Personal

Looking back on 2018

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how for all the (terrible) posting I do online, I still consider myself a relatively private person. Knowing where I went to high school and when I graduated isn’t going to help you figure out my passwords or security question answers anyway, but I don’t mean that kind of privacy. Specifically, I avoid sharing anything that I feel could be weaponized against me and/or my family. Things like my hopes and dreams, my kids’ faces and names, the ins and outs of my relationships with friends and family. Which means I think you’ll find all of one annual introspection post from me from several years ago – I love reading them from other people and celebrating their accomplishments with them across the internet, but I generally don’t share back.

2018 was a big year for me though, and really what I’m doing right now is writing a post so that I can unpack it all for myself before deciding whether I’m comfortable sharing about it. Here we go.

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Thoughts

Instinct

Last night, as we took the train back from a friend’s birthday outing, a young man got on the train who instantly put me on alert. For a while, I tried to figure out what it was – his oddly clenched jaw, the sly look of his narrowed eyes (or were those just his eyes?), the constant readjusting of his over-large sweatpants, standing too close to others on a car that was only semi-crowded? I decided he was probably a pickpocket, and decided to keep my eye on him.

At one point, I lost track of him in the larger shuffle at 42nd street. I eventually saw him again, sitting across the car from me with one hand on his knee and the other on the seat near his hip, almost underneath a sleeping woman’s behind. Then I knew I was right to be on guard, but he wasn’t a pickpocket: he was a creep.

As I watched him slowly move his hand further over and her attempts to shrink away after his touch woke her, I got angrier and angrier. How come nobody else sees this? What is wrong with this guy?! I wanted so badly to say something and start a fight, and 10 years ago, I probably would have. Instead, I confirmed with my husband what was happening, and decided that it was the girl who was worth interacting with, not the guy.

She looked exhausted, like the way you might look after a 12 hour shift, and horrified. So I got up and gave her my seat, between my husband and another woman. When we got off the train a few stops later, I asked another girl on the train to take my husband’s seat. The relief in the “thank you” as we left almost made me cry.

As someone who lived in Manhattan as a kid, spent 2 months every year for 12 years after that back in Manhattan, and now lives in the NYC metro again, I have good urban instincts. They’re not all instincts though; it’s gut feelings as amplified by small things you’ve learned to notice through experiencing them over and over. When women talk about feeling “creeped out”, especially by an individual, we are frequently challenged to provide some kind of definitive proof. Even more than that one guy pissed me off, this enrages me. What is proof in these cases – waiting to take a picture of a guy after he’s managed to get his hand up somebody’s skirt instead of doing something about it before it gets to that point? What a horrific thing to believe in needing.

I had an instinct and the chance to act on it in a small and safe way when all signs pointed to it being correct, so I took it. I hope that woman made it home safely. Since creeps aren’t going away, and their behavior frequently excused (somebody nearby finally noticed and said that the guy must have been high, like that makes it okay), I also hope that we can support erring on the side of caution, especially when it costs us so little to do so. Trust instincts that come from a lifetime of experience. Please.

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Personal

I am angry.

I am angry because I cannot be myself.

I am angry because I will be told that my anger is not becoming for a girl.

I am angry because I have allowed others to affect my life and bring me down.

I am angry because I feel disappointed in myself when really I should be disappointed in you and YOU should be disappointed in you.

I am angry because I spend every day frozen by fear, a fear that was not directly caused by any one thing or any one person, and yet it is all-consuming.

I am angry because there are those who will say “yeah so I told a woman I’d murder her children over her statement of a fact, but that woman wasn’t you, so you’re just being oversensitive and stupid, ignore that what I did was neither an isolated incident nor socially acceptable.”

I am angry because it doesn’t just stop at threats: people are murdered over these non-transgressions.

I am angry that so many people are dead simply for having been born in a certain place or of a certain color.

I am angry that we look for excuses when there is no excuse, that we allow ourselves to fall prey to the fallacy that logic can always be found.

I am angry because my own freedom of speech is trumped by somebody else’s, logic be damned.

I am angry because I fully believe in the mission of democratizing publishing and yet I have to accept that that means the software I make can be used by others to squash my own will to continue to participate freely on the internet.

I am angry because in a comments section powered by that very software I give so much of myself to build, I am greeted with racial epithets directed at me.

I am angry because my withdrawal will be seen as a “win”, and the ensuing losses ignored.

I am angry because I collect inappropriate fan mail under the guise of laughter, but in reality I am collecting evidence.

I am angry that so many people are jerks, posting somebody else’s personal information without permission, wishing that others would be raped or murdered.

I am angry that other people are being cruel by way of attempting to deflect from those jerks, because they are too scared or brainwashed to simply denounce them.

I am angry because I am giving jerks what they want, because I am not a jerk to my loved ones and I absolutely will not put them at risk.

I am angry, and I am silenced.

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Thoughts

No but really, all women.

I’m not much of a hashtag participant or follower on Twitter. Sometimes I find myself being contrary and wanting to just outright ignore something because I think the hashtag seems kind of dumb. But over the last couple of days, the things being shared with #YesAllWomen caught my eye. I shared a couple of things myself, and then I became aware of something that felt straight up disgusting.

I feel lucky because I don’t think I’ve been harassed much.

Not only am I repulsed by this realization, but I’ve also realized I’m scared. I’m currently leading a round number release of the most popular publishing software on the internet. What’s going to happen when it comes out and somebody doesn’t like something? I’ve seen the vitriol of those who feel slighted by the software. I’ve seen the amount of abuse our forum moderators endure. I get the creepy emails personally. I’m really fucking scared of what might come my way as I become ever more visible. If it weren’t for knowing that I kick ass, having an incredible amount of support behind me from men and women alike, and generally being unwilling to yield to other people’s bullshit, I would probably have quit long ago.

I’ve already been harassed plenty. The guy who kept trying to touch my hair and give me hugs, was told “no, I don’t like people touching me without permission, unexpected contact provokes involuntary reactions”, yet felt surprised enough to call me a bitch when he grabbed me from behind and got a stiletto through his shin as I kicked back. The guy who tried to play it like he was the gentleman walking me home from a grad student event, even after I stated I was perfectly happy being alone, and shoved his way into my apartment.  The emails I’ve been getting ever since my picture became a regular part of the WordPress credits screen. The catcalls that lead to me being called a “stuck up chink slut” when I don’t respond the way they want.

Despite that, I’ve heard and witnessed enough to know that what I’ve experienced as a woman and in particular as a woman working in the world of technology pales in comparison to many, many of my friends and peers. I’ve become more certain every day that I will face much worse yet. I have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that not getting harassed *too* much has become my baseline of existence. And the constant not-frightening-yet-unwelcome attention? Doesn’t even factor in anymore. This sucks. This isn’t how anybody should be treated – not me, not other women, not men, not anybody anywhere. We are not objects that exist solely for others.

I often feel conflicted when talking or thinking about what one might label as feminist issues. For many people, gender has influenced difficulties that have shaped who they are, and they often and understandably have a louder voice and a more thought-out viewpoint when it comes to issues stemming from gender. I have two specific tough things that I feel have shaped me, neither of which is being female. The primary one is growing up getting beaten by my parent on the regular. The secondary one is my race, or rather the racism associated with it. Largely fueled by the rage from the former, I got into a lot of altercations over things like being called a chink or a savage who needed to come to know the name of Jesus Christ (I’m not exaggerating: that actually happened, and hilariously on the same day my whole family got baptized in church).

As I’ve kept allowing myself brief digs into the past, I’ve realized that it’s not really that cut and dried, as nothing ever is. There is a hint of sexism mixed into the racism here and there. Moments like the customer at a Chinese restaurant who handed me a two dollar bill, saying “I bet your sweet ass ain’t never seen one of these.” The many guys (well, and girls, in the interest of being thorough) who have commented on my exotic Asian hair and asked to touch it, or worse yet, just helped themselves to a stroke or two. The innumerable comments I have gotten about how surprised they are that I’m not a submissive Asian female, which usually follows an exclamation over how good my English is.

If you’re here and thinking, “oh come on, not all men are treating you like crap” — well, no shit. But a majority of men treating me either wonderfully or not treating me like anything at all because we don’t interact doesn’t erase the fact that there will be some number of men who treat me like crap, and that small number is more than enough for me to put my safety and peace of mind first. It also doesn’t mean that all women treat me well, because “all” or “never” aren’t realistic statements. What we should be wondering is why and how so many women have had something to share, prompted by something as brief as a hashtag. Why haven’t we heard these stories before, how could it be so common, why is our first reaction to be defensive, how can we all find a way to be better? Why do we try to pretend that a small minority of harassers doesn’t actually have a disproportionately huge effect when they so clearly do?

Here’s what I’m not doing: I’m not pretending there is some magical solution, or even a known goal where we could call things “fixed”. I’m not going to make distracting hypothetical comparisons between how X group experiences constant and systematic harassment and the way Y group does or doesn’t. Believing that direct comparisons can and should be drawn between diverse groups and diverse experiences is the height of arrogance. It’s also irresponsible to make statements like “well, X wouldn’t happen if this was about Y”. We can’t know that, and again, it tends to detract from otherwise valuable discussion.

What I am going to do is keep listening to people who have things they need to share, find ways to show people they’re not alone, and continue to calmly and carefully talk through how a comment somebody might think they are lightly making about “not ALL men” is not just distracting, but actively destructive. More tellingly, though, I’m also going to keep being extra careful about how I present myself online and in person, because I still don’t feel safe.

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Personal

Memories of grade school and even college and grad school have nearly all slipped away. Almost wish I could have held on to the good ones a little better a little longer, but it was my own choice to move ceaselessly onward. Some days, though, you’re forced to stop and search for signs of those old memories. Friendships fell away and there will never be another chance to find all of them again, but there’s a fondness, somewhere, still recognizable in there. May the fondness remain, and the pain of youth lost fade.

To Patrick, Joey, Drew, and Sara: today I thought of you, and I will again tomorrow.

To old friends

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Thoughts

Maternity leave is not vacation

I made a bit of a mistake today. I read the comments on a post, and not just any post – one on Valleywag. It’s not a complete mistake, though – it reminds me about some things I’ve been thinking through about maternity leave, having taken one quite recently myself.

The gist of the comment was a view I’ve heard several times: hiring pregnant women is bad for business. They are a liability and stick all the other schmucks with their entire workload while they take off and suck the company’s coffers dry. Paying somebody to go have a work-free vacation is a terrible business decision and an investment with no return. And so on, and so forth.

Maternity leave in the USA is a tough topic. I’m not going to pretend I can analyze it or know all the facts ever, or that I have any sort of polarized and/or political opinion, but here’s what I do know. We’re one of four countries on this planet who don’t have any national paid maternity leave. Federally, there is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which grants 12 weeks of job safety to an employee at a qualified company (50+ employees, and other things) caring for a newborn (among some other situations and provisions). On a state level, there can be legislation going further than that. In New Jersey, you can file for up to 10 weeks of disability pay (4 before birth, 6 after) – however, in my understanding, you may not draw a paycheck during that time, meaning that you must pay the full premium of any employer insurance plan, as the employer cannot contribute anything toward it when you are not receiving pay.

When you hear about paid maternity leave in the US, generally the weight of it is borne by the employer (I say generally, but have to admit that I’m not versed enough to know what other situations might be). In a country where things like insurance and benefits are largely reliant on businesses and employers, it seems expected, but is also understandably difficult to implement, especially for smaller businesses where FMLA doesn’t apply to begin with. Certainly it take conscious effort on the part of the employer to provide paid leave if they so choose, and generally you find that businesses that provide it are either running at quite a large scale and/or have declared that parenting is a central part of their values.

How can it possibly be a good business decision? Well, if your evaluation methods of a good business decision rely solely on short-term raw numbers, then to you it probably won’t ever be one. But, there can be tangible benefits, both to you and to everybody, when looking at the bigger picture – a larger talent pool in being able to include those who appreciate what the company values (whether or not they personally would benefit), the ability to retain a great employee whose overall value now and into the future to the company far outweighs the raw cost of pay while on leave, general employee morale and thus productivity, and giving future generations (of employees!) more tools to having a happy, healthy life. Add to that the costs associated with on-boarding and training a completely new employee, especially at upper levels, and you will likely find that things balance out just fine, if not favorably.

If you have your workload directly and unexpectedly impacted by somebody (not just pregnant women or another parent) taking leave, your concern should be with your management, not the one taking that leave. Yes, of course any change in the workplace is going to have some effect, but most of the time, we are not on an episode of that “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” show – there is some warning and therefore time to plan and make adjustments. Good management will absorb most of the impact, make appropriate changes, and keep you informed about any direct changes. If you’re in management and unwilling to handle such impacts, then I wonder why you are at the higher levels in the first place. People leave jobs permanently, not just temporarily, for any number of reasons, so having a single point of failure is asking for future troubles anyway.

It’s also a great opportunity to step up and show that you are willing and able to take on a challenge and advance your job and your skills, whether or not that’s on a management level. It’s also a good time to evaluate what that employee who wants to take leave really wants to do. In my case, I had already been working toward creating a position as an internal employee (as opposed to being directly client-facing), so going on leave provided a natural yet clearly delineated timeline in which to introduce new faces to the clients I was working with and take the training wheels off completely at a given date.

I do think that there are steps a parent or parent-to-be can take to put themselves in a better position. Seeking employment at a company with good and clear benefits, finding a position that has some redundancy in personnel and thus flexibility, having a couple of contingency plans in the case that something doesn’t work out, etc. I do know that not every job one might want and/or is qualified for can fit into these overly generalized buckets, and there are factors in life that often limit possibilities and put your work situation out of your control. But, given that as an employee you play a part in a company’s success, it’s not unreasonable to hope that you take your own impact into consideration and play a proactive role in making leave a possibility, paid or not.

Even if you still don’t believe in the value of maternity leave yourself, you should be able to recognize that somebody gave birth to you and have a little respect for that, and not make statements about how terrible it is that it’s not lawful to discriminate against a pregnant woman and fire her, or not hire somebody at all just because she happens to be fertile (which you shouldn’t definitively know about in the first place). I believe in the value of maternity and parental leave, but Equal Employment Opportunity is law, and for good reason. When I see such disrespect, I feel sad that somebody’s life could be so devoid of positive female role models, and hope that women of all kinds (non-parents, working moms, and stay-at-home moms alike) can seek to fill that void.

As for those who like to tell pregnant women that they’re so lucky to go on a work-free vacation – well, growing a person and then pushing it out (or having it cut out, if that’s how things go) isn’t exactly my idea of a rocking good time. If you’re a nursing mom, then you get the added bonus of being on call as a 24/7 food machine, and for at least the first several weeks, we’re talking near-constant switching from side to side. Wanting to have and raise children is an interesting parallel to providing a benefit like maternity leave – maybe not super easy or intuitive when you think about the details of the process, but a no-brainer when you look at the overall outcome.

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Personal

Domains and self identity

helen blog, having long been at blog.helenyhou.com, now rests right at the top level of helenhousandi.com. The old helenhousandi.com landing page is gone. Tweaks will come, since I don’t want the front page to be a blog, and I’m sure there will be a few bugs here and there (please tell me if you encounter any), but the move is complete.

When I got married and changed my name, I bought helenhousandi.com. Instead of replacing helenyhou.com, which had long held my website as a pianist, I decided it was time to start embracing my move into web development and put a semi-crappy landing page (that I never did change much), a WordPress blog about WordPress (leaving helen blog as a more personal stream), and a brief portfolio listing on the new domain. At the time, I was also actively working and performing as a pianist, deriving about a third of my income from such, so this split between the content of the domains reflected what I was doing.

Fast forward a few more years: music is no longer a part of my professional life, and if I’m being honest with myself, it’s relegated to a very very small corner of my personal life – the one where I play piano for my son because he enjoys it. I wish I could say that I don’t regret this, because it is the result of conscious decisions I have made and have achieved success with, but that would be a lie. I’m very sad to let go of something that I worked so hard to master and had earned success and respect in.

It feels silly to talk about a change of domain name like this, and I’m already worried that I sound a bit “woe is me”. But the reality is that I’ve been sad about my professional musician identity slipping away for years now. I get huffy when my husband and his brother (who also happens to be a pianist) talk about performing together, even though I know that it’s a completely different rapport. I feel twinges of jealousy behind expressed pride and excitement when I see friends giving their Met Opera or Carnegie Hall debuts, or when Adrian gets to play ensemble concerts with music I’ve always wanted to be a part of (Knussen, swoon!).

I know I could have kept on with being a musician – as much as I struggle with impostor syndrome, I am not afraid to say that I am a damn good pianist and collaborative musician. But to do it, I would have had to give up dreams of having a family and not moving every year or two. I chose stability and family over a career that often made me tired with having to play my own booking and debt collections agents. In making that choice, I found a place in which I’ve arguably become even more successful than I would have been as a pianist. Great pianists are innumerable in the NYC metro area – permanent core committers to WordPress are, well, just me (and Matt when he’s around). To be one of ten in the world to earn such a status on the software projects that powers over a fifth of the internet is not something I ever would have dreamed of, and it totally intimidates me, but I’m enjoying it and it fits into the big picture of what I want my life to be.

In the next day or so, I’ll also be redirecting the whole of the helenyhou.com site itself to pages here instead. I don’t want to completely take down things like performance audio or my repertoire lists, but it’s time I stop pretending that that side of me is still big enough to warrant its own presence. I’ll always identify as a musician first, and I married one, so I expect it will always be a part of my life, just maybe not a part of my work.

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Personal

28

I suffer from imposter syndrome pretty much all the time. I sit around and wonder “Who the hell am I? Why should anybody listen to me? How mad are people going to be when they realize I’m not everything?” I always feel like I haven’t accomplished enough, and even though I’m pretty good at telling myself that’s what constitutes my drive, some days I feel it more keenly than others.

I won’t let today be one of those days. I’m 28 today. I’ve reached the point where I have to stop and think when somebody asks how old I am. I own a house I thought I could only dream of. I have an amazing son and a wonderful spouse. I have a fantastic job that’s evolved along with me into being something that truly fits, and the best coworkers I could ask for. I have a car, a piano, my own home office, and a general overabundance of material things. I eat well, I find a reason to laugh hysterically just about every day, and I can honestly say that on the whole I’m happy as opposed to sad or angry.

10 years ago, I was legally and functionally an adult. A sad and angry adult. I felt like I had been an adult for some time already, making adult decisions and having adult finances before I was really ready. But now I feel like a grown up, and you know what: I am an accomplished grown up and I am proud of that. It’s a good birthday.

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Story

Microaggressions and the one that got me

I experience microaggressions constantly. Most of them are race-based, but occasionally I’ll get one that’s gender-based, like “why don’t you consult with your husband about what kind of windows to get”. (Of course, he gets his fair share of “men are domestically useless” microaggressions, which also sucks.) If you’re not hip to microaggressions, which is totally okay, they are the brief and common interactions with somebody who is Other to you that involve subtle and often unintentional but engrained bigotry. I found this paper to be good reading.

In any case, while I’m generally not upset by individual occurrences, it is exhausting and painful on the whole, and I do find myself getting defensive about the “where are you from (no really where are you from ORIGINALLY)” questions. I’m aware of said defensiveness, and try to be good about giving people a chance to move past it, but I’ll admit that sometimes I end up just stopping cold and staring at the asker. As we hung out with other musician friends at our favorite little dive bar during our brief stint in Wichita, it happened. But it didn’t go as I expected, at all.

White girl: “Hey, where are you from?”

Me: *stares* “Uh….”

Girl: (louder) “Where are you from?”

Me: *still staring*

Husband: (walks over to rescue me from being mean) Um… well, we are from the symphony orchestra.

Girl: “Oh. Cool! I thought maybe you guys were with the Disney on Ice people. I’ve never seen such a big group of skinny attractive people together at a bar here.”

So, microaggressions and aggressive racism aren’t going to stop happening, and I probably won’t stop bristling at THAT question, but I have to admit: she got me, and she made our night. For all the demoralizing and demeaning experiences, it’s nice to remember a positive one instead, even if she probably figured I was Mulan. 🙂

 

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