have a problem with this? Because it feels almost grotesquely abnormal by the standards to which we were socialized. No teenager who grew up on a steady diet of Disney movies fantasizes about riding off into the sunset with Prince Charming as he texts his ex-wife and rushes home early from their date to pick up the kid, and asks her if she can pick up the tab this time since he just paid child support. We are fed the nuclear family, lifelong marriage, monogamous ideal that our parents brought us up on. My parents have been married for 47 years, and reasonably happily from what I can tell. But is this just something we were socialized to want, with a few people being lucky enough to accomplish it by some fluke? The fact that nearly every comedian who ever lived has done a bit about people who have been married forever and hate each other, gives credit to the idea that we probably didn’t evolve to do it that way in most cases.

I’m currently reading Sex at Dawn, which is mostly about human evolution as it pertains to relationships. While researchers have various opinions on this subject, according to this book, it seems fairly credible that humans did not evolve to be in lifelong monogamous relationships. This doesn’t mean we should all go hit the local swingers’ club tonight (unless that’s your thing. I don’t judge.), or call a divorce lawyer the minute your partner does that one annoying thing again, but it does mean that the expectation we were all fed of having our spouse completely to ourselves, free of all ex’s, and outside attachments, is frankly, a bunch of bullshit. Of course, we probably didn’t evolve with fathers having equal custody in mind, so our ongoing interactions look a little different than they did in the tribal bands of the Bronze age, but the concept remains the same. It’s actually not against our evolutionary makeup to have ex’s present. It’s against our socialization. We are socialized to be jealous. We are socialized to expect people to cut off contact with all former partners. Maybe we are socialized this way because we really didn’t evolve to do lifelong monogamy, and this is supposed to make it easier. I don’t know, but whatever it is, it isn’t working in today’s world where interaction with ex’s is practically inevitable. You can rip up as many old pictures as you find, get rid of the furniture she chose, and take her old dishes that your partner somehow ended up with out to the curb on trash day, but she’s still turning up on your doorstep next Friday to drop the kid off, and will have a 20 minute long conversation with your partner tonight about which soccer league Little Joey and Susie should be enrolled in next season, possibly right when you’ve gotten dinner ready. You can’t deny it. She’s there. Some stepfamily therapists refer to a partner’s ex as an ex-wife-in-law or an ex-husband-in-law. They’re not your ex, but just like a parent-in-law who isn’t your parent, they might as well be.

The main problem is, we can talk this to death, hypothesizing and second guessing until we are blue in the face, but peaceful interactions and acceptance of reality only work if everybody is on board. I was actually initially very much on board for this. My partner and I discussed this at length before we moved in together. I had met his ex prior to that. We were not open about our relationship at the time, so she thought I was just a friend of his. She wasn’t someone I would ever choose to hang out with, and I found her parenting methods questionable, but I figured we could make it work. I can work with basically anybody. I knew he planned to be very involved with his son, and I was never under the delusion that I would be free of her as long as I lived with my partner and their son was a minor. This was actually pretty ok with me. It was ok with him as well. I did come in with certain expectations as to how it would go, but generally speaking, I was ok with it.

The problem was that it wasn’t ok with her. When we moved in together, and she had to accept that we weren’t just friends, she became extremely hostile. She is from an upper middle class white background that tends to include a parenting style that Wednesday Martin refers to as “possessive mothering”. This is the opposite of “it takes a village”. Possessive mothers cannot stand when anything about their child’s life is decided by someone other than them. They tend to think that they are the only real parent their child has, that the father is more like a fun uncle, generally unnecessary, and other people can just get lost. We soon found out she didn’t approve of me due to a few things straight out of the internet’s “mommy wars”. I’m a working mom, so my kids were in daycare, and by her definition, I was paying someone else to raise them. I make my kids eat what they’re served at meals, which she took to mean I would starve her son, whom she had let become incredibly picky. My kids sleep in their own rooms with the doors closed, and to her, this meant I was locking them away. Even the fact that my partner and I had a long distance relationship for the first two years was up for her scrutiny. We weren’t a real couple. We didn’t even know each other. She was definitely entitled to a vote in all of this. She demanded background checks on me, my kids (ages 3, 5, and 10 at the time), and my entire extended family, including my ex-husband and his extended family. Of course, we did not oblige her on the background checks, because that was ridiculous. It merely illustrates what we were dealing with. I had no choice but to accept her presence, but she felt no real obligation to accept mine. As far as she was concerned, she was there first, and had the golden ticket (aka my partner’s only child) and her opinion should be considered in everything even if their marriage was over. More than that, she wasn’t ok with the relinquishment of control that accepting this postmodern type of extended family comes with. Consequently, she antagonized us relentlessly for years, ceasing only within the past few months.

I do wonder if she has reconsidered any of her previous actions since the arrival of her new boyfriend four months ago. I have my own opinions on them and their relationship, but those things don’t matter. He’s here because she chose for him to be here, just as I’m here because my partner chose for me to be here. It’s like family. You don’t get to choose them. She seems to be ready to move on from the antagonism she engaged in for the past few years.  While I’m not mad at her, I cannot move on as quickly as she apparently can. I have never received any acknowledgment that this past few years were rough and she wants us to do better now. I would still feel so much better about this if she would sit down and talk with me about this. That will probably never happen because we aren’t allowed to acknowledge these things. Moreover, the way we are socialized actively encouraged her to hate me, and to feel justified in that. If I had to guess, I would say she feels no remorse for the actions of the past few years, nor does she see any particular need to become cooperative with me, even though her child spends roughly half his life in my home. She seems very committed to the status quo, even though it isn’t working.

Lest anyone think I’m dealing with some kind of anomaly in the form of my partner’s ex, I recommend visiting any group on the internet that’s devoted to divorce and co-parenting. You will find hundreds of questions that amount to, “My ex and his new partner made a totally harmless decision that affects my kids, and how dare they?” or “Can you believe the wreck my ex is dating? How could he downgrade so much? She doesn’t look anything like me!” The goal of these posts is to elicit support, and comments to the effect of, “At least your kids have you. Your ex was a real idiot to let you go. He’ll regret this.” It reminds me of shortly after my partner and I moved in together, on one particularly baffling evening, his ex decided to text him for hours with her thoughts on my appearance (spoiler alert: she isn’t a fan). She and I are very different in looks. We are also different in most other ways. Literally the only thing we have in common is that we both married this man. Why does that have to be weird or offensive, though?

I think even this goes back to the societal construct of lifelong monogamy. In order to believe in that concept, does one have to also believe that they are the best their partner could ever have, that nobody else could ever compare, and that the idea that their partner may not actually have a type consisting solely of them, is offensive? Does it threaten one’s concept of lifelong monogamy if one’s partner leaves a marriage to a tiny blonde and ends up with a tall brunette? How about if a certain aging millennial engineer spent ten years married to an Asian man exactly her height, only to end up later with a tall English husband with blue eyes? Does our socialization encourage us to sell ourselves the delusion that we are the only person our partner could possibly find attractive enough to sleep with, such that it becomes completely disconcerting when that is actually not the case at all because that forces everyone to understand that we actually didn’t evolve to like only one combination of features? (Sure, everyone loves a nice symmetrical face, and a certain waist to hip or shoulder to hip ratio, but nobody evolved a preference for one hair color and height, forsaking all others.)

In light of it all, I just wonder if this all could have been avoided if we all had been socialized differently as children. If we saw a healthy relationship between all members of our own little tribal band, our parents, their partners, various step-relatives and siblings, would we be able to grow up and live in today’s reality without the hardship that is now understood to befall blended families? If we could be honest about the fact that it’s actually very much expected that our partner moved on, and it’s also ok that we move on, would we see so much paranoia about who they’re bringing around our kids? If we grew up seeing ex’s interact in a cordial and familial fashion, would it still bother us that our partners interact with people they once had romantic relationships with? I honestly believe we evolved to be able to do all of these things, but our historically puritanical society, with its legally enforced expectations of lifelong monogamy, has socialized us in such a way that it’s actually creating problems for us when applied to the reality of 2017’s situation.

Curveballs, curveballs everywhere.

Stepparenting is a hell of a drug. Actually, if it were a drug, it would probably be LSD because it takes everything you thought you knew, distorts it beyond recognition, and messes with your head all the while. The only difference is, LSD is probably more fun. I don’t know because I haven’t tried it, but that’s what I’m told by people who lived through the 60’s. Stepparenting, on the other hand, I have experienced, and this week has been a weird one, full of a lot of ups and downs. I actually felt better about it than I have in a long time after this weekend. We had fun, the kids weren’t fighting relentlessly, and my partner and I seemed to be on the same page. If our entire lives until the kids are grown, went like last weekend did, I would be happy with it.

Yesterday was when it got weird again. It was the stepkid’s birthday, which meant that his mother came to get him for a couple hours after school, bringing him back at bedtime. I’m uneasy with her coming to our house in the first place because she’s just been so hostile toward me ever since I moved out here. Nobody would feel ok with a person who’s basically their bully coming to their house. My partner took the stepkid out to her car at the curb when she came to pick him up, so that was nice. There’s just something about her standing at the doorway of where I live that makes me feel extremely uneasy, and he spared me that, which I appreciated.

While he was gone, we ate a simple dinner with my kids, and then my partner and I set about doing some work downstairs, moving furniture mostly. Like most people who are moving furniture, we weren’t dressed very nicely and the place was a real mess. Before we knew it, the doorbell rang, and there was my partner’s ex-wife with her new boyfriend whom we’d never met before, along with the kid. While technically, she didn’t do anything wrong, is that really a way to introduce your new partner to your kid’s other parents? Like, hi, here we are on your doorstep. Nice boxes and messy clothes. Nobody would like to meet someone new like that. I cannot imagine what she was thinking. We didn’t even know the boyfriend was in town (he lives in another state) and he wasn’t in the car when she picked the stepkid up. Although this did explain why she didn’t want to keep him overnight when we offered to let her do that. The boyfriend being there is a problem since that’s the only time she makes the kid sleep in his own bed. What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, I didn’t expect to feel as weird as I do about the whole situation. I guess I just always thought she would someday find out some of what she put us through. I had assumed that she would end up with somebody who had kids, since most people do by the time they reach her age. I had pictured her dating some guy who had kids who either didn’t like her or she had no authority over, and dealing with that guy’s ex-wife, who will be a flawed human being with a set of quirks a mile wide, just so that she could get a taste of some of what she put me through.

I just remember feeling so demeaned by the fact that I had to make sure not to sneeze or cough in my own home while my partner was Skyping his son, because even that evidence of me being in my own apartment at 7 pm on any given week night was enough to set this particular ex-wife off into a tirade that would last for days (I’m still not sure where else she thought I’d be at that hour on a weeknight. I’ve never worked more than 40 hours a week.) It really messes with your head when your existence is so offensive to somebody you can’t just cut out of your life, that your partner literally hides you from them in the interest of self-preservation, while all of society cajoles, “She’s just hurt. Her husband left her. Give her time.” I don’t know if I will ever truly get past this. The fact that she won’t have a conversation with me and figure out how we even move on from here doesn’t help.

As it turns out, though, she didn’t get the dose of her own medicine that I always thought would eventually come. Instead, she ended up with someone who does not appear to have any children, and is living as much of a carefree life with this person as one can when one has 50% custody of their own kid.

I guess I resent the fact that my partner and I are expected to be implicitly supportive of this relationship when she made it her life’s mission for years on end to interfere in and antagonize ours. I honestly don’t want to watch the kid on extra days so she can go out of town again with this person she’s known for four months, when my partner and I have gotten away once by ourselves in four years. Of course, my partner doesn’t see it that way. He just wants to see his son, which I get, but at the end of the day, the outcome is, we’re helping these people to have the relationship that her presence deprived us of, and I have absolutely no idea how I am supposed to feel about that.

I’ve done so many mental gymnastics over the past 18 hours or so, and the only conclusion I’ve come to is this. It’s really easy to be at peace with a situation when the person who is your adversary of whatever sort, has nothing that you want for your own life. I was really at an ok place with the idea of this exact ex-wife because what I know about her is that she is in her 40’s, lives in a rental apartment, has horrendous credit, and basically does craft shows for a living, which isn’t exactly a lucrative career. I know that her settlement from the divorce and house sale is all the money she has in the entire world and that it’s less than one year of my salary. I know that she drives a car I think is ugly, has what I consider bad taste in clothes and makeup, and wears Bath and Body Works products that are popular among high school girls. While none of this makes her in any way a bad person, it just proves the point that not one thing about her life is something I would want for my own.

Then that delusion was ripped from my mind on my very own doorstep. There she was with her boyfriend, dropping off the kid with us so my partner could deal with his anxiety and stress over having to sleep alone, while they were off to have a kidfree night together. In the immortal words of my Drill Sergeant back at Ft. Leonard Wood, “ain’t that some shit?” As it turns out, those people driving off in that mini-van to that rental apartment have something I kind of do want! They have time alone to grow their relationship. She has a supportive ex-husband in my partner, which affords her something I will never have with any kind of regularity, and since nobody exists in a vacuum, and that’s my home, too, that this kid spends about half his life in, it feels a whole lot like in some tangential way, I’m being forced to give this person who has been nothing but awful to me, a level of support and balance that I myself would kill for, but stand roughly a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting.

I have absolutely no idea how to get past this, but the best I can figure is to put it in perspective. Like with most other things, I chose a different life than many people, and I had good reasons for that. I didn’t get to party in college, because engineering is difficult, and publishing was important. Consequently, I have a respectable paper count, few student loans, and no idea how to play beer pong. My partner and I couldn’t be carefree and take a million vacations while we were first dating because I was deep in my research, working on my thesis, and trying to get my foot in the door with a respectable employer so I could provide for my kids long term. I accomplished those goals.

In truth, what we’ve spent on our house these past few months would have paid for as many vacations as the ex and her boyfriend have taken, but even though vacations are fun, I would still choose our house a hundred times over, given the option to reconsider. Every time I drive up the street and see our house as I come home from work, I think to myself how we worked so hard for this, and earned every brick of it. I actually love paying our mortgage every month because it’s equity! Paying rent was starting to feel like getting mugged. I know as well as a person can, that when you’ve earned something and earned it hard, nothing could be sweeter. I also know that this life we chose is the right answer in every practical way. These kids need some stability. For all of them, ours is the only home owned by one of their parents. We are the ones who are there, doing what needs to be done, faithfully, and without fail. When they need someone to get them college recommendation letters, internships, a good word put in with the right people, I am the one who can do that for them because of the way I have established myself, not by going to Vegas every other month, or having as many dates with my partner as I would like to have, but by being as good an engineer as I can be, and devoting resources to the things they need to be devoted to.

That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and it usually isn’t. When my oldest was born, and I was only 21, I made myself feel ok about the fact that I basically had to sacrifice my youth at the altar of parenting, through the knowledge that when she graduated high school, I would only be 38 years old, and that’s still young enough to have fun. I would be able to get parenting over with early and then have a good time when I had the money to do it right. I still believe that in a lot of ways. The best is yet to come. Maybe my partner and I didn’t get to take a million little trips together when we were a brand new couple, but we did get to go to Vegas together this past summer, the only vacation I’ve ever taken as an adult, and it was amazing.

We have committed to taking a vacation together every year, no kids. We need that. We are finally in a place to do it. We have our home. I have a good job. He’s been in business for as long as I’ve been alive. We don’t have extravagant things and we don’t get to do nearly as much together as we might want, but we have at least two date nights a month at the good movie theater where no kids are allowed and they make the best veggie burgers in town, and we can take at least one vacation a year. We have a lot going for us. A lot. It’s not about being better than anyone else, because that’s really subjective, to the point of being impossible to quantify. It’s about perspective, and the reality is, I like a whole lot about what we have built for ourselves.

I love my partner. I love our house. I loved Vegas, and how my partner showed me around and we did so much that I had never done before. I love bridge design, and being a public servant. I love making enough money to support my kids no matter what. I love my paper count. I love that I look fucking amazing in everything Express ever made, and that I finally mastered eyeliner years after I mastered Calculus. I love that my partner is taking me to see Thor:Ragnorak in a couple days. I love that I took the PE exam and it feels like a million pound weight has been lifted from my shoulders and it’s all going to be ok now. It’s all ok. It has to be. There isn’t a choice.

Step-parenting Advice for the Rest of Us

Most stepparenting advice is a crock of shit. It really is. I’m not even sure who most of this stuff is written for, but not us mere mortals. So after the weekend we had, which wasn’t a bad one, but definitely made me feel like we’d leveled up a little in the stepfamily game, I present to you, a few things I wish somebody had told me before I began.

Oh, and of course the disclaimer, this applies to stepmoms and stepdads equally, and regardless of custody and visitation arrangements. I am not here for that battle of the sexes thing. This is inclusive bullshit, and we’re all handling it together.

  1. Your partner produced a child (or several) with an idiot at one point, and you’re going to be the one to deal with that.Sounds blunt. Is blunt. Yes, I know there are a few cases of people who get along with their partner’s ex. I am so happy for those people, and I really wish that were my life. Unfortunately, I have this weird situation where this person spent years antagonizing me, but has now settled into this place where she low-key hates me, hasn’t spoken to me in several years, yet occasionally extends really misguided olive branches like signing me up for the PTA at her kid’s school (which isn’t my kids’ school) without my consent. Yeah, it’s odd.

    Anyway, this person couldn’t be more different from me. She was raised upper middle class in California, talks like a valley girl, laughs when her kid disrespects her to her face, and is the most permissive parent I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, I had what might have been considered a progressive upbringing in the deep south in that I got my ass beat a lot less than other kids, but I’m still from the deep south. I’m an authoritative parent, a career mom who doesn’t have time for bullshit and has been doing this, often alone, since I was barely a legal adult. I have lots of kids, and I’ve been completely exhausted for as long as I can remember. I’ve been through too many IEP meetings to count, and passed so many hand-me-downs it’s probably some kind of record, and any phase a kid can go through, I’ve survived three times. I have no patience for her permissive parenting and I have often lamented to my partner that his ex-wife’s parenting style should become a book titled, “How to Kick Your Own Ass Using Just One Small Child”.

    Anyway, as you might imagine, this was cause for some major adjustments at first, and it’s ongoing as she parents in a way that I consider completely haphazard and lazy, and I do what she considers abusive things, like making my kids eat what they’re served at dinner, and not making her kid a different meal when he declares what he’s served “yucky” without even trying it (for what it’s worth, he’s come to like previously “yucky” things when he was pushed to try them). It’s great.

    Did you really think I wouldn’t tell you my partner’s side of this? I’m not the only one dealing with this in our household. My partner is amazing with money, absolutely brilliant. You could give this man an income of $20k and he’ll end up in a mansion taking two vacations a year somehow. That’s how good at money he is. Anyway, my ex is the opposite. He’s always had a good income and never had anything to show for it. Since he pays child support for our kids, this means that we’ve dealt with the fact that he’s actually stopped paying it for several months on a few occasions, just out of nowhere. Of course everyone rightly points out that the kids suffer when that happens, but you know who else suffers? The adults, including the one who never married the person causing the hardship. My financial guru of a partner deals with the ramifications that my kids’ father is the type of person who has been known to spend hundreds of dollars a month on junk food at gas stations. Let’s be honest. It’s not fair. He’s had to cover a lot of things and make accommodations like taking my kids after school so that we’re less dependent on those child support payments which could stop at any moment. My ex and my partner aren’t as drastically different in parenting styles as his ex and me, but their money management styles are opposite, and that does cause difficulty.

    My advice in this is to focus on the present, and the part of it that you can do something with. The fact that your partner spent, in our cases, a decade in a relationship with That Asshole, is just not a pleasant thing to have in your mind, and I wrote out a whole paragraph about how my partner’s ex-wife reminds me of the mean girls in high school whose popularity was a mystery to those of us who spent more time on science and math than hair and makeup, but the details don’t matter. The fact is, we do not have to understand why they ended up having a kid with that person. It probably wasn’t just a drunken mistake in most cases. It was probably planned. Don’t attempt to minimize it or explain it away. That’s unproductive. Just do yourself a favor and put the entire thing out of your mind and just live in the present. Your partner should afford you that chance. That person is just a coworker you have in the job of raising these kids to adulthood, preferably without creating massive assholes in the process.

  2. You don’t have control of things that you would in a nuclear family, and this is a lot harder than it sounds.

    The first summer that my ex took the kids, my partner and I moved in together. My ex planned to keep the kids all summer, and since we’ve always had a nice cooperative arrangement and get along reasonably well, no dates were established (this was my first mistake). I told him I’d let him know when school started and to have them back to me by then. He had always taken them any time school was out, so I had no reason to believe this would be any different. A month later, I got a phone call. His new girlfriend wanted to go on a vacation, and he was dropping the kids off to me a month earlier than anticipated. This left me two weeks to find childcare during a time of year it is at its highest demand and highest prices, figure out how to afford it, and get our new apartment ready for the kids. My partner’s response was what anybody’s would be. “Say no. That’s ridiculous. He can’t drop them off that soon. We aren’t ready.” I tried to negotiate with my ex, but he was bringing the kids, and neither of us could do anything about it. Obviously, although it wasn’t ideal for either of us, this was a lot more workable for me than for my partner. They were my kids. He had to get used to not only living with a couple of stepkids, but doing that weeks before we were ready. Under no other circumstances in the entire world would a person just end up with some kids not related to them dropped in their lap on a date they did not approve of that happening, but when you’re a stepparent, that happens a lot.

    Actually, it happened again this year. My ex was supposed to take the kids for Thanksgiving. He decided he isn’t doing that anymore. My partner will be the one staying home with my kids while they’re on break from school, so he was directly affected by that, actually moreso than I am because I will be at work for at least a couple days that week.

    Similarly, from my end, every custody and visitation agreement pertaining to my stepson has been made without my input, and in some cases, has included things I have not been happy with at all. It isn’t my partner’s fault. Since these things have always been solved in mediation in this case, the mediator has had the authority to exclude outside influence. Considering we have nearly equal custody, anything related to the scheduling affects me a lot, yet, I don’t get a seat at the table when it’s decided, because I am the stepparent, and that’s how this goes. “This kid is going to spend about half his life in your house for the next 13 years, but you don’t get a vote on how that happens. Why would you? You’re not the parent.” Sounds awesome, right?

    If you wonder the sort of thing I’m talking about, here’s an example. The visitation schedule in the summer is week on, week off. The exchanges happen on Sundays. So basically, we never have a kidfree weekend all summer long, except the one time that she takes him for two weeks straight. This seems like no big deal until you consider that, of the three parents in this situation, I’m the only one who works a standard 8-5, M-F schedule, and cannot take time off as needed without spending leave days. What this means is that my partner and I going away on little trips throughout the summer will require me to spend leave days at work because we don’t have a full weekend to just go do something. If I’d been allowed a seat at the table, I would have asked that the exchange day be Monday. This is something that didn’t occur to my partner or his ex-wife because they’re both self-employed and can work their schedules any way. I needed a seat at the table for that discussion, and I didn’t have one.

    Then there are the more day to day things, like illness. You wouldn’t have the neighbor kid over while they’re infected with conjunctivitis, influenza, ebola, or zika, but you will have your stepkid over exactly like that if that’s what the schedule says. You will be completely grossed out. You might end up sick. Your kids might end up sick. You could end up with doctor bills. You will probably waste leave days at work. But you’ll do it, because that is what the schedule says, and if you’re anything like us, that schedule is gospel. My partner once caught such a bad upper respiratory infection from my youngest that he ended up on steroids and antibiotics for it. In his line of work, he has to speak well, so coughing for a month of his life was a big deal. Additionally, just last week, my stepson was sent to our house with pinworms. His mother did not feel the need to treat him before sending him over. That was also a fun day in our lives.

    So what does a stepparent do about this? First of all, realize that all this is new to you even if you’ve been a parent for a long time like I have. When it comes to blended family stuff, you’re a rookie. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Talk things to death. Before there’s a mediation that you’re not invited to, tell your partner what’s important to you. If you want weekends free in the summer, tell them! If you want certain dates kidfree, tell them! The worst they can do is disagree with you, and that doesn’t make it any worse because you weren’t going to be able to pose this in negotiations anyway. Talk about everything. No “what if” is too stupid to bring up, even if it seems like it is. Also, when your partner brings up things, don’t knee jerk react and shut them down. They have their reasons for their concerns, and you’re the only voice they have in this process.

    Everyone has different priorities which usually have to do with how we came to parenting, and our history with it. My partner and I have very different priorities. I’ve been a parent for my entire adult life, and in survival mode for much of it. I desperately need a break. My partner was in his late 40’s before he even had kids, and has been doing this for just over the half decade mark. He finds it fun and exciting. He wants his son around as much as humanly possible. He refers to vacation as the times his son is with us. I refer to it as the times all our kids are away. It isn’t that he loves his son more than I love my kids. It’s that we are coming at this from very different perspectives. Maybe consider where each of you is coming from when discussing these things in advance. It helps in choosing wording and tone, and also finding a compromise that will accommodate some of both of your priorities. Also, our families have a billion moving parts. Figure out what they all are (write it down, even) before agreeing to anything, and the bio-parent can negotiate from a place of making it all mesh together. You, stepparent, won’t have a seat at the table, so you have to show your partner how to represent you, and before you can do that, you have to know what you even want, within the framework of what’s realistic to expect. Figuring that out is the hardest part.

  3. You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, and that makes stepparenting really hard.
    Fundamentalist religious leaders love to tell us how divorce and single parenting go against god’s plan, but whatever a person’s thoughts on that, it’s pretty damned indisputable that blended families fly in the face of what we evolved to do. At our core, we’re animals. We want to perpetuate our own lineage. We want our offspring to have the most resources. We get nothing out of devoting resources to somebody else’s offspring. Even in the few societies worldwide where it appears parenting is more shared among the villagers, creating sort of a communal blended family dynamic, it’s often found those villagers are closely related, so people aren’t helping raise their unrelated neighbor’s kids. They’re helping raise their sister’s kids, or their aunt’s kids. There is still a genetic link. In blended families, that doesn’t exist. We’re just as related to our stepkids as we are to the kids down the street. How would it go if we were just told that we have to raise them now?

    The real mindfuck of it all is that modern society shouts at you from all angles, “You better love that kid like your own or you’re a horrible monster!” without any acknowledgement of the fact that you’re fighting hundreds of thousands of years of evolution just to make yourself even care for this child, and in all but the rarest of cases, you’re not going to love them like your own. It will not come naturally to devote resources to them. It doesn’t mean you’re a horrible monster. It means you’re a human being who has evolved to protect your own young. With stepkids, no matter who they are, there’s a constant reminder that they’re not yours. In some cases, it’s something physical, the way they look, the way they smell, their mannerisms. In others, there are implicit messages from the other parent, “this one is mine and don’t you forget it”. My stepson’s mom dresses him in clothes I can’t believe people pay money for. My ex-husband buys my kids basketball shorts, which are, with no contest, my partner’s most hated item of clothing. It’s funny, to hear my partner tell it, the fact that my kids are a different race from him does less to make them “other” in his perception than the fact that they wear basketball shorts. For me, it’s the smell. Everything my stepson brings over smells like a middle school girls’ locker room because his mother has a love affair with Bath and Body Works that can only be rivaled by all of us when we were 13. I remember saying to my partner, as I altered my stepson’s Halloween costume this year, “This reeks of your ex-wife.” It really did. I could smell it in my closet where my sewing machine sits, for a whole day after the costume was gone.

    I don’t even know if she does it consciously, but I know she had insecurity sending him to our place at first. Intentionally or unintentionally, she marks him as her own. “This one is mine. He smells of cucumber melon, and I know you would never buy that, so don’t forget who does.” Similarly, my ex-husband, “These are mine. I dressed them like me so you wouldn’t forget.” I can admit to this as well. I dress my kids in t-shirts from my university, which their father and his girlfriend did not attend, when they go visit. “Hail Southern. These little eagles are mine.”

    The cool thing about acknowledging the biological and anthropological end of this stepparenting thing is that it explains everything, and you can overcome it. Yes, I get more annoyed with my stepkid wasting food than my bio-kid, and that is because I have to make myself devote resources to him so it’s twice as offensive if he squanders those resources. It annoys my partner twice as much if my kids break a toy that he bought them than if his kid does. He has no biological investment in their wellbeing, so the gift came from a higher place than a gift to his own son, which is almost in his own self-interest indirectly, so if my kids squander that gift, it is offensive. Once you understand why the reaction to stepkids doing less than awesome things is so visceral whereas the reaction to one’s own kids is more taking it in stride, you can rationalize it and mentally evolve from it. Read books, a lot of books. People are beginning to dig into these anthropological studies of societies that share parenting, and the sociological aspects of blended families throughout the ages. It would do you extremely well to learn about this stuff. Just understanding where your reactions are coming from does a lot to put them in perspective. You’re not a monster, they’re not a brat. You’re just a bird who’s had another bird’s baby dropped in your nest. Go from there, and it’ll be ok. I think. I hope. I’m still working on this. Keep checking back.

On Being a Married, Home Owning, PE

It’s been an intense year. In June, my partner and I ran off to Vegas and got married. In August, we closed on our house. In October, I took the Professional Engineer’s exam. That’s three huge life events in the space of four months and five days. To be honest, I’m still processing it all. It feels like it hit me all at once, and I haven’t had time to really digest one before it was time to focus on the next, along with my usual work, parenting, etc. It is all good, of course, but it’s a lot.

We flew home five days after our wedding, having had a fun honeymoon in Vegas, and I returned to work a week after that. I remember thinking to myself as I walked down the hallway that first morning with my brand new alexandrite ring on my finger, “I just did this huge thing, and now I have to come back and design bridges as if nothing has changed.” If you think about it, that’s completely accurate. We try to create buffer zones, to hold space, to give our important life events the respect they deserve, but in today’s society, that hardly exists. That’s no dig at my employer. I have it better than most. It’s just the way society is now. I would have loved a month to just be a wife to this husband, let it sink in what we just did, I’m not even sure what else, but something. I needed more time for something.

The house was more rushed yet. A honeymoon is a known entity, but a homeownermoon doesn’t really exist, although it should. Can we make that a thing? Even if it did exist, I didn’t have the leave time for such a thing, just two months after taking two weeks off. Plus, there were bridges to design, plans to be sent out, training classes I couldn’t miss. I took a total of two days off for the entire home buying and moving process. This took a toll. We’re still not unpacked. Honestly, if I had a week of leave to spare, I would take it for this purpose, even now, because we need it badly. We keep saying that we need a week with nothing else to do but house stuff, and we’d have it done easily. The problem is, where are we going to get a week? We just bought a house, finally can join our lives and possessions in a home, two years after we moved in together in our little apartment. Yet, instead of devoting the time this needs, I’m at work, designing bridges as if nothing happened.

Last but not least came the PE exam. I am incredibly fortunate that my employer values licensure of their engineers enough to provide a very comprehensive course of preparation to us all for the three months prior to the exam, and designate the week of the exam exclusively for study. For three months, we go to work only three days a week because the remaining two days are for prep classes only. It’s wonderful, and I think the week I had leading up to the PE exam may be among the most relaxing I’ve had in months. I went into the exam feeling refreshed and laser focused. I feel like it went ok. I’m still really anticipating receiving the results in a couple months, and won’t feel fully ok until I do (providing I passed), but I don’t feel badly about it.

On Monday, I walked into my office for the first time in a week, and the first Monday in three months (Mondays were prep class days). I felt much like I had felt coming back after I got married. I just tackled one of the biggest and most important milestones of my engineering career, and now I have to come back and, well, be an engineer like everything is normal. Everything is not normal, though. Everything will not be normal until I find out how I did, and get my license application approved by the board, and receive my seal with my name on it.

I am in some weird place between peacefully satisfied and low-key losing my mind because so much has happened lately and I haven’t had a chance to just sit with any of it. There are bridges to design, kids to raise, school functions to attend, groceries to buy, and everything else that goes into daily life. It’s all anyone can do to just roll with the punches. I’m no workaholic. I never work more than 40 hours a week. This is just how it is.

I wonder what next year will be like. I will have my PE license, and will probably never take another exam again as long as I live (providing I passed this one). We already bought our house, and have no plans to move. We aren’t planning a wedding. I hope that there will be time to relax and just be, to take vacations, this time without the knowledge that we’re coming back to mortgage brokers, and exam prep courses, and moving coordination. If all I have to do when I come back, is design a bridge or two, I can handle that.

For all my adult life, I’ve had this massive glaring to-do list over my head like a cartoon anvil, and known that I would not consider myself to have my shit together until I had checked all of it off. Get a job I can keep forever. Buy a house. Get my PE license. I guess it all felt insurmountable for all the years I was stuck in my first marriage, getting farther and farther from what I knew I needed to do, that I never really believed I could do it all. And then I did, but most of it happened so fast that it didn’t really hit me until later that I had done it.

Then I woke up the next morning, went to work, and designed a bridge, as if nothing were the matter at all.