Friday, May 29, 2009

growing toward grace

This month’s scientiae is about moving forward. My own career is progressing but under embargo right now (in case you didn’t notice), so I’d like to discuss another long-term work in progress.

I was born small, and I ended up small when I eventually finished growing. I had the pleasure of being developmentally delayed, physically, so while growing up I was dwarfed by my peers. I was also sensitive. I liked people, I found them fascinating…at a distance. Everybody was so big, so loud. I was happy to hang out on the fringes, watching other kids. I was equally happy entertaining myself.

In junior high, if anybody took notice of me, I was…punished. Not physically (it didn’t take much to cow me), but I was quickly cut down. High school was better – I was left alone. In college, I never found a clique I could break into. I perfected the art of being…if not invisible, then unnoticed.

But when I started working, I quickly found out that I wasn’t invisible. I was given more responsibility relatively quickly, and I was supposed to order around subcontractors, lead meetings, and otherwise assert myself. I realized that I did have a lot to contribute, but that my ingrained wallflower habits were interfering with that.

So I set a goal for myself: to overcome all those years of being shy. A more concrete goal is to be able to navigate a big social gathering effortlessly. Whether I’m wandering around the posters at a conference, waiting for the big client meeting to start, or just attending a wedding where I don’t know many people, I’d like to be able to start and continue a conversation with anybody. I’m trying to find grace.

It’s not easy to overcome 20 years of negative reinforcement and become a confident, social person. But I’m working on it. How’s my progress so far?

I’m a lot better in formal interactions, such as when giving lectures or doing safety meetings with subcontractors. I’m still working on internalizing the habits and social skills that I should have picked up when I was younger: Using the right amount of eye contact. Interrupting when appropriate. Answering questions (“how was your weekend?”) with more than a one-word answer, and asking my own questions.

It’s funny – when I was a teenager, I was convinced that I had completely matured. It’s nice to know I’m still capable of changing what I thought was a fundamental part of me, still growing.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I didn't post yesterday because of yet another migraine. Anywhoo...

Scheduling reminds me of a college "gut" course. It's not difficult, but you still have to show up and do the work occasionally. If you don't, you will fail.

Back before I was a geologist, I worked in a customer-service type job. The adults generally had fixed schedules, and the high school students had pretty much flexible schedules between the hours of 3 pm and 9 pm. We had to have a minimum number of people available to help the public, say, 3. At least one adult had to be on-site to supervise the high school students who did most of the work. Somehow this schedule coordination was beyond the abilities of my boss, who had an advanced degree in this field. She was eventually fired for being utterly ineffectual.

Working out the schedule for an environmental consulting office is likewise fairly simple. You may have a couple more experienced field folks and a few people who are more specialized. So what do you do? You schedule those people first and then you fit in the other people around them. You figure out who's doing what when you first get an inkling when the fieldwork will happen, not the day before, when everybody's already committed.

How hard is this? I've scheduled long-term projects with multiple subcontractors, where each phase depended on the results of previous work, and we had to pull personnel from all over the country. All you need is to sit down and actually think about how to plan stuff, and then keep up with changes as they happen. It's not rocket science.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

a fellow traveller

Most of the time when I did consulting fieldwork, I stayed within driving distance of the home office. I did occasionally fly to field sites, which became more annoying with all the post-911/post-shoe bomber travel restrictions.

When I had the time, I shipped my field gear to the site or the hotel using one of the several dozen coolers that we always had on hand for samples. But if I didn’t have the time, I packed my clipboard, my steel-toe boots, my hard hat, and sundry other awkward/heavy/metal-bearing stuff in with my checked luggage and then changed everything (this was quite an involved process in the winter) in the airport bathroom when I got my luggage back. And not all airports are set up for this sort of thing – I usually ended up stripping in the bathroom proper because I didn’t have room in the stall to fit my luggage and enough elbow room that I wouldn’t fall into the toilet when I tried to peel a sock off.

I had just finished changing into “civilian” clothing in a small airport when another woman came in and started changing out of field gear. Apparently I’m not the only one who has to do this…

Friday, May 22, 2009

how romantic!

So, there's an article up on the NY times magazine about manual labor and how it's underappreciated as a career choice. Now I can't find it - it was in the Sunday preview. But it should be up again tomorrow.

I agree that we shouldn't automatically disparage any and all careers that don't involve a college education. There are many different types of intelligence, and someone who's good at spatial relationships is not inferior to someone who's good at writing. And in my own family, those of us who went into the trades have a significantly more comfortable and secure living than the college graduates. Heck, I just mentioned recently that I'm paid far less than the drillers who work for me, and I'm probably on par with their helpers.

But let's not get carried away here. In the article (if you can find it), the author contrasts his experience working as a drone for a soulless corporation with his current job fixing motorcycles. This is silly. Not all management or office work is pointless and dull, and very, very few people who are mechanics (let alone other folks who work with their hands) get to putter around with exotic machinery, having confabs with friendly shops whose owners will help with the complicated stuff.

There is a historical reason why manual labor has been seen as less desirable, and it's one that he actually spends some time discussing. Manual labor is dangerous. It's messy. If you look up my drilling tag, most of the posts are safety related. Any time you're outside, working around machinery, there is a chance you'll get squashed or smashed or burned or frozen. If you take a poll of drillers with more than say, 10 years of experience, probably 1/3 to 1/2 have at least part of a finger missing.

I love being outside. I chose to be a geologist, to do environmental work. But if you think that working outside, getting my hands dirty, is some sort of soul-enhancing, romantic experience, well...maybe you should re-read my posts again.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

more truck fun

I've mentioned before that I've gotten all sorts of obnoxious commentary when I drive a super-duty truck. A lot of it is along the lines of, "ooh, that must be hard to drive!"

Um, no. What's annoying to drive is a box-style truck, where you don't have a rearview mirror (why bother? It would only show the back of the cab) and the box extends some distance to either side and above you. You have to remember that things like branches and bridges and parking garage ceilings are somewhat harder to avoid. Also, the box lets you pile stuff higher than you would otherwise, so you have to make sure stuff's well secured...there's nothing like taking the first turn and cringing as your bottleware goes flying. Or stopping short and listening as everything slides forward 15 feet to smack against the cab.

And then there's those truck weigh-stops, which a CDL-knowledgeable person has recently informed me that you're supposed to stop at. I've never done so, partially because I have no idea how the scales operate or what I'm supposed to do, exactly. This same person assured me that the DOT doesn't really care about trucks small enough to rent without a CDL, but it's one more annoyance I'd rather not deal with, thanks. I'll take an overstuffed cargo van any day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

girlz stuff

Zuska posted recently about dell's inane marketing toward females (ooh, if you're a girl, you need a pink laptop with special dieting tips!). They've toned the site's sexism way down after a slew of commentary - as of this writing, they're highlighting super-light netbooks and acessories. But this reminded me of my experience with "legos for girls".

I was a huge lego fan when I was a kid. I always asked for lego stuff for presents, and over a few years I accumulated a large number of structures which ended up totally taking over my room. Each set would come with a couple of lego people, and I felt compelled to make room in my lego town for a place for every single lego person to sleep (I hadn't thought of the night shift), so I ended up with several hotels/sleeping shanties that contained nothing but beds. I often played by myself, making up long lineages and interpersonal conflicts between everyone in town. I was a little stumped by the repeat lego men, so there were a lot of twins and triplets.

The only thing I lacked was lego ladies. My lego town was a sausagefest. I'd be lucky to get one lego lady per set, and when I got the little "person only" sets, there'd be 10 men and one woman. So you can imagine my joy when I heard about special legos for girls. Finally, gender lego parity! But no, all it meant was that you could buy all pink building blocks. And you still didn't have an equal number of lego ladies.

I know there's all sorts of obnoxious gendered toys. But my lego experience was the first time I consciously thought about how these things were pushed on kids. I stopped playing with legos around then because I started writing down the characters in my head rather than building houses for them, but I may have gotten a couple more sets if I hadn't been so insulted by the marketing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

coffee? bedtime?

I mentioned in the last post that I'm not a coffee drinker. This post reminds me that I appear to be in the non coffee-drinking minority. I remember being told that I'd get hooked once I got to college, but I never felt the need. Partially, it's because caffeine doesn't really work as a stimulant for me (although it does appear to help my migraines).

The real reason I haven't really tried coffee or other stimulants is that I simply don't stay up late to finish work (I have stayed late to finish work, but that has only rarely cut into actual sleeping time). I am not a slacker by any means; in fact I usually take my responsibilities too seriously. Regardless, I have never pulled an all-nighter. Most of the people I knew in college who drank gallons of coffee and pulled all-nighters regularly didn't have any more work than me (in fact, as a geology major I had considerably more work than most) and they probably got about the same amount of sleep. They just became nocturnal. I never understood what was so heroic about that.

I'm a morning person. When it's past my bedtime, I'm simply not functional and it's better for me just to go to bed. I can wake up obscenely early in a pinch, but I need to get at least a couple hours of solid sleep before I'm functional again. My personal internal clock, which I was able to follow in grad school, prodded me to go to bed at 10:30 or 11, wake up to pee between the hours of 3 and 5, sleep somewhat lightly from then on, and wake up for good between 7 and 7:30.

I'm fortunate that my personal sleep cycle fits well with standard American business hours. Too many of my friends are caffeine and/or sleeping aid addicts. I think they'd save a lot of aggravation (and money) if they could just work out a schedule that would fit with their internal clock and would stop stressing out about "insomnia" when the sleep they do get adds up to at least 8 hours.

Friday, May 15, 2009

hotel amenities 2

My previous post addressed hotel amenities that should be standard for mid-range hotels catering to professionals. In order to help cut costs, here are some things that are not needed:

1. hair dryer (if you use one, don’t you usually bring your own?)
2. 2 or more lights within 5 feet of each other
3. automatic replacement of all bedsheets/towels daily (use those little “please change” tents instead)
4. shower caps and other totally random toiletries
5. Coffee maker

Number 5 may be heresy to some, but all the coffee drinkers I know would much rather make a quick stop on the way to the jobsite and buy their poison rather than brewing the sanka or whatever it is they have in the hotel room.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

hotel amenities

Earlier this year I mentioned in passing some of the hotel amenities I especially look for: internet and breakfast.

I’d like to revisit that topic: what are the reasonable hotel amenities that should be included in a standard hotel stay? I’m not including super-budget hotels (say, less than $50/night, although obviously this varies by location), long-term stay hotels, or luxury hotels, but rather places where a professional traveler would generally stay. I'm leaving out the obvious, like running water.

Here’s my list, in no particular order:

1. a reasonable selection of pillows (at least one flat pillow and one puffy pillow)
2. free or cheap internet (and not just at a single computer in the lobby)
3. shampoo AND conditioner
4. a continental breakfast with at least one item that has either protein or more complex carbs, (i.e. something more than just a selection of packaged donuts/pastry) so I’m not hungry again an hour later
5. the possibility of a fridge and microwave – one microwave down by the lobby is ok
6. at least one trash receptacle with a plastic liner in it
7. hangars for wet stuff or clothing that needs to be kept unwrinkled
8. a working alarm clock
9. a deadbolt

So there you have it, hotels: if you have all of the stuff in this list, you’re well on your way to making travelling professionals happy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

offices for fieldwork

In environmental consulting, office locations are occasionally selected because the building/office space looks like a nice place to bring clients (important, I will grant) and not in order to facilitate fieldwork.

So what would facilitate fieldwork?

The first thing would be a location fairly accessible to store stuff. Someplace preferably on the first floor, and with doors that can be held open so that you’re not constantly crashing into them with large, heavy, and/or angular objects. Also, carpeting is bad for storage. Batteries can leak acid, samples can break, and some test kits and sample preservatives have special storage requirements (i.e. a flammables and/or corrosives cabinet).

The other storage issue is vehicles. If you had a big van or worse, a box truck, you needed enough parking space to store it. And the parking lot had to be secure enough to leave your own vehicle for weeks at a time without worrying about it getting damaged or hauled away by suspicious office park management types.

The other consideration is how to get rid of stuff. In consulting, we always ordered a bunch of consumable items. Gloves, sample bottleware, packing material…and if we had a subcontractor who produced a lot of stuff and nowhere on-site to dispose of it, then the amount of trash could get pretty impressive. So we needed to have access to a dumpster…something that not every fancy office building has.

There’s a simple solution. When you need to move to a bigger space (or more likely in this economy, you need to move somewhere smaller to save on rent), ask your employees what they need in a future office.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

more abbreviation angst

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about one of my writing pet peeves: randomly redefining abbreviations. Another abbreviation annoyance is using them when you don't need to.

For example, I read a paper that abbreviated lead (Pb). I can’t fathom why the authors felt compelled to shorten a 4-letter word. Maybe it looked more scientific? It doesn't help that the chemical abbreviation doesn't match the English name. Yeah, I know that Pb is the chemical abbreviation for lead, but it still causes a little mental stop when you’re reading. And the paper was only about lead, and no other element, so it’s not like the authors were discussing a huge list of elements and wanted to keep the terms consistent.

We have enough abbreviations in scientific writing that are necessary. Let's not go cluttering up technical writing with extraneous ones.

Monday, May 11, 2009

how many outfits?

One irritation of being a female geologist is the sheer amount of clothing you have to buy, at no small expense.

I've bitched here and here about the cost/difficulty of finding field clothing for small females. It's not insignificant, considering you really do need enough clothing for 2 weeks of fieldwork in any weather conditions.

Then, you may spend long stretches in the office, so you need full office attire (not easy to find for a short, slightly-built female, as I complained about here).

After a couple years, I'd finally found all the clothing I needed: raingear that fit and kept me dry, cold weather gear, breathable bras for when it's a million degrees out, acceptable button-down shirts, etc. Then I went to grad school.

I am not a particularly vain person. However, my field clothing is strictly that - for field use only. It is utterly logo-free, indestructable, militantly sexless, and chosen without any regard for how it looks (other than being clean and non form-fitting), because just finding stuff that fits is nigh-impossible. When I'm not at work, I like to wear stuff that's comfortable, not utterly out of style, and that I actually enjoy wearing.

By the time I'd gotten to grad school, my non-work wardrobe had seriously atrophied. I was wearing one beloved pair of pants, a backup pair of jeans I didn't like very much, and a couple favorite shirts on the weekends, and that was about all I had. But in grad school, I wore non-work clothing every day. So I got a third wardrobe.

The problem with all this stuff is that I didn't have room for it in grad school, and I had to drag it all over creation until I finally settled in this new, non-grad school area and by the time I was ready to contemplate wearing field and office clothing again, my ass had grown and I needed all new stuff anyhow. Grrr.

Friday, May 8, 2009

losing my accent

I spent my formative years surrounded by people who had a distinctive way of speaking. My own accent was never particularly strong, but I knew folks who were incomprehensible to outsiders. I have a certain fondness for this way of speaking, even though it has certain negative associations.

So then I went away to grad school in a place where the locals had an equally distinctive accent (but distinct in a completely different way). I spent my first couple months inwardly giggling at everybody around me, but before I knew it, I had picked up this additional accent. At the same time, in some sort of subconscious rebellion against the new accent, my original accent got a lot stronger.

Now I have what has been called charitably a "lilt". I have ceased making fun of celebrities with odd or fake sounding accents (e.g. Madonna), because I sound sort of silly myself.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

gorilla grip

Another nice thing about being a female geologist is that I don't feel any need to prove myself with the firmness of my handshake. That whole "I must demonstrate my masculinity by having the strongest grip" thing is foreign to me. Also, as a small female, I think sometimes the people I meet are pleasantly surprised that I don't have a totally limp handshake.

If you are big into the whole "overpowering handshake" thing, please, please do not attempt it when shaking hands with a driller. You know, the person who spends his days picking up extremely heavy cylindrical objects? It will end...poorly.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

generator issues

I had a coworker who was frustrated by a newbie who needed a lot of help in the field. "She can't even turn on a generator!"

I have to admit that I became an equipment rental company's "dart target of the week" once myself, and it was a generator that pushed them over the top.

I'd already called several times that week about other non-functional equipment that didn't respond well to phone coaching, so I'd already exhausted the rental company's patience.

This was when the new generation of smaller, enclosed generators became available (i.e. not the giant rattle-y metal ones). The generator kept shutting off, and nothing we did could keep it running. Notice the "we". I had several people with me in the field, and one person had some background in keeping engines running. I kept calling the rental folks, they would suggest different things, it would re-start fine, and then it would die 5-10 minutes later. The same thing happened with the replacement generator they sent out. You can see why they were starting to get irritated...

Experienced field folks may be able to guess what was wrong...there's an itty-bitty switch on the gas cap itself that needs to be in a particular position. If it's not open, air can't get in and the generator dies.

The problem is that basic field equipment like generators don't necessarily come with instruction manuals. Sure, I can operate one now (assuming I can yank the cord properly), but I certainly remember how it feels to be mystified by something that's supposedly basic.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

dinner quandry

So you've worked a super long day in the field and you have several more equally long days ahead of you.

You get to your hotel room, shuck off your sweaty/icy/wet stuff, jump into a cold/hot shower, pull on some skivvies, and throw your leftovers into the microwave. As the smell of reheated whatever fills the hotel room, you realize that you have no fork. And this particular dinner is in no way finger food.

Do you a) scrounge around for something to wear, drag yourself over to the front desk, and get a fork, b) turn the complimentary coffee stirrers that you do have into chopsticks, or c) say, "I may not have a fork, but I do have a sink" and use your fingers anyway?

Let's just say I didn't get a fork...

Monday, May 4, 2009

thesis formatting

Comment #11 in this post fit so perfectly with my grad school experience, I had to run off and write a post right after I read it.

"The biggest hurdle of graduate education is getting the dissertation margins and section headings and whatnot tweaked to satisfy Graduate Division, or the Librarian, or whoever the Authority is at your school."

This was the one thing that made me almost miss my super-important deadline to finish my graduation requirements (or else I was going to be on the hook for another term of tuition/fees with no funding). I hadn't attended any of the thesis formatting workshops my university held a couple times a term, but at some point in the less stressful part of the thesis writing (i.e. before I knew how soon my deadline would be) I did download the formatting guidelines and organized everything so it all worked.

Incidentally, one of my key skills in grad school was learning how to build a table of contents and how to format stuff so figures and titles and sub-subsections and all those sorts of things build automatically. With a 100+ page document, that's a lifesaver.

Anyway, when I actually handed the damn thesis in the day before the deadline, I still ended up with a long list of annoying formatting issues that had to be fixed. We did some back and forth via e-mail (I wasn't on campus to negotiate this, and the file was super big so just sending it was a trial) and it was officially accepted the day after the deadline. I did some fast talking, though, and snuck in without going over into the next term.

I realize that not getting readers together to approve your thesis is a more fundamental roadblock. But it's so frustrating when you think you're finally done, only to spend another frantic couple days formatting the thing just so.

Friday, May 1, 2009

consulting = $$$?

In college, I was under the impression that consulting paid lots of money. Well, not the sort of consulting I ended up doing. And as a consultant, sometimes your job sucks.

We were working on an incredibly frustrating job. The weather was lousy, we’d been working together way too long, and the field manager was one wrong interaction from snapping. We were training a new geologist, and he was a little overwhelmed. Then he found out how much we were paid compared to everyone else on-site.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Newbie: “Did you know the driller’s helper is paid more than we are?”
Short Geologist: “Yep.”
Newbie: “Man, I would take that job in a second. You just do whatever the driller tells you. Grab that wrench, pick up that pipe… there’s no extra BS.”
Short Geologist: “That's a low bar. Right now I'd take working at McDonald's.”
Field Manager: “C’mon, guys. There have to be worse jobs than this. Like, um…”
(in the glum silence that follows, the porta-potty chemical changer drives up and hooks up his hose. An overwhelming chemical/sewage smell wafts over the site)
Field Manager: “That’s a worse job than this one.”
Short geologist: “Maybe he’ll clean out the 2 huntsman spiders in the porta-potty while he’s at it.”
Newbie: “That’s funny. I counted 3 big spiders.”
Field Manager: “Um, Short? Hold still…”
Short Geologist: “AAAHHH!” (runs off screaming)

Ok, I'm kidding about the huntsman spider part. Avid readers will recognize that the short geologist would not get within 20 feet of a full-grown huntsman. The short geologist gets the willies sharing a porta-potty with garden-variety spiders. Unfortunately, that happens every time she gets in one.