Tag Archives: Books

A Woman’s Place

Late last night, I flipped the final virtual pages of Sinclair Lewis’ The Job: An American Novel (free for Kindle!).

I love books that fit the genre: set in the early 20th century, starring young women who find strength in fending for themselves and making it in the big, bad city. (See also: Theodore Dreiser.)

The Job spanned a decade starting in 1905, when Una Golden and her mother moved to New York City from a small Pennsylvania town. Una’s father had just passed away, and after the dust settled, the mother and daughter decided that a big city like New York held more opportunity for a young woman to earn a living (and support her mother).

Such “opportunities” were vastly different than what women expect today. After a quick stint at secretarial school, Una started her career by taking dictation, eventually running small offices. Throughout, her fellow secretaries and stenographers married and left their jobs. The message – and reality – were clear: women had to choose between work or family. Women tended to work only when they had to support themselves in the absence of a father or husband. Una struggled to reconcile her desire for a family with her career aspirations.

As I read, many of the office dynamics were familiar, with hierarchies and break time confidences. But I marveled at just how far we’ve come in a century.

My own company, IBM, recently named a new CEO. As of January 1, Ginni Rometty was named President and CEO – IBM’s ninth CEO in a century.

Ginni Rometty is IBM's new CEO and president

When the news was announced in October, the gender-focused headlines bothered me. Why should it matter that she’s a woman? That our best and brightest, someone who worked her way up through IBM’s ranks since 1981, happens to be a woman? We should applaud the best person getting the job, regardless of gender.

But I know that it is a big deal. As long as Fortune and Forbes keep putting out lists of “Most Influential Women” and we have stand-alone “Women in Technology” receptions at conferences, the divide will persist. (Can you imagine if they had a “Men in Technology” night at a software conference?)

I grew up truly believing I could be anything I wanted to be. It never occurred to me that being a girl limited my career choices. I could be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or even an astronaut, as long as I worked hard. (Funny, “social media strategist” never popped to mind as a career option back in the 80s or 90s.)

But not terribly long ago, that wasn’t really the case. When my mom applied for teaching jobs in the 1970s, she had to include a headshot and answer questions about her marital status and whether she intended to have children.

It’s certainly changed in the century since Una Golden arrived in New York. Even so, I look forward to the day when gender isn’t highlighted as something novel during such announcements.

We’re getting there. Our outgoing CEO, Sam Palmisano, reiterated the point: “Ginni got it because she deserved it. It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies.”

Congratulations, Ginni, and thanks for helping perpetuate the reality that a woman’s place can be in the board room.

The New York Times has an interesting look at women in technology, and specifically, women in IBM. 

Making Fiction Reality: NaNoWriMo

I miss writing fiction. I’m not very good at it, but sometimes, I rather enjoy writing things that don’t require fact checking or accurate quotes. I like sketching out stories and then letting the characters lead me where they will.

I’ve done National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) twice, in 2006 and again in 2008. The goal is to write 50,000 words towards a novel in “30 days and nights of literary abandon,” with lots of motivation and misery-loves-company groups to help you get words on virtual paper. Quantity over quality, which is perfect for a first draft. It works out to 1,667 words every day, but I often wrote more when I had the time to make up for inevitable busy spells or dry periods.

In 2006, I did crank out the majority of a novel, “Commuter Shoes,” dealing with a twenty-something city dweller who buys an old house in a rather urban suburb. (Hmm… sound familiar?) Over the course of the next year, some of the things I fictionalized began coming true, which rather freaked me out.

In 2007, I was stumped for ideas, but in 2008, I tackled it again, this time writing historical fiction and doing a lot more preparation. I had an outline, characters, and major plot points. And after the 30 day sprint, I had 60,000 words, but was only in about 1955, whereas my timeline had plans for my characters until the mid-1980s. But I got busy – wrapped up in the holidays, etc, and didn’t return to it.

So I have two half-written novels, a smattering of half-baked short stories, and that’s about it.

I would love to tackle NaNoWriMo again, but I know that this is not the year. With school and work and “life” (ha!), I’m just barely hanging on to reality. While escaping to fiction would be nice, I know that I would get more frustrated at doing yet another thing that falls short of my vision.

That said, if you have the beginnings of a story in you, I highly encourage you to check out NaNoWriMo. It’s a terrific way to force you to work through your plot gremlins and start translating the ideas to paper. The online communities are great and full of motivation – and they can even help you out if you get stuck in a plot, need help with names, or just want to make sure something makes sense. And they even have local meetups throughout the area, so you can get together over coffee and share ideas or just quiet, caffeinated solace.

Even if no one ever reads it, or if you later read it and decide it’s not what you had in mind, it’s an experience that’s well worth the effort. It might turn out better than you ever expected! And November is the perfect month for it: cold and dreary enough that you spend more time inside, yet before the chaos of December or the ennui of January.

One tip: don’t edit as you write. It will frustrate you and impede the process. In fact, if I find myself trying to edit, I sometimes turn the text to white – on a white background – and write away, unencumbered by the pesky internal editor. Sara Toole Miller has more great practical advice – and a great planning calendar.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to write a paper about selling frozen pies.

Good luck! Ready, set, write!

We Aren’t Philadelphia, Either: The Hidden Tax of Poor Schools

Schools - and their perception - are vital to attracting and keeping residents

Before Finals began consuming my every waking, non-work thought, I read the thoroughly fantastic account of the near-death of Philadelphia, Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City.

Last night, as I scooped up a pile of books to return to the library, I stopped and flipped through Prayer, looking for a passage that has been gnawing at me since I read it earlier this month. On page 372, I found it, transcribed it, and bolded the parts that have been haunting me:

“There was no mystery as to why people were leaving the city. Regardless of what Rendell had accomplished, the city’s pull was still almost purely an emotional one. Those who stayed did so on the basis of loyalty, or because of a job, or because the qualities that had turned so many away from cities were the very qualities that enticed them – difference, diversity, diversion. By any economic basis, the basis on which most people made decisions, the city was still noncompetitive with its surrounding suburbs to the point of impotence. Taxes were still far too high. The perception of crime, far more corrosive than actual crime figures themselves, had not been ameliorated. The school system continued to flop and flounder and had the trust of no one, in large part because of endemic problems, but also because the mayor, cowed by the politics, had never brought to the schools anywhere near the intensity that he had given to the union negotiations, or the budget, or economic development. Those who went to a public school in the city had little faith. Those who did not were forced to pay the burden of the city’s greatest hidden tax – private and parochial schools – until they could no longer afford it, or got tired of affording it, and moved across the boundary.”

[Context: During Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell’s first term (1992-1996), Bissinger was allowed unprecedented access to the mayor and his advisors, and chronicled the story of a dying city that had lost $2 billion of its tax base during the prior 20 years and was facing a deficit of $1.246 billion. The city had lost 400,000 people between 1960 and 1990, including a 30% drop in the number of mid-income families, and had a poverty rate of 20%.]

Now, just as Elgin isn’t Detroit, nor are we Philadelphia. America’s truly big cities – and Philadelphia was once the third-largest – have always faced far greater challenges. But some parts of the passage certainly rang true.

Our city is safer than every city of similar size in Illinois, save Naperville, and yet the old perceptions of crime still loom heavily in many people’s minds.

The schools problem rings very true, too. As our local U46 begins its new school year, many continue to send their children to private and parochial schools because they don’t trust the local district. In Philadelphia, during Rendell’s tenure, the Mayor appointed the school board, and thus had oodles more direct accountability. That isn’t the case in Elgin, where our school board is elected, but the “hidden tax” certainly is.

In response to my last post about bringing technology education and training to town, I had Facebook posts that mentioned the vital importance of primary education. People don’t quibble as much when high school taxes go to a district that performs very well. But when their taxes are high and they don’t think the schools are good enough for their children, they either pay the hidden tax of private schools, or move.

More thoughts on this after Finals are over and I can breathe again, but I wanted to start the ball rolling while it was fresh in mind. I don’t have kids, so my experience with the schools is purely perception, but that’s part of the problem. Even if the schools are fine, they are perceived as quite the opposite.

We must work together to fix our schools (and, just as importantly, their perception) before we lose more good residents and before more decide against moving to Elgin in the first place. In an era of terrible funding challenges, this is a gigantically tall order, but not impossible. Suggestions on how we start?

I highly, highly recommend the book. Bissinger weaves together several stories of average citizens and their struggles, from a welder in the doomed shipyard, a city employee, a prosecutor and a woman raising her great-grandchildren, while incorporating the years he spend with Rendell and his chief of staff. Plus, he’s a fantastic writer and storyteller.

Books, Glorious Books!

I have a problem with books.

I cannot part with them. But I’m out of room, so something has to give. Sure, after college, I sold quite a few of the texts I’d used for classes I knew I’d never reference again – really, what were the odds of needing cell biology again? But over my undergrad career, there were many, many occasions on which we would only be assigned to read a couple chapters out of a book, and I resolved to go back and read the rest someday to assuage my piqued interest. In many cases, I did indeed finish the books on nationalism and European history, especially as I worked on my thesis (on the effect EU membership would have on the Translyvanian Magyar population).

Nearly a decade later, most haven’t been touched since I moved into this house nearly five years ago. And while the topics still appeal to me, I wonder if I’ll ever realistically revisit them.

I also collected dozens – scores? – of books from used book sales across Hyde Park, and cleaned up every year at the Divinity School book sale.

This giant bookcase holds mostly fiction, with a smattering of yearbooks and random tall things on the bottom shelf.

Some of the books have had a home on my shelves since childhood, dutifully following me from my parents’ house to dorm, through a string of apartments, and are still treasured. Among those are the two dozen or so that I picked to take to my dorm room – a choice that I agonized over for weeks. When I went home for breaks, I would eagerly swap out titles for fresh ones.

Others are new, snapped up in the last few months but largely unread. (I haven’t read a single non-class-related book since school started in September, and it’s driving me crazy.)

The tallest case has mostly non-fiction, including a ton of history and politics. And the Cubs Snoopy.

I built the two tall bookcases with my dad the summer before moving into my first apartment, lovingly cutting and sanding and staining late at night after getting home from my terrible IHOP job. My dad built one of the smaller ones when I was a kid.

But since I’ve moved in, I’ve had a couple boxes of books banished to the basement, as there’s no room on the overflowing cases. Another couple boxes sit in the back of the office closet, mostly old class books I tried to sell via Amazon but the list price didn’t make it worth my time. Those should be donated.

Even so, it’s tough to part with books. Looking over the shelves, each one tells a story of part of my past. I picked every book for a reason, whether it was the class on History and Memory of the American South or when I was taking the Wealth, Power and Virtue classes that shaped so many of the beliefs I hold dear. Over time, I’ve picked up books friends gushed over as “life changing,” and they were usually right. When I lived in Hungary, the only novels I could find in English were the identically-spined British Penguin Popular Classics series, and so began my love affair with Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence and the Brontë sisters. In college, I allowed myself to buy one Dover Thrift Edition for every class text I bought used online, which proved greatly motivating.

The living room bookcase has a blend of British novels, photo albums, and the OED.

Of course, there’s also a mismash of brainless chick-lit novels, cookbooks and home improvement books. And the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, complete with reading glass, that makes Scrabble almost too easy.

So you understand my quandary. How can I get rid of something that has so shaped who I’ve become? And who knows what my future children may learn from my books? Growing up, I remember reading my dad’s college books – a lot of literature, but also several genetics and economics books from the 70s – and reveling at the whole new world that opened to me. My mom had sold most of her books, and I would wonder what she had read and  that influenced her.

Over Christmas, when I have some time off, I’ll go through the shelves and purge what can go, starting with the boxes in the basement and closet. But realistically, I may not be able to get rid of much that’s currently shelf-worthy.

It may be time to build another bookcase.

What’s one book that you absolutely can’t part with?

Not pictured: the third office bookcase, which is tucked behind an armchair, making it tough to get a picture. Plus, it’s where the most egregious overflow piles – including stacks of recipes to try – have formed.

The Magazine Pile

My magazine pile

I brought together all the smaller piles from around the house.

I’ve been on a bit of a cleaning binge lately. Part of this has been centralizing all the magazines that have piled up around the house. Some of them are read but I held on to for whatever reason, others I may have read a couple articles, while others are untouched.

But I have no idea which issues fall into which category.

Over time, I’ve subscribed to several different magazines. I’ve let some subscriptions lapse as I realize I don’t read them, while others I really really INTEND to read, but it never quite happens. In fact, this particular project was inspired last week, when I grabbed a couple random magazines off the pile and threw them in my commuter bag. On the way home, I pulled one out and saw the “Merry Christmas” headline on the cover – it was a December 2009 issue.

I do have two hours of reading time on the train daily, but mornings are for the newspapers (the Tribune and Elgin Courier-News). Evenings are for overflow from morning, a bit of work, and books. I try to slot magazines in between the books, but as you can tell by the pile, it doesn’t always happen.

So what’s in the pile?

Clean Eating Magazine – A relatively new discovery (I just got the second issue), but I love this one! It’s nearly 100% content with very few ads, beautiful pictures, and chock-full of good recipes, shopping guides and nutrition news. I love that many of the recipes are relatively quick and easy. (They claim 20 minutes; I find 30 is more accurate, but I’m slow and that’s still not bad for a weeknight.)  Plus, they’re things I actually enjoy eating, with enough “new” foods that I’m always trying something different. Try the Ginger Chicken with Cilantro & Lime.

Family Handyman – My boss got me hooked on this, and it’s great. I always get good, practical advice. Several issues are still in the pile is because they’re useful or I plan to tackle one of the projects. A recent issue had a closet project that I’m eager to start.

National Review – Still standing athwart history, I’ve been reading NR on and off for a decade. I love the content, but it’s biweekly and I just can’t keep up lately. But going into an election year, I may shuffle it up in priority.

Women’s Health – I’ve been subscribed to this for the past year or so, ever since I started my new fitness and health regime. It’s very fluffy, but has interesting, easily digestible tidbits, good recipes and always has several fun, different body-weight exercises to try.

City Journal – I’ve read their website on and off for years, and really enjoy the in-depth articles about urban policy and economics. And when I first subscribed, I loved the beautiful quarterly publication. But really, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the print edition that isn’t online, and since it’s so heavy (printed on beautiful, heavy, glossy stock), I found myself lugging it around for weeks. I didn’t renew my subscription, but there are still a couple issues in the pile.

The University of Chicago Magazine – My alma mater’s monthly publication. It magically shows up, and it’s interesting. I always flip straight to the back and read updates on classmates, and then usually skim through some of the articles. Then I set it aside.

Lowe’s Creative Ideas – This (free!) bimonthly publication is pretty skinny, but has pretty pictures and some good ideas. I keep holding out for the day they include coupons.

Angie’s List Magazine – I subscribed to their service, which comes with a free monthly publication. Then I discovered that they have relatively few reviews for businesses as far-flung as Elgin. I won’t be renewing this one.

Zombie Subscriptions

I never subscribed to any of these, but they started appearing. I’ve never received invoices for any, and I’ve called each to be removed from their lists, but they keep coming. If anyone has any interest, let me know and I can set them aside for you. Otherwise, they go straight to recycling.

Brides
Road & Track (huh?)
Sports Illustrated – I keep getting “this is your last issue!” notices, but unfortunately, they lie, and it keeps arriving.
Spin – This one has stopped (for now).

So that’s my pile. What’s in yours? What must you read every time it’s published, and what do you plan to let lapse?

Book Review

I’ve often felt a bit like a pioneer, staking my claim in a transitioning neighborhood, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best. Sure, I do as much as I can, but some situations – like the foreclosure next door – are beyond my control.

I was naive when I bought. No, scratch that. I was blinded by the thrill of the whole experience. I just assumed that suburban neighborhood equaled safe, especially after my time living on the South Side. Of course the neighborhood was fine. I did cursory due diligence, driving by at different times of day, and took a quick walk around the block on the blustery March day of my inspection. But I didn’t talk to the neighbors, ignored the wildcard factor of the rental next door, and just assumed that the vacant pink building across the street would continue to be innocuously vacant. Or perhaps it would hold a tea shop that hosted a knitting circle of blue haired grannies who snacked on pastries.

That’s why the emergence of the drug dealers next door was such a shock to the system. Where had I moved? And how was I supposed to get rid of them? Fuming under my breath didn’t work, and nor did the hairy eyeball. I couldn’t exactly go up to them and say, “Hello, Mr. Crack Dealer. On behalf of the Welcome Wagon, we ask that you please stop dealing. Thanks. Now, would you like to attend our neighborhood barbeque?”

Now, however, things have improved greatly (fingers crossed). Which is why I could read Judith Matloff’s Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block and sympathize, laugh and realize it could have been much much worse.

I saw a review for this book and found the premise very interesting. Judith Matloff and her husband – seasoned journlists with stints in Rwanda, Chechnya and South Africa – bought an old brownstone in dire need of a lot of work in West Harlem. It was essentially an impulse buy, so they failed to do their homework on the neighborhood – and the neighbors – and soon discovered that they had bought a crack den whose occupants were reluctant to move out. Oh, and it was caving in and structurally unsound.

My neighborhood is small potatoes compared to Judith’s, and this excellent book made me feel better in many respects. I loved this book and read it in a single Saturday. It was witty, enthralling, funny and very well-written. I hope she continues to chronicle her transitioning neighborhood.