Posted in fiction | Tagged ,

Jake sighed as he slumped against the steering wheel of his truck and moved back into the lane.  He had moved over to the side to let a motorcycle past because the truck filled the whole lane.  It had been years since he’d been on a bike, the girl who loved to ride on the back of his cruiser when they were dating had mysteriously morphed into a wife who made him sell his bike because she was worried he’d get killed riding it.  At least that meant she wanted him to make it home, right?  Things could be worse.  Some couples burned hot for a few years and then faded but they still lay in bed on Saturday mornings laughing and cuddling like newlyweds.  He smiled, thinking about her eyes looking up at him.

It had been a rough couple years, giving up his music career for a straight job and rising up the ranks seemed like the responsible adult thing to do.  And with housing prices skyrocketing, pouring their life savings into a house had likewise seemed completely sensible.  Meanwhile, the corporate world squeezed in around him like a steel gauntlet gripping his heart.  The endless thankless early mornings and late nights, the commute, the pile of old instruments in the back of his closet gathering dust.  The slow creeping certainty that he wasn’t all that special or interesting or worthwhile to anyone but Sarah.

She wasn’t a classical beauty, other men didn’t stop and stare when she walked down the street.  He knew she had struggled with feeling like when she went out with her girlfriends she was always the hot girl’s friend, the one who the wing man talked to so his buddy could get her friends ear.  Even now, years later, when he told her she was beautiful she kind of gave him a look as if to say “I believe that you think that but I don’t understand why.” Not that she was ugly, he loved the curve of her hips and the way her smile lit up the room, but in an era of photoshop where even supermodels don’t live up to the standard anyone’s confidence can take a hit.  She needn’t have worried, he was in love and as far as he could see, she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Jake had spent more hours than he could count standing around dimly-lit hole in the wall bars listening to terrible bands and waiting for his chance to play and blow them away, only to finally get on stage and be mostly ignored as people swirled in a slow dance of desperation around him.  The women making a big show of how much fun they were having dancing and trying hard to look disinterested in the men, the men trying out every terrible pick up line and game they could think of to get a laugh or even a look of shock that could break the ice.  The subtle slump of the shoulders as people slowly gave up looking for the person they hoped would arrive and settled for the person they could get.  Meanwhile, those few couples that came out together either fell into each others eyes, oblivious to it all, or squabbled along the sidelines.  Women silently (or not so silently) asking themselves why they’d settled for this long streak of uselessness.

He knew Sarah would never talk to him like that.  He knew she didn’t feel like she had settled.   He knew that whatever it took, however hard he had to work, he would live up to being the man she thought he was.

Finally, he merged over and got off at the exit.  It was a slow slog through cross-town traffic and he remembered just in time to swing by the grocery store to get food for the party they were hosting the next day.  Fortunately, most of the things he was after were on sale.  Money was tight and it was about to get tighter.  He paid, making sure to use the credit card instead of the debit, and carried the bags back out to the truck and homeward.  She greeted him in the kitchen, long flowing skirts and a big smile on her face.  Her belly was starting to visibly swell from the baby.

He put down the groceries and embraced her, eyes filling with tears.

I’m so sorry.

What for?

She looked puzzled but did not let him go

I got fired today.

She squeezed him tighter for a moment and then let go, reaching up to touch his cheek.  She didn’t yell or recoil or blame him and there was no pity in her eyes, just confidence.  Faith.

We’ll get through it.  We’ll find a way.  I believe in you.

It was enough.


Posted in fiction | Tagged , ,

The airstrike rattled the city, everything shook. Dust rattled down from the rafters and somewhere in the basement below an infant cried. Mo sat as still as he could amidst the crush of strangers and tried to focus on breathing. The air was thin, too many lungs sucking oxygen and not enough ventilation. The earth shook again beneath the roar of planes overhead, and the thunder of bombs; aggravating the ringing in his ears.

He had ended up here by sheer good luck, if you could call it that. The university had closed months ago because of the protests and never re-opened. When the military had opened fire on protests in the capital the shock waves went right across the country. Many of the students had joined militias, others fled. Mo headed for the border, he couldn’t muster enough faith to believe in a revolution and the fundamentalists were even worse than the soldiers. On foot it was a long journey and the war overtook him.

He had sheltered in a hospital – volunteering in exchange for a dry place to sleep and food – thinking that he might be safe. All three sides would have wounded, right? Who would bomb the hospital that their forces might soon need? But the planes had headed right for it. Fortunately he had been near a window and seen them coming, in the time it took to run 30 yards to the door they had already delivered their cargo.

The explosion had lifted him off his feet and hurled him against the wall of the building opposite. It also saved his life – the hospital collapsed like a deck of cards and buried everyone inside alive. The gunships finished off the survivors as they struggled to get free of the wreckage. Mo had managed to crawl into the open door of a grocery store nearby and someone had helped him into the basement as he struggled to stay conscious. He felt lucky to be alive. A young woman took pity on him and helped him find a place to sit. Her name was Minnah.

“Thank you.” He winced from the pain of speaking and trying to maintain pressure on the gash in his cheek.

“Hold still and stop talking”, she scolded him. She turned to a young girl sitting nearby, probably a daughter. “Luban, go fetch some water!” The girl sped off.

Laying in the dark he took a slow inventory, two of his ribs were either cracked or badly bruised and he could barely move his shoulder. The gash in his cheek was bleeding profusely but seemed to slow down as long as he maintained pressure. Minnah washed out the wound as best she could and used a strip of rag to bandage it. He joked that normally he would go to the doctor for something like that but the hospital seemed to be closed. She gave him a look and walked away without replying, shaking her head. He tried to stay awake, clawing desperately at consciousness. Minnah returned and slapped his hand to wake him..

“What do you think you are doing? You have lost far too much blood to be taking a nap right now. If you fall asleep, you may not wake up! I am sure a strong young man like you has people who depend upon him. Where is your mother?” She poured some water into his mouth and he sat up a little to keep from choking.

He held up his hand and she stopped pouring water. “She’s dead.” Minnah’s gaze softened and she started to apologize but he waved it aside. “Both my parents died many years ago. No brothers and sisters. I’m alone. No need to feel sorry for me though, I’m used to it.”

Minnah thought for a moment and nodded. Well then, let’s keep you awake and talking then. Your family, god rest them, are counting on you to carry on without them.

And so, there in the darkness with the planes roaring overhead, shaking the world around them like the wind in dry leaves, they talked. He told her about his family farm and his studies at the university, she talked about the village where she had grown up. Finally, the conversation turned to the war.

Minnah had been married but her husband, Imad, had been killed in the first wave of protests. The day he died she had begged him not to go because she was scared for him. He had embraced her and said

“I must do this thing, though I am frightened to death. What kind of father would I be to Luban or husband to you if I let fear of evil men keep me from doing what is right? I do this for you, my love.”

She recited the speech without emotion, deadpan, eyes closed, and with the air of someone reciting a speech they have rehearsed a thousand times. She turned to him and asked, almost as an accusation

So, Mo who is alone, were you at the protests? I know there were many students there, did you see the soldiers when they killed my husband?

He shook his head.

Then you are either a coward or a wise man. I wonder which?

When he did not reply she turned her head a little to one side, and looked at him carefully.

Well, at least your wound has stopped bleeding. Here drink some more water and go to sleep. I suppose that is a question you will have to answer for yourself.

She turned her back on him and rolled over to sleep next to her daughter. He discreetly checked the pouch he had sewn into the inside of his pants where he kept his visa papers, breathing a sigh of relief to find them intact. He laid awake thinking for some time, haunted by her words.

Mo was up before the sun, a habit learned from growing up on a farm. The city was quiet as he slowly made his way out onto the street. He found an old truck a couple blocks away with the keys still in it – the owner seemed to have run away or been taken. He stopped, thinking to himself and holding the key in his hands before turning back to the wreckage of the grocery store basement and waking Minnah and Luban. He might not be a hero and he might even be a coward, but he was a coward who paid his debts. They didn’t have much gear and everything he had owned was still buried in the wreckage of the hospital. They threw what supplies they could find in the back of the truck and headed for the border. On foot it would have taken weeks but they made good time.

That night they took refuge in the bombed out remnants of a shopping mall, not daring to light a fire for fear of attracting unwanted attention. The place had been thoroughly looted and there wasn’t much of value left, but once daylight returned Mo was able to make a crude siphon from hose they found in one of the shops. He refilled their tank from the fuel left in one of the wrecks parked outside. As the sun rose they set off toward the border, desolation behind and nothing but hope ahead. Lucky again.

The do’s and don’ts of online dating, from a newlywed.

Posted in Life | Tagged ,

Almost 2 years ago now I wrote a humorous (well, I thought it was funny…) blog post on taking a data-driven approach to dating.  In that post I promised to write a follow-up if I had success.  Since I got married in July, I guess it’s about time I keep that promise!  So here’s a few things I learned along the way (big thanks to the okcupid data blog and the okc forums on reddit) that might prove useful to others.

For the sake of transparency, these are written for someone who’s looking for a life partner, if you’re just out there to get laid you can disregard most of them.

Do take down the 10 year old picture where you were skinnier and didn’t have wrinkles.  That person does not exist any more

Don’t post that bathroom selfie or a blurry picture out of fear people will reject you if they see what you look like.

Do use pictures that are recent and show what you currently look like, include friends and activities, and show off your smile.

Don’t forget that humans are superficial creatures and there’s a reason my first three points are about your photos.  People will judge you by your appearance the same way you judge them.

Do get clear ahead of time on exactly what you want in a partner and what you can and can’t compromise on.  This is where my previous post on dating came in super handy for me.

Don’t throw all that out the window just because someone is cute.  Unless you’re burned out on the search for love and just want to get laid.  In which case, don’t be a jerk and lead someone on.

Do write a profile that is funny, engaging, and shows off a little bit of what makes you unique.

Don’t write a novel or tell your life story in your profile or first message.  Nobody wants a stranger to bleed on them.

Do allow yourself to be vulnerable and acknowledge that you are an imperfect person.

Don’t forget that that anyone you might go on a date with is also an imperfect vulnerable human being with a whole history of experiences you know nothing about.

Do be honest about your past, everyone makes mistakes and acknowledging that shows humility

Don’t be too honest.  I quickly realized that mentioning my divorce in my self-summary was a great way to get people to not respond.  Not so much because I was divorced, but because mentioning it up front communicated that I wasn’t over it.

Do ask for what you want – really want – in a relationship.

Don’t assume you’re entitled to get it.  The world doesn’t owe any of us anything and just because you find someone attractive doesn’t mean they have any obligation to return the sentiment.

Do work on yourself first.  Women aren’t responding to your messages?  Write better messages, and maybe hit the gym and skip the seconds at dinner.

Don’t deceive yourself about your own selection criteria.  Most guys send messages to the most conventionally attractive women and ignore everything else, even while endlessly moaning that women should love them for their personality.  OKCupid’s data science blog shows that the as a result the most attractive 2% of women are inundated with more messages than they could possibly respond to while everyone else is left out.  Stop being so damn superficial, especially if you didn’t take my advice and skip seconds.

Do remember that dating sucks for everyone.  We’re all fragile flawed horny confused sacks of hormones and meat “runnin’ circles blindfolded in the daytime with a flashlight” and trying to find someone who makes us feel special.  Stop expecting it to be easy and have some compassion, dammit.

Don’t assume that just because someone else’s actions don’t make sense to you they’re crazy.  OK,  the lady who told me point blank that she was set on only dating assholes because she’d broken her ex’s heart and didn’t deserve to be loved probably needed therapy.  And the lady who ended up puking all over my bathroom and crashing in my bed (I slept on the couch) after admitting that she had been trying to cheat on her husband in revenge for catching him cheating on her wasn’t exactly a catch.  But it’s worth remembering that everyone has baggage, even me and you.  Kindness is never wasted.

Do remember that the world is a big place and if you’re willing to put in the time, there’s probably someone out there whose particular brand of crazy is compatible with yours.  You just have to be willing to do the work to find them.

Good luck!

4 phrases men should use more

Posted in Gender and Feminism, Life | Tagged , ,
12 angry men

There’s an article by Soraya Chemaly that’s been making the rounds on Social Media about the 10 words every woman should use.  It’s a truly fantastic data-based analysis of the way differences in social conditioning around communication styles for men and women have lifelong impacts, in and out of the workplace. I highly recommend you give it a look – especially if you’re a man.  It got me thinking, what are the phrases that men should use more? How can we be better allies, friends, and colleagues to the women in our lives? It’s absolutely essential for women to speak up and demand to be heard, but it’s equally essential for men to support them when they do.

Some of you are already rolling your eyes and feeling attacked. Cut it out! Equality is a worthwhile objective in it’s own right but if you can’t be bothered to care about the welfare of half the species,  stop and consider that in purely economic terms sexism is bad for business. Gender has nothing to do with intelligence and so the cultural tendency to discount women’s input is both dangerous and inefficient. Businesses — especially in knowledge-based industries — pay employees to contribute their thoughts and actions. Why would you throw away the very thing you’re paying people to contribute? This is one area where social justice and business goals are synonymous.

So what are those phrases?

“What do you think?”

As Chemaly’s article pointed out, men interrupt each other all the time and we interrupt women even more frequently.  Among men, talking over each other is often a sign of excitement and engagement but women who do it are often viewed as bossy or worse. It’s a real double standard and one worth tackling head on.  Because women (more than men) are socialized from childhood to avoid interrupting, the lack of open space in conversation can often mean they simply do not speak.  Nicola Sturgeon (imo one of the great stateswomen of modern politics) has ruffled feathers by making a point of stopping in her public meetings to ask women to speak and inviting them to participate where they might otherwise have been drowned out.  By all accounts, it’s had a transformative impact on the shape of the meetings and public forums she leads. I suspect it would have a similar impact in the board room. Don’t be satisfied with just hearing from the same few people!

“That’s a great idea!”

Recognition is the oxygen of cooperative discourse.  This is as helpful for the nervous young man who could use some encouragement as it is for the woman who has probably not gotten her due in previous positions.

“I agree with _______”

One of the big points that Chemaly raises is the way men will often re-state a female colleague’s just-stated idea and have everyone in the room react as if they’d come up with it themselves. I’ve seen this happen more times than I could count.  It sucks.  Don’t be that guy!  Start off by clearly giving credit to the person who first made the suggestion, perhaps followed by a few words about how the person who suggested it in the first place is worth listening to, and then state why you like the idea.

Consider the difference:

“I agree with Jane, if we do xyz it is much more likely to result in abc. She has a lot of experience with ______ and it’s a really great point.”

“We should do xyz if we want abc”

One gives appropriate support and recognition to a hard working colleague, the other presents someone else’s idea as if it was your own.

“Thank you.”

I think we could all say thank you more. Public expressions of appreciation are critical to build a strong culture of collaboration that can foster innovation. In many workplaces it’s common for a team lead to get all the credit for the work the team does. This sort of thing destroys moral and obscures the real contributions everyone in the group has made.

Further, because women are under-represented in leadership roles (especially in tech companies) women’s contributions are disproportionately less likely to be recognized, which in turn leads to a culture that does not value them as a group and reinforces the tendency to not promote them into leadership roles. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that some of the hardest working and most dedicated professionals I know are women.

I’ll end by adding one last thing. It is a deeply ingrained part of our culture in America that the showman gets credit for the show. Everyone talks about Steve Jobs the visionary but they don’t talk about all the people who made that vision a reality. The thing is, talking and doing are different skill sets and it’s worth taking the time to consciously set aside those cultural norms. The quiet worker who keeps her or his head down and focuses on the job at hand is just as essential to your company’s success as their colleague who talks big.  Recognizing them is an opportunity to support your colleagues and encourage them to continue moving the needle.

The repercussions of missing that opportunity are incalculable, both for women and for the companies that fail to support them and acknowledge their contributions. If you can’t bring yourself to re-evaluate your behavior because it’s the right thing to do, think about your bottom line and suck it up. This is too important to stay neutral.

What would you add or change about this list?

*I shouldn’t have to point out that using these phrases more in general would be a good thing, not just around women.  There are plenty of men who would be glad of a bit more recognition and acknowledgement too.