Have I really not blogged for a month?

November 13, 2010 – 10:49 am

Whoa. I haven’t blogged here for a while. Some things that have happened since South Africa, mostly for my own memory so that I don’t forget:

Went to Rochester and got a Thanksgiving cooking tutorial from the fantastic Karlie Robinson. My mom’s in Seattle with her mom this Thanksgiving, so I am officially the Woman of the House. (Shudder.) However, I plan on community-sourcing all those responsibilities. Everybody else is gonna do their own damn laundry, clean their own damn room, and Thanksgiving dinner will be split into collaborative efforts; my brother makes hamburgers, I make soup, we outsource the turkey to my cousins while relaying them Karlie’s instructions as they do the actual handling of the bird. That sort of thing. My father, by the way, will probably be setting the table and getting drinks instead of cooking, because his repertoire (instant noodles, frozen pizza, and microwaving leftovers) is… while cheap and tasty, not particularly good Thanksgiving fare.

Skipped Toronto, stayed longer in Rochester instead before crashing in Boston, at which point I discovered that if I wanted to see Max (my boss) that week I had to stay in Boston, and so a somewhat ridiculous amount of plane-flight-switching took place one morning, and whoa.

Saw my apartment for about 12 hours during the month of October; flew in from Boston, flew out to DC.

Frontiers in Education conference in DC, wherein the TOS crew gathered and made merry. Sebastian and I experienced the joy of DC traffic on the way in from the airport; our taxi ended up pulling a little late into dinner with TOS folks (Heidi Ellis, Steve Jacobs, Clif Kussmaul, Matthew Burke, Mihaela Sabin, Greg Hislop, et al) but it was still delicious, and mmm, conversations. (Still need to figure out how to visit Mihaela’s class someday.) Learned about grants, talked with folks from Purdue, soaked up a lot, and generally had my brain explode with stuff… which will remain unblogged here. Academia is not open by default, and anything that touches a grant immediately goes into this GIANT CONE OF SECRECY! so some of the most interesting work-conversations from that are things I can’t actually write about here yet.

I did not freak out with nervousness before my panel session Friday morning, for a change (I like this trend of starting to not freak out with nervousness before my talks!) On the panel stuff: see Steve Jacobs’s notes and then Sebastian’s article if the opensource.com editors ever release it – the reason there are no blog updates from this is that we wrote our trip reports as opensource.com/education articles and we’re still waiting (2 weeks later) for the editors to push them live. Lesson learned: next time, write notes separately on personal blog if you want them to actually go live within a reasonable timeframe. Bonus: my aunt June (6ee) was in DC for a conference right afterwards, so we got to see Arlington Cemetery for a bit with her, and eat a lot of food, and get swamped (unexpectedly) by a marathon being run that weekend, which caused annoyingly large/loud crowds and both food and automobile traffic. Another lesson learned: I actually like McDonalds strawberry-banana smoothies. This surprised me. I am terrified of how much sugar might be in them. Lesson reiterated: DC is a beautiful city, and it is absolutely lovely in the fall.

I’ve spent most of November so far with Heidi Ellis and her students at Western New England College out in Springfield, MA. Heidi has kindly been letting me crash at her house (her family is awesome). The work-purpose of the trip was to grok academia more; short-term-results-wise, I got to hang out with her class and teach them stuff like git (they’re hacking on caribou, a keyboard to make the GNOME desktop more accessible) and gave a talk (more like a conversation) to the ACM group on campus, and (in the background, separate from school) did some grant-related stuff and worked on our presentation to Red Hat execs about our education work, particularly POSSE, and… whee. Wow. Really need to get back to that presentation soon, but… decompressing first here.

Anyway. Heidi! Yes. We had a bunch of really good experiences with her and her students where the FOSS and academic worlds were bridged – my git tutorial to Heidi’s software engineering class, the GNOME hackfest at MIT where Sebastian and I spent Saturday morning as sort of “safari guides” to Heidi and her group of students (prodding them to get up and pitch their hack topic, introducing them to people, whispering to them in the background as annotation to explain what was going on), Tuesday afternoon when Sebastian came out and did a packaging/release-engineering workshop (which involved Heidi and myself role-playing being packages and package managers, to the amusement of the gathered students). We were basically trying to find ways to get that sweet spot, that magic moment, where the two very different worlds could meet. And we did get a couple of those moments.

The question is how those experiences worked, and why, and how to replicate them – the three of us (Heidi, Sebastian, and myself) spent most of Wednesday, between grant-related-and-therefore-non-bloggable meetings, analyzing that and trying to figure out how to make it scale. (I’ll let them write about their software engineering course ideas for the fall; I hope I’ll be able to do research on the effects of that course if they end up co-teaching it.) It’s not so easy to copy-paste experiences, though – you can’t clone education like you clone code. I’m wrestling with this, because part of my job is to figure out how to make education about the open source way scale… but as Heidi said on Wednesday, “education doesn’t scale.” Not the same way code does, anyway. I personally think there are some things about it that could scale, and that making more interactions, more data, more information come out and be radically transparent is a giant blocker to that scaling, so that is the bug to tackle equally in parallel with the question of how-to-scale. Still… somewhat incoherent about this. Slowly starting to see glimmers of understanding between the two worlds. Nothing enough to pull into a big picture yet, though. Not yet. But moving in the right direction.

Did I mention that Heidi’s family is awesome? Last night I cooked them dinner as a thank-you: cranberry-apple salad, butternut squash soup, chicken stuffed with Italian sausage and mozzarella cheese. It was awesome. I shall reprise this menu. Tomorrow. I think.

And that’s one of the things also, about the past two weeks / the past month / etc. It’s also been fascinating and edifying to see how… life fits into all of this. See, the thing about work/life balance is that it’s really easy if your life is work; you’ve only got one thing to balance, so by default, blam, you’re done. Watching Heidi blend her teaching and work, scholarship and family, kids and research, home and school – you’re a mom and you’re a professor and you’re the same person and you blend those lives and don’t compartmentalize them… that’s a huge contrast from, say, my father, who is EL PRESIDENTE at the office (in a suit and everything!) and then “dad” at home (in slippers that he only replaces every decade or so). Or my mother, who stopped working to take care of my brother and myself full-time.

I’ve never before had the chance to see how a woman who’s not from my family balances between these spaces by watching her in all those spaces at once. I have female colleagues and friends, and I had female professors, but I see (or saw) them either in one space or the other; I knew Lynn (one of my CS professors) had a home life, that it was possible, but I didn’t know how because (obviously) I didn’t see her home life, just her professor one. I know my friend Sumana has a work-life, but we’ve never been actual colleagues, so I’ve seen her as a friend, and then sorta hear about the stuff she does at work once in a while. But following Heidi between school and home and school and home… it’s been a revelation to see both sides at the same time, and to realize they’re not really “sides,” but… that it’s possible to blend them, you don’t have to partition one from the other quite so firmly.

I know what I don’t want. I’ve seen my female family members at home, and I don’t want that work-life balance; what I’ve seen is that either you have no work (I love my work! I want a career! I want to teach!) or the equally unpalatable-to-me alternative of having your work is dictated by someone who’s not you (taking a job because your family demands it rather than actually choosing to work in that way in that time; giving up a personal career at a company in order to help with your husband’s business, that sort of thing). I know it’s possible! I just don’t know how it’s possible! It’s hard to see and hear and find stories of how people come to find that sort of balance, what it looks like, what it feels like. And I’m too shy to ask people about this most of the time – and earlier on, when I didn’t know these things were possible, I didn’t even know that I could ask.

You can’t ask questions about something until you know it actually exists, and for the longest time I thought that the sort of work/life balance I saw in my family was literally all there was, and so I didn’t even think to ask – it would have been like saying “all the flowers I’ve seen are plants; are there any flowers that aren’t plants?” or something equally insipid, in my younger mind. And that is why I’m so grateful for blogs, being able to read other people’s thoughts, how they think, how they live, what they do… it gives me a glimpse into other sorts of lives, other sorts of balances. I love Sacha’s story about wedding shoes, Katie’s adventures in cooking, Sumana’s vignettes of keeping in touch from India. The balance they strike, the blending of these different parts of life, the dance they do… it’s like a “whoa, stuff is possible” eye-opener, each time I read something like that. Just simply living, and writing about the day-to-day… it’s the only way I’ve had in the past to lurk and watch that sort of stuff, because the life surrounding me (my family, etc) is not like that, and where else will I see it? (Thank you, geek women in my life, for letting me see and share those times.)

So as you see me go quiet here, it… is in part because my brain and world are literally exploding with this sort of concept and I’m trying to figure out, well, okay, what the hell?

Well, that, and also that between work and life I’ve been so busy that I haven’t actually taken time to sit down and write, but… I should, more. It helps me get my thoughts out, helps me see what I am thinking. I surprised myself with a long comment on Sumana’s “campus communities” blog post this morning and went “okay, yes, I am in writing mode, I’d better let it go,” because when I write… the tension soaks out of me, soaks out of my neck and shoulders, I breathe… it feels good. Wow.

I think I’m done. I’ll stop writing now. I’ve got a lot of work to do today, but I finally feel rested and in good shape to do it, and part of that was the mental rest I got while sleeping, while waking up and thinking, while writing.

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  1. 4 Responses to “Have I really not blogged for a month?”

  2. You are alive! :)

    By Marco Pesenti Gritti on Nov 13, 2010

  3. I miss you too, Mel!

    And I’m so glad you’ve found my writing useful, as a data point and as a freaky funhouse mirror.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Nov 16, 2010

  1. 2 Trackback(s)

  2. Nov 24, 2010: Work and life | sacha chua :: living an awesome life
  3. Nov 27, 2010: Work and life | sacha chua :: living an awesome life

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