Friday, August 8, 2014

Baltimore's Little Poland

Polish Flag with Coat of Arms. Photo by Orem

I never thought my family had any connection to Baltimore, Maryland. My dad's grandparents were born in Poland and settled in Michigan. My mom's grandparents also were born in Poland, but they settled in Pennsylvania. Even though I studied history in college, with a primary focus on 20th century United States History, I blindly assumed that all of my great-grandparents entered the United States through Ellis Island in New York.

Two years ago, I did some genealogical research about my great-grandparents, and I was lucky enough to find records from Poland about some of my great-great-grandparents. One of the discoveries that surprised me was that not all of my great-grandparents came to the United States through New York before settling in Michigan or Pennsylvania. My mom's paternal grandparents lived in Massachusetts, and were married there, before settling in Pennsylvania, and one of my dad's grandmothers and one of my mom's grandfathers entered the United States through Baltimore. 

I also learned that Baltimore has its own Polish neighborhood called Little Poland that Polish immigrants have called home since the 19th century. Little Poland has seen most of its second through fourth generation Polish-American families move to different neighborhoods and cities. They closed up their shops when they moved, leaving the neighborhood with a little less of a Polish feel than it probably had fifty to a hundred years ago.

Holy Rosary Church

Thanks to a recent Washington Post article about Little Poland, I knew where to find some of the Polish elements that remain. First, I visited Holy Rosary Church. I found a parking spot on the street about a block away. The church is beautiful. Like most old Roman Catholic churches, it is full of paintings and statues of saints. Despite its large interior, no columns support the ceilings towering above the pews, so views of the altar are unobstructed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

No, Where Are You FROM?

A couple of days ago, someone I'd just met asked me, "Where are you from?"

It is about the millionth time I've been asked that question. Sometimes it is an innocent enough question, but my answer is complicated. I live in a northern Virginia suburb of D.C., and I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere, so I consider myself from here. My dad was in the Navy while I was growing up, so my family moved every few years, and I am sort of from all of those places. I was born in San Diego. When I sense that the person asking the question is asking where I spent my childhood, I say California, because most of it was there. I am a little bit from Michigan, because I spent most of high school and college there, and those are the years I'd say I did the most growing up.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

Sometimes, no matter which of these answers I give, the person responds with, "No, where are you from?"--with a dramatic emphasis on the "from." This emphasis is supposed to convey that they are asking about my ethnicity. Really, they are asking where my ancestors are from. (I just told them I was born in California, so they know I didn't actually come from another country.)

I have been getting this question, with the same heavy emphasis, since I was a teenager, if not before that. And it annoyed me then as much as it does now. If you are asking what my ethnic background is, ask what my ethnic background is. If you are asking where my parents are from, ask me that. But don't ask me where I'm from, as if it's some kind of code that allows you to ask about my personal ethnic identity without having to say the words. I won't answer until you come out and say what you actually want to know.

I am half Filipino and half white (various European countries), and it's not obvious to everyone that I'm half Asian (and usually, only Filipino people guess that I'm part Filipino). And I don't mind people's curiosity about that--I am equally curious about everyone else's background. But why not just use the words "race" or "ethnicity" or whatever it is that you mean? Because you're uncomfortable saying those words?

The worst is when the person asking the question is also a minority who probably gets the same question often enough. Jeff likes to remind me of the time an Asian girl asked me where I was from, and I responded, "You mean where did I grow up?" "No." "Where was I born?" "No." This went on and on until I asked her if she wanted to know what my ethnic background was.

The uglier version of this question is "What are you?" I've had my share of that one, and it has always made my blood boil. I certainly won't answer that one the way the person expects, because it is decidedly not an innocent question. I wrote about my anger over this question back in college--when a group of snickering guys clearly had been guessing about my background among themselves, and one turned to me and blurted out, "What are you?" This question also came from people whose racism was so strong their disgust was dripping off of them. What am I? Well, first, I'm a who, not a what--not an "other."

Another thing I've been called many times, sometimes by people who think they are complimenting me, is "exotic." Like I just busted out of the jungle? Like an exotic dancer? Like someone so strange and different that you can't even fathom me as part of your reality?

For similar reasons, I loathe the use of the word "Oriental," unless you are talking about rugs. It's "Asian," people. (This NPR story from back in 2009 explains why it's offensive.) I still have to correct some of my older Asian relatives who say it, because "Oriental" used to be acceptable, but it really has got to go. I'm sure we all have labels we hate because of their connotations--ones that have evolved over time.

Probably because my answers to these questions and others like them have never been simple, I am fascinated by everybody else's answers. (I love that show Who Do You Think You Are?) So I hope I don't offend you if I ask about your ethnicity without dancing around it. I hope you understand where I'm coming from.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the Name of Better Writing

We all know active voice is better than passive voice. But sometimes translating from one to the other isn't easy. Streamlining your writing to make it more active and less wordy helps you get to the point faster. Here are a few quick things to look for.

1. Take it easy on the prepositional phrases. 

A sentence full of them is difficult to read and might make your reader tune out. If a sentence is one long string of prepositional phrases, look for ways to get rid of some.

Example 1

The report is considered by many researchers to be of great importance for workers in that field. 
(4 prepositional phrases, passive construction)

Many researchers consider the report greatly important for workers in that field. 
(2 prepositional phrases, active construction)

Example 2
The effect of the announcement by the company on its stock price should not be underestimated by investors.
 (4 prepositional phrases, vague)

Investors should not underestimate how the company's announcement will affect its stock price.
 (no prepositional phrases)

2. Try to avoid "there is" and "it is."

Phrases like this signal lazy sentence construction. 

It is important for bicyclists to obey traffic laws at all times.
Bicyclists should always obey traffic laws.

There is disagreement among the authorities.
The authorities disagree.

3. Simplify wordy phrases and fussy words.

Many common words and phrases are more wordy or vague than they need to be. Everyone uses the words and phrases in this list on the left, but the options on the right are better and more specific.

Acceptable but wordy or vague  --  a better option
in order to  --  to
the majority of  --  most
Prior to  --  before
In advance of  --  before
A number of  --  numerous (or several, or a few)
Whether or not  --  whether
Subsequently  --  later
Upon  --  on 
Amidst  --  amid
Utilize  --  use
Effective  --  good (or something more specific, like efficient or persuasive)
In addition  --  also

4. Omit unnecessary words.

Do you need to say "in addition" or "as a result"? Maybe the context calls for it, but probably not. 

Example: Her car was totaled. As a result, she couldn't drive it.
Better: Her car was totaled, so she couldn't drive it.

It might be obvious that sentence 2 is a result of sentence 1.

Another phrase to watch for:
"In my opinion..."
If you're writing it, it's probably obvious that it's your opinion.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lessons Learned from the Mad Men Midseason Finale

Now the midseason finale is over, and we have to wait until 2015 to see Don Draper again. The finale was beautiful--they made this one to keep us fans happy. We see the best of Don and Peggy and their relationship, and Roger delivers lines that only Roger can. (And I have to mention that the clothes were exquisite. I have never wanted dresses that both Peggy and Joan wore in the same episode.)

In previous posts, I've listed some words to live by from our SC&P buddies: See Lessons Learned, Part I (earlier seasons) and Part II (Season 7 pre-finale). Here is some advice you can take with you from the midseason finale.
When annoying people overstep their bounds, put them back in their place.
You're a hired hand. Get back to work!
-Jim to Lou

Stick up for people who are going through a rough time.
That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh. He shouldn't be rattled!
-Pete about Don 

Jerks can always be bought.
It's a lot of money!
-Jim Cutler

Other people can be bought, too.
Don: How did you get in here?
Roger: Money.

Try to pick up on subtle cues.
Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they’re gonna die.

When you sense that people are bullshitting, call them out on it.
Don: No one knows about this? [holding his letter]
Joan: I saw it.
Don: Then why did you ask what's going on?!

People love to commiserate.
Marriage is a racket!
-Pete to Don 

Sometimes, things are going to look difficult, and you're going to need to take a deep breath.
I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers!

For more on the finale, here's a look Inside Episode 707 from AMC. 'Til 2015!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Beauty Within the Beltway: Alexandria National Cemetery

Alexandria National Cemetery

Visitors to D.C. often include Arlington National Cemetery on their sightseeing itinerary. With the graves of two presidents, famous military figures, and the awe-inspiring Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it deserves the more than 3 million people who visit each year.

Arlington is not the only national cemetery in the D.C. area, though. About 6 miles south of Arlington National Cemetery is Alexandria National Cemetery. The Alexandria cemetery predates Arlington's cemetery and originally served as the burial place of Union soldiers during the Civil War, many of whom were stationed in Alexandria or died in Alexandria's hospitals.

Line of headstones

Servicemembers from subsequent wars have since been buried in the cemetery, but it is now closed to new internments. With little more than 5 acres, it is much smaller than Arlington National Cemetery, but the intimate grounds are just as powerful.

One of the many Unknown Soldier graves from the Civil War

My family and I visited on Memorial Day. The cemetery's main entrance is on Wilkes Street, but we parked on Jamieson Avenue on the north side of the cemetery. A stone wall surrounds the cemetery, but a small gate on Jamieson Avenue allows easy access for visitors who walk from Old Town.

Cemetery gate on Jamieson Avenue

The grounds are set on lightly rolling hills with large trees interspersed throughout and an American flag flying above the center of the cemetery. Most of the headstones are military-issued markers from the Civil War era, and each was adorned with a small American flag for Memorial Day.

Memorial Day flags adorn each grave

Unlike Arlington, no giant markers distinguish well-known officers. The simplicity of the headstones serves as a reminder that not one of these lives was worth more than the others. Even the one monument on the grounds is modest in its size, a small granite stone with a plaque honoring the four civilians who died pursuing Abraham Lincoln's assassin.

Monument to the pursuers of John Wilkes Booth

On this beautiful May day, we each chose a grave to adorn with one red rose. Being a proud Michigander, I found the grave of a member of the Michigan infantry from the Civil War. My oldest daughter also chose a Civil War era soldier, and my wife chose a man who served in two wars. My youngest daughter is too young to choose, so we honored one of the many graves of an unknown soldier on her behalf.

A rose for Solomon T. Colby of the 26th Regiment, Michigan Infantry

A Memorial Day ceremony was in progress when we arrived, so we quietly watched as veterans spoke of the importance of this day. They placed wreaths at a few graves, and a bugler played taps as they lowered the cemetery's flag to half mast.

Wreath laying

In the distance, visitors respectfully roamed the cemetery, and a couple with a young child placed white flowers on several graves. Soon everyone would go back to their daily lives, but for these few minutes on these hallowed grounds, we were united in the memory of those who sacrificed themselves for our liberty.

Flowers to honor those who served

Alexandria National Cemetery's main entrance is located at 1450 Wilkes Street in Alexandria, and the Jamieson Avenue entrance is directly behind the Residence Inn on Duke Street. The National Cemetery Administration maintains Alexandria National Cemetery and another 130 cemeteries in 39 states. The cemetery is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lessons Learned from Mad Men, Part II

The midseason finale of Mad Men is this weekend, so it's time to reflect on a few things we all should have learned from our dysfunctional friends during Season 7. If you want to brush up on what you should have gleaned from earlier seasons, here are my top 10 life lessons learned from Mad Men.

Be prepared for back-handed compliments.
You know she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business.
-Pete (about Peggy)

Own up when you screw up.
I didn’t behave well. I said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time.

People will judge you if your goodies are hanging out. 
Bobby: She really likes you.
Betty: Yeah, well, that blouse says she likes everyone.

If you're a bigot, be clear about the limits of your tolerance.
Well, I'm all for the national advancement of colored people, but I do not think they should advance all the way to the front of the office. People can see her from the elevator.
-Bert Cooper

Even if you have damaged a relationship, there may be a glimmer of forgiveness--or at least warmth.
Happy Valentine's Day. I love you.
-Sally to Don

Don't settle. You deserve better.
Bob: I know I’m flawed, but I’m offering you more than anyone else ever will.
Joan: No, you’re not. Because I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement.

Here's where we are in the show. Cheers!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Holding on to Family

My grandma when she was young

On Saturday, April 19, my grandmother Genevieve (Jean) passed away, almost two weeks after her 95th birthday. Last Friday, I said goodbye to my last living grandparent.

Grandma Jean married my Grandpa Walter in 1937 when she was only 18 years old, and they remained married until Walter’s death in 2002. Jean lived her life for Walter, her four children, and her eleven grandchildren, but during her last few years she suffered from Alzheimer’s and forgot who most of us were.

I was heartbroken the last time I saw her when she had no idea who I was or that my daughters were her great-grandchildren. I was happy that my two young girls seemed to bring her some joy….my grandma always loved small children. I am sure that if she was in her old home, she would have insisted on cooking something for my girls to eat. After all, Grandma Jean was Polish, and ensuring that her grandchildren are well loved and well fed are a Polish grandma’s two favorite tasks. I could never visit her house without her feeding me and repeatedly asking me to eat more.

Grandma Jean felt like my last connection to my ancestors from Poland. All four of my grandparents were children of recent Polish immigrants to the United States. They grew up speaking English, but they also knew enough Polish to carry on a conversation. I remember Walter and Jean speaking Polish with each other, usually in the kitchen.

My grandparents in 1957

Although my parents went to Catholic schools and churches in Polish neighborhoods, they were more Americanized than my grandparents. My siblings and I grew up in suburbs with few neighbors and friends who were Polish, and our knowledge of the Polish language was pretty much limited to food and a few curse words.

I am proud of my Polish heritage, but I felt ignorant about it as I reached adulthood. To compensate, I have read several books on Poland’s history and have even done some basic genealogy work and found several of my great-grandparents’ hometowns in Poland as well as the names of some of my great-great-grandparents. I even go out of my way to find Polish food sometimes. Despite these efforts to rediscover my heritage, I never feel as Polish as when I sat in either of my grandmothers’ kitchens while they cooked homemade pierogi, golabki or fresh kielbasa.

Part of why I want to hold onto my ancestors' heritage is so that I can hold onto my grandparents’ memories just a little longer. I want my children to know where they came from and to know what struggles and joys their ancestors experienced.  Alzheimer’s may have taken away Grandma Jean’s memory, but those of us who loved her will not forget her.

My grandparents have left this earth, but I will hold on tight to their stories. When we eat Polish food, I can turn to my children and say, “These pierogi are good, but not as good as the ones your great-grandma used to make.” Then I will smile and remember sitting in my grandma’s kitchen, listening to her and Grandpa speaking their beautiful language until she walks over and implores me to eat just a little more.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

There's Just a Little Bit of Dust in My Eye.

"There's just a little bit of dust in my eye
That's from the path that you made when you said your goodbye
I'm not weeping because you won't be here to hold my hand
For your information there's an inflammation in my tear gland."

-Flight of the Conchords, "I'm Not Crying"

I am a sap. I almost always cry at weddings--slightly less often at sad movies. I also cry when there's a poignant commercial (even though I am sometimes shaking my fist and screaming, "Damn you, advertising industry!" at the same time for manipulating me just the way they planned to). I get a lump in my throat if I am listening to the right song at the right time.

You could say I am easily moved. But not every tear-jerker works on me--I could definitely do without The English Patient and Titanic. (Leonardo DiCaprio was so much better in later movies!) Here are some things that have me reaching for the kleenex every time.

O Captain My Captain in Dead Poets Society.
For this part of Dead Poets Society, it makes no difference whether I have been sitting there watching the whole movie or I just change the channel and catch that scene--the tears just start to flow. I'm like Pavlov's dog, but with desks and inspired schoolchildren.

The new dog in The Royal Tenenbaums.
This is one of my all-time favorite movies, in part because so many actors do so many emotions so well. But when deadbeat dad Royal gives estranged son Chas a new dog (minutes after the old one is killed), and Chas says , "I've had a rough year, Dad," it gets me every time. This was the scene that proved Ben Stiller is a good actor--not just a funny one.

That damn Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial.
I know I am not alone here--this is notoriously heart-wrenching, and it seemed like they ran the ad for 10 years. At first, when it came on, I would break down and hug my rescue dog (tighter than she'd like). But after seeing it dozens of times, I could no longer watch it. It devolved into me screaming, "F%^* you, Sarah McLachlan!" and changing the channel or leaving the room.

Nike's 2008 Olympics ad with the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." 
It is a fast-moving montage of athletes in moments of glory and failure, along with other random images, as the lyrics "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier" build momentum. The song is amazing, and it combined with the images of the athletes at various points of success and failure goes right to the gut. Say what you will about Nike, but their ads are genius. (It's unfortunate that Oscar Pistorius was featured prominently in this ad, but this was before we knew what was going on with him, so I allow myself to love this anyway. Lance Armstrong is also in this one, but I can ignore his problems.)

That brings me to my next one:
Pretty much any Olympic medals ceremony (although I am more likely to cry if an American has won gold). 
I have always loved the Olympics and marveled at how impressive it is when someone is that good at something and is willing to work that hard at it. I was a rower in college, and I will never forget the feeling of having a gold medal draped around my neck, standing next to my teammates, with a crowd smiling and clapping. I can only imagine how those emotions would be magnified on an Olympic podium. I would not be just a little weepy--it would be full-on Rulon Gardner-style waterworks.

Nike's ad with Lance Armstrong riding by a children's hospital.
It shows Lance riding on the open road, past a train, a group of motorcycles, and a children's hospital, where he pauses to raise a fist for the kids who flock to the window to see him. The song they picked is perfect, and I found it so inspiring I looked up what it was (someone I've never heard of), downloaded it, and put it on my running mix. It remains one of my favorite songs to run to: It makes me run faster and breathe deeper.

The TV show Parenthood.
I think the reason I like this show so much is because I identify with many of the characters' different roles: mother, daughter, wife, sister. I cry on average once per episode, but sometimes not at all and sometimes twice. This blog post on Slate does a good job of describing it. I did not grow up in Berkeley with a big, pushy, dramatic family, but something about how the characters relate to each other strikes a chord. Family relationships and marriages are complicated, and this show shines a light on those complications.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Beauty Within the Beltway: Cherry Blossoms

Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms

D.C. area residents, like most Americans, work long and hard hours. We stress ourselves to sustain our standard of living, but it is too easy to forget to live our lives. Take a morning or afternoon off for the sole purpose of allowing yourself to find the beauty within the Beltway.

Thirteen years.

That’s how long I’ve lived in the Washington, D.C. area. I have been to the National Mall many times and have walked around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial a few times, but I had never been to the Tidal Basin during Cherry Blossom season until this year.

I generally try to avoid events in D.C. that attract large crowds. I like being able to walk in a straight line without people randomly stopping in front of me or stepping into my path without any care that they are getting in someone else’s way. However, I wanted to see the cherry blossoms and knew that I would have to deal with the crowds one day.

Blossoms outside the Capitol

I finally found the inspiration to visit the cherry blossoms when I was on Capitol Hill on a beautiful Sunday morning. After one of the worst D.C. winters in years, the warm sun and cool spring air refreshed my spirits. The many cheerful families taking pictures under the blossoming branches of the cherry trees surrounding the Capitol Building convinced me that crowds gathered to see the cherry blossoms could be enjoyable. I decided it was finally time for this curmudgeon to check out the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin.

Low hanging blossoms over the Tidal Basin

The following Thursday morning I drove across the 14th Street Bridge into D.C. and found a parking spot in East Potomac Park, which is just south of the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin. I had two goals: 1) to see the cherry blossoms; and 2) to have a relaxing run in the temperate weather. Equipped with only my phone, I set off.

I ran towards the Tidal Basin and saw the sidewalks around the cherry trees were packed with tourists. I wanted to have a decent run without having to slow down and stop for the crowds, so I kept my distance from the Tidal Basin and ran around the other side of the Jefferson Memorial. I ran along the surrounding streets and crossed the Kutz Bridge where I marveled at the view of the blossoms encircling the entire Tidal Basin.

Cherry blossoms encircling the Tidal Basin

After crossing the bridge, I veered to the right where there is a visitors center near the World War II memorial. A school band’s drumline was practicing, and my visceral response was to increase my pace to match the beat of their drums. After passing the vistors center, I found myself on the south side of the Reflecting Pool. I turned left and ran about halfway to the Lincoln Memorial  before turning around to begin the leisurely part of my run.

School band practicing near the Mall

When I reached the visitors center, band members were twirling flags while the brass section played a few patriotic songs. I stopped and took a few pictures with my phone before continuing my run. 

Jefferson Memorial

This time I veered to the right along Independence Avenue, so that I could see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. I had seen the memorial before, but I had not noticed how the civil rights hero’s words juxtaposed with the view of a memorial to a champion of freedom who also was a slaveholder.

MLK's words with the Jefferson Memorial in the distance

MLK Memorial

I then ran back along the Tidal Basin towards the Kutz Bridge. I stopped many times to take pictures or to avoid running into sightseers who were as lost in the beauty of the blossoms as I was. I soaked in the sun reflecting off the rippling water of the Tidal Basin. The wind rustled the branches and brought a peaceful feel to the surroundings despite the crowds.

Cherry Blossoms with the Jefferson Memorial

Unlike the humid days of July and August, the air was cool and dry and each breath reinvigorated my lungs. When I made it back to my car, I felt relaxed and satisfied with my first visit to the Tidal Basin cherry blossoms. I still know that the Saturday or Sunday crowds during cherry blossom season might be too much for me, but I will have to find time to visit on a weekday again.

The Washington Monument reflecting off the Tidal Basin

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lessons Learned from Mad Men

While I eagerly anticipate the new season of Mad Men, here are ten important life lessons I've gleaned from previous seasons. Take heed. Because why not take advice from emotionally stunted home-wreckers who drink all day?

1. Remember what you are being paid for. 

Don: It’s your job. I give you money. You give me ideas.
Peggy: But you never thank me.
Don: That’s what the money is for!

2. Always have a backup plan.

“I’d have my secretary do it, but she’s dead.”

3. Set priorities and live by them.

“As far as I’m concerned, as long as men look at me that way, I’m earning my keep."

4. Don't pretend you know what men do if you really don't get it. 

“You don't know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it's good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it's what men do.”

5. Workplace safety standards are important.

“But that’s life. One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.”

6. Tell it like it is.

“It wasn't a lie; it was ineptitude with insufficient cover.”

7. Blaze your own trails.

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

8. Dress the part.

"You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl."

9. Corporal punishment is bad. 

"My father beat the hell out of me. All it did was make me fantasize about the day I could murder him."

10. Take the time to get to know your employees.

"Well, I've got to go learn a load of people's names before I fire them."

Here's me, Mad Men-ified, thriving at Sterling Cooper after taking all these lessons to heart.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Business Buzzwords You Should Stop Using

Because I am an editor, many things that people do to the English language irritate me. I especially loathe business speak. Example: Prior to obtaining buy-in from key stakeholders, it is important to build synergies in order to leverage content deliverables by proactively incentivizing a catalyst for a paradigm shift.

I hate everything about that sentence, but the worst thing is that it says almost nothing. The business world is good at saying a whole lot of nothing by favoring words that are vague and empty. Sometimes these words and their functions are entirely made up, and other times, perfectly good words get misused or overused. Here are some common offenders.

Incentivize. This word is totally unnecessary and totally ugly (as are many verbizations of nouns). Why not say "encourage" or "convince" or "provide incentive"? Not every noun is meant to be a verb.  

Deliverables. When I hear this word, I picture mass-produced pizzas waiting to be delivered. Or Lunchables that someone delivers from the grocery store to your door. Instead, say what these things actually are: goals, results, products? 

Gourmet content deliverables?

Onboard. I learned recently that the business world is using this as a verb. I read the description of a training course on "preparing new managers to onboard for maximum performance." What? Who decided that "onboard" should be a verb? Beyond that, it is confusing.  Does it mean preparing new managers to come on board? Bringing them on board? Getting them up to speed after they come on board?

Utilize. My beef with this word goes way back. I have never liked it, because it means the same thing as "use," but people say it to sound smarter. (If you have never put the phrase "utilize my skills" on a cover letter or resume, I love you.) The Metro train operators in DC used to say "please utilize all doors" every single time they made an announcement encouraging people to spread out along the platform and not crowd the middle doors. One day after hearing it for years, I finally snapped and emailed the transit system. I explained that it was a poor word choice, especially because many of the people who need to understand that message are tourists who don't know much English--as well as people who live here but might not have a strong command of English. No beginning English learner is going to know the word "utilize." So I suggested that they say "use" instead. The person at the transit authority told me they'd bring up my suggestion at their next meeting, and they apparently did, because the train operators started saying "use" at least part of the time. Battle won!

Effective. For similar reasons, "effective" is kind of a throwaway word. It's fine in moderation, but it is overused. It just means "good." A more specific word would be better. When you say something is effective, maybe you actually mean it is efficient, successful, or forceful--and those are more meaningful words.

Functionality. No need for this word. How about functions or features?

Orientate. No. You mean orient. You get oriented in a new environment; you don't get orientated. You go to orientation.

Impactful. Yuck. Language purists will tell you that "impact" should be used only when you're talking about something physically hitting something else, like a car crash--it should not be used to mean affect or effect. But most people would disagree with that. Either way, "impactful" is just clunky. Instead, get more specific. Powerful, compelling, influential, revolutionary?

I know the business world is not going to let go of some of these words. But unless you are the one writing the annual report, let's talk and write to each other as if we are real people trying to communicate something--not just trying to string together a bunch of key words.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Killing Affirmative Action Stifles Academic Discourse

Back in the 1990s, when I decided to go to the University of Michigan, one of the reasons I chose it over other schools I was considering was its racial diversity. I knew at the time, although I couldn't quite articulate why, that I wanted to spend my four college years among a diverse mix of classmates.

Once I got to Ann Arbor and got immersed in classes that challenged me, I realized why. My favorite classes involved thought-provoking discussions with classmates and professors, especially when things got heated, and especially when I left thinking, "I've never thought of this in that way before." We were pushed to examine our own values and perspectives and step outside of our own experiences. I learned from and thrived on those discussions. (People who know me well will not be surprised that argumentative writing was one of my favorites.)

Those discussions were richer and more interesting when the group was diverse and you could see people confronting the limits of their own experience (mine included). For many people, college is a place to step out of your comfort zone and to be around people whose experiences and beliefs differ from yours--perhaps for the first time. It helped that Michigan was a large school that drew students from everywhere. For example, an average white kid from a rural small town might not have any racist or antigay tendencies but, before leaving home, may never have actually sat down and had a meaningful conversation with a black man, an Asian woman, or a lesbian.

For me, one eye-opener was being assigned a roommate who was more religious than anyone I had ever been close to before. I had to get used to her frequent outward demonstrations of her faith, and we had many conversations that helped me understand how her faith shaped almost everything she did--I had never talked to anyone so much about religion.  

The conversation is enhanced when people in the room are coming from different places--including location, race, religion, sexual orientation, and economic background. If the class included a student who worked at the cafeteria to pay tuition as well as a student who went to Exeter, it would be a more robust discussion.

Research has shown that diverse teams outperform homogenous ones. This makes sense: Diverse team members bring different experiences they can draw from and different viewpoints they can use to frame an approach moving forward. 

The University of Michigan aimed to raise the percentage of underrepresented minorities among its student population, and it succeeded. I benefited from having more than a "token" minority in each class. But that was before the school's affirmative action policies were challenged in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, and before the state of Michigan banned affirmative action in public education. Sometime in the next few months, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether that ban is constitutional.

Since I left Michigan, the enrollment of black students--a group that affirmative action targeted--has plummeted. Black students made up 8.9% of the student body in 1996 but only 4.8% in 2013. It saddens me to think that the people walking through the Diag at Michigan are noticeably less diverse than they were when I was a student--and that it may get even worse.

I understand the concerns of people who oppose affirmative action: that it's unfair to give underrepresented minorities "special" treatment. Leaving aside the fact that schools give special treatment for various other reasons--such as relation to alumni, which no one seems to be up in arms about--the point of affirmative action is to tip the scales into a balance that's good for the student body, not just to right historical wrongs.

The black population of the United States is about 13%, according to the 2012 census. But one of the best state schools in the country has only 4.8% black enrollment--what does that say? To some current students who want to see more underrepresented minorities at Michigan, it says that the school isn't doing enough. To me, it says the school has been hamstrung by limitations on how it can consider minority applications.

At the Supreme Court oral argument about the Michigan state ban last fall, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ban "was intended to bring back segregation, and appears to have done just that." Seven other states have similar affirmative action bans. And racial tension on college campuses is flaring up. I don't see this as moving forward.

Arthur Miller, a Michigan alum who wrote Death of a Salesman, said about the university: “It was, in short, the testing ground for all my prejudices, my beliefs, and my ignorance, and it helped to lay out the boundaries of my life. For me it had, above everything else, variety and freedom. It is probably the same today. If it is not, a tragedy is in the making.” 

I'm afraid anti-affirmative action sentiment is moving us in the direction of that tragedy. The University of Michigan wants to have a diverse mix of students on its campus and wants to allow multiple viewpoints to enhance students' learning experience. Let it. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Falling Down

It's painful to watch athletes fall in the Olympics. They’ve spent most of their lives training for an event that lasts only minutes (or only seconds in some cases). In many of the winter sports at Sochi,  falls are difficult to avoid. I've seen speed skaters, leaning into turns at impossible angles, whose skates slip out from under them and send them crashing into the wall. I can't imagine how much it would sting to fall with the world watching when you are among the best in the world.

In two of the sports I participated in as a kid—ice skating and gymnastics—I fell a lot. Once, in gymnastics, I was doing a vault that is basically a flip using the vault (feet bounce off the springboard, hands land on the vault and push off, feet land on the mat). While I was upside down with my hands on the vault, my hands were too close to the edge, and they slipped off, so my back slammed down on the vault. It hurt, I was embarrassed and frustrated, and I probably cried, but I knew I should get back up and try again so that I wouldn’t be scared of the vault forever. So I tried again--and made the exact same mistake. My back came crashing down on the vault again. But only a few people were watching me, and I never thought I'd be a world-class gymnast. I don’t remember what happened after that—whether I did it a third time and succeeded or whether that was my last vault of the day—but I know I did the same vault over and over later, and I was a slightly tougher girl after that.

Fast forward to college, where I was still not destined for the Olympics, but I was a serious athlete: a rower. When I was a senior, my team was introduced to the concept of weightlifting until failure. We had lifted weights before, but it was usually a certain number of sets, with 20 or 30 reps per set. Now, the University of Michigan's professional weight trainers had determined that, based on what we wanted our muscles to be capable of, our weightlifting should change. We were supposed to lift enormous amounts of weight, but for only a few repetitions, until our muscles failed--until we physically could not complete another rep. It was a new concept: If we didn't fail within 6 to 8 reps, we weren't lifting enough weight, so we'd have to pile on some more. Each time we made our way around the weight room, we taxed several muscle groups until they were spent.

It was the first time failure had been my goal. It changed my outlook on failure--it seemed less scary. If I could get stronger by failing on purpose repeatedly, I realized failure shouldn't be my biggest fear.

I loved lifting until failure, as I loved my whole experience competing as a collegiate athlete: pushing myself to the brink, past what I thought I was capable of.

Now, I realize that failure is necessary sometimes. If you haven't failed, you haven't tried hard enough. And, as my cross country coach used to say, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

The athletes at the Olympics are the best in the world. The courage they needed to get where they are, and the courage it must take to get up after a fall with your country and the rest of the world watching, is astounding. The fact that they made it to the Olympics and put it all on the line is immeasurably impressive, regardless of whether they fell down or fell short of their goals.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What I Want in a Woman

Allison's recent post about "submissive" women made me think about my own views on a woman's role in a marriage. I am a firm believer that a woman is an equal partner in a marriage. I could not imagine being in a relationship that required me to always submit to my partner, so I cannot imagine expecting that from my spouse.

I am not a woman, so I cannot speak for women. However, I can say what I want in a woman:

I want a woman who reads.

I want a woman who is strong-willed and unafraid to voice her opinions.

I want a woman who has hope in a time of despair.

I want a woman who sings, even if off-key.

I want a woman who tolerates my singing because it is definitely off-key.

I want a woman who believes in me.

I want a woman who believes in herself but who also knows that I will always have her back.

I want a woman who laughs with me.

I want a woman who can make me laugh, especially at myself.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why the "submissive woman" role is damaging, not just offensive

In my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, more people hewed to traditional gender roles: The woman stayed home to take care of the kids, and the man brought home the bacon and made the decisions as the head of the household. I understand that because it was the norm. Now, even if the man brings home the bacon, both people usually have some input about what to do with it.

But in recent months I’ve heard people my own age say that it’s better for women to be submissive to men. One conversation started in reaction to Gabrielle Reece divulging that she is submissive to her husband. My first reaction to the people I know was: Oh, they’re kidding! But they weren’t. I have tried to wrap my brain around that, but I can’t. 

I understand people tending toward traditional husband-wife roles. If your husband wants to take care of the finances and make most of the big decisions and that works for you, why not? If you feel more comfortable running things by him before making decisions yourself, sure. If you’re better at cooking and he’s better at choosing which car to buy, fine. I get that. But being submissive? That’s another thing entirely. That means that when you disagree, the husband is always right in the end. And that your life is not completely your own—it is your own as long as your husband approves.

I don’t mean to suggest that I go out and make major decisions without any regard for what Jeff thinks. It’s not like I come home and tell him, “Hey, I’m going to Rio for a week—you don’t mind, do you?” We talk about almost everything before making decisions. When we disagree about what to do, one of us has to give, and we are OK with that. That’s how a partnership works.