Friday, March 18, 2011

When I grow up, I want to be...

I have always envied the people who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. At the same time, I have never understood how anyone could pick just one thing. How can you be sure you have chosen the right career until you try it? How do you even narrow the field to just one thing at a time? What happens if you sign your life away and realize, ten years later, that you were dead wrong?

When I was little, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I took ballet and tap classes until about the second grade, which was not very long, really. The story of why I stopped varies depending on whether you ask me or my parents. They claim it was my idea. I remember being sad about giving it up. I danced with various clubs in JR high and high school and took a couple of dance classes in college, as much for the exercise as anything. But by then I had long talked myself out of dance as any sort of career path. These days, I wait eagerly for the Zumba classes at the Y or the occasional wedding where the happy couple actually provides a DJ and a dance floor.

One day back in elementary school I found The Joy of Painting on PBS and suddenly I wanted to be an artist. I remember trying, very hard, to paint my happy little trees using a box of Crayola watercolors on sheets of spiral notebook paper. In the few years before I had my children, I took oil painting classes at St. Louis Community College and completed two canvases of which I am very proud (and that hang in my house). But when I was a kid and first learned the concept of "career" and "living wage", I gave up on my idea of being an artist because I had no idea how I could ever get a job. No one ever explained the idea of illustrator or designer or graphic artist to me at the time. I thought the phrase was "starving artist" :)
By middle school, I was an A student and started hearing phrases like "You can be anything you want." But I had no idea what I wanted.

My dad was (is) an electrical engineer with a huge fascination with computers. I had learned to program in BASIC (these days no one capitalizes it anymore) around second grade on our old TI computer. I would make pretty graphics and type in thousands of lines of printed game code from spiral-bound books that Dad brought home. And yet, computers were kind of a geeky-boy thing. In high school I had not yet embraced my inner geekdom, so I didn't think about computers as a career path. My mom was (is) a nurse and I was always a little bit interested in medicine and biology, so I set my sights on being a doctor. A pediatrician. That lasted until the end of my freshman year at Wash U.

I loved Wash U, but as a premed, I did not find the supportive, encouraging environment that I needed. I found competition. Lots and lots of competition. I had graduated 3rd in my class in high school (I was thrilled not to be 1st or 2nd--they were required to give a speech). At Wash U, that put me smack dab in the middle of average. I do not thrive in competitive environments. I do not thrive where my advisors tell me I am not good enough instead of encouraging me to do better (Shame on me, I got a B on a midterm once).
Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I transferred to the School of Engineering to study Computer Science. My then-boyfriend (now husband) was a CS major and I'd watched, envyingly, as he worked on cool-looking homework assignments while I tried in vain to memorize 500 pages of biology textbook at a time. It was a drastic move, but I succeeded in computer science. Yes, it was still a sort of geeky-boy thing, but there was a certain appeal to being one of very few women among the group of geeky-boys :)

When I started interviewing for programming/IT/software jobs at graduation, I started hearing my least favorite question. "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?". Um, I had no clue. I could BS an answer that I thought the interviewer would like to hear, but my gut responses were things like "Getting married", "Trying out some new career", "Having a baby", "Going back to school to study something else", or "I'll just see how it goes". Amazingly, I still got hired.

After my youngest was born, I desperately needed a creative outlet that would not keep the children up at night or leave sharp pointy things around the house. Since oil painting was too messy for carpeted rooms and classes are never held between 9:30 and 10:30pm on a weekday, I had to find something new. Cooking is another of my (numerous) passions, but there's a limit to what my family and I can (and should) eat of my efforts. I enjoy sewing--clothes, crafts, the occasional quilt, drapes and home d├ęcor--but couldn't make it work either. Sewing in our office (the 4th bedroom) was out because it shared a wall with my daughter's room and the machine noise would keep her up. Sewing anywhere else in the house was a logistical nightmare because it would take me longer to set up and take down all the supplies (and pointy things) than I actually got to spend creating.

I tried my hand at something I've always kind of wanted to do but never felt brave enough for: writing. Not just blogging (was already doing that), but writing fiction. Romance. Book-length. I had always been afraid to try because I never knew where to start or whether I could do it. I was afraid to fail. But in 2007, I found NaNoWriMo and decided that I had nothing to lose but time. It is amazing how turning 30 and having a rather traumatic year with the health of my youngest child changed my perspective on "failing".

Wow is writing fun. Writing fiction is a big game of makebelieve that you act out with a keyboard. Yes, there is a lot more to it than that (like editing). I did have a background in literature (a whole college degree, just not in English, that was my "for-fun" degree while I learned my trade) and a massive love of books. I think I've read thousands of them by now, not including the kids' titles (of which we averaged 3 per child at bedtime until my daughter started in on chapter books). These days I've finished 3 different book-length manuscripts, am actively working on 2 more (I can never stick with one thing at a time, you know), and am working on improving my writing and trying to sell my work to a publisher. (No, you won't find my stuff in a bookstore. Hopefully some day).

Today, at the ripe old age of {mumblejumble}, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I am a software engineer, for now. I am a mother and a wife. I am a writer (though I don't feel comfortable calling that a career until, like, I earn a few $). I sew, I paint. I stare longingly out my kitchen window at the brilliantly glowing sign that reads Culinary Institute (No kidding..local tech college opened the building about a year ago and it has been taunting me ever since. I could walk to class...if I had time to enroll). Guess I'll add it to my list of things I want to be when I grow up.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I think it's dead

In case you’ve been wondering, the answer is No, Leapster Explorer System game systems are not waterproof.
Not even if you fish it out of the toilet within about 5 seconds of submersion and immediately yank the batteries, then drain it thoroughly for 24 hours before re-assembling.

As much as I like to tout my mantra of “If you break it, I won’t buy you another one”, I’m probably buying my son another one. With our little man’s potty training challenges (click on the label “VACTERL” over on the right if you want to know the whole, gory story), that Leapster has been wonderful. Trying to explain to an active 3-year old why he needs to spend an extended period of time on the potty every evening has been torture, but since he got the game system for Christmas, he has been taking himself. Voluntarily. Happily. Quietly. Productively.

I’m not sure I would recommend extended periods of video game time to parents under most circumstances, but it really has worked out well in our case, and his handwriting abilities have taken a giant leap forward too. He actually signed his own name on a birthday card the other day (we told him the letters, he drew them), with no dotted lines to trace. We had no idea he could do more than T and an O.

Anyway, maybe next time I should see if a store offers an extended service policy on the gaming system. A no-questions-asked free replacement should the next little console also have an unfortunate accident (no potty-training pun intended).

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Bright Ideas in Lightbulbs

Have you  made the switch? This morning's Post Dispatch reports that consumers have only replaced 1 in 5 light bulbs with energy efficient ones, and that when 100-watt bulbs are phased out of production starting next year, that 13 percent of consumers plan to stock up on the old ones rather than buy new.

That's crazy. CFL (and new LED) bulbs save you money. I have compared our electric bills for the past few years and I can prove it. We have replaced about 2/3 of the lightbulbs in our house with energy efficient ones. Next year, the Christmas tree is on the list (I calculate that we spent $25 to light our pre-lit incandescent tree this year, and we had no exterior lights hung).

If you're quick then you just caught the "but" clause to my post. Why, if we have seen actual money savings from replacing lightbulbs, have we not replaced 100% of all bulbs in our house with energy-efficient ones?

We have ceiling fans installed in six rooms in our house, each with 4 or 5 lightbulbs. And every last one of them has a dimmer switch for the light fixture (because you don't always need 5 60-watt lightbulbs blazing in a room, and in the olden days of incandescent bulbs, dimmers would help save a bit of energy). 

If you install a regular CFL into a socket on a dimmer switch, then set the switch anywhere but completely "on" or completely "off",  your CFLbecomes a strobe light. Nice for Halloween. Not so nice for reading bedtime stories to the kids. And if you have one (or, say, 4) of those dusk-to-dawn light sensing exterior light fixtures, then local cops stop by your house occasionally to make sure that your flashing lights aren't due to a security alarm.

If you can find a dimmable CFL for sale (an arduous task in itself...they are not universally stocked outside of hardware stores), then you fix the strobe light problem. But the bulbs don't so much "dim" as they do "turn off" about half way between the top and bottom of the dimmer. I have one installed in the kitchen, and its "dimmability" is a large party of why I have one installed in the kitchen and not five.

Then there's the price.  They cost roughly $8 apiece, and my local Home Depot tends to have about 4 on the shelf at any one time. But we would need something like 30 of them.  That's a total of $240 plus tax for dimmable bulbs that don't actually dim.

Or, we could go remove all the dimmer switches that my husband installed. That is, I suppose, the answer to our dilemma. Or we join the ranks of those 13% of folks who just stockpile incandescent bulbs once they stop selling them.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Remind Me Why I Can't Throw Anything Away Anymore

One of my goals for the year has been to organize and sort out more of the stuff we have in our house. We have big closets but they've been crammed full of things we're no longer using. Unfortunately for us, both my husband and I are bad about keeping things that we no longer need. For my husband, the problem is a (possibly genetic) packrat mentality. His family doesn't seem to ever get rid of anything (as evidenced by some of the items unearthed from his parents' basement upon their move a few years ago).

For me, the problem is about the sheer amount of time required to get rid of things. Sounds crazy, right? How hard can it be to just throw something away? If it were a problem of putting trash in a trash can this would be no problem. We don't have a sanitation or a rubbish problem. But the stuff we have accumulated is supposed to be useful to someone (reference husband and packrat family), and it is wasteful to throw away useful items and heaven forbid something might go to a landfill instead of being re-used or re-cycled or that needs to be safely disposed of. And lets not talk about garage sales, re-sale shops, charity clothing drives, craigslist, and ebay. There are just too many options for how to get rid of something.

I've done garage sales and they take way too much time for too little reward. Why spend 3 days preparing and 5 hours sitting to make $50? Besides, it's not about the money for me. If I want extra money, I'd do better picking up a few extra hours at work. There are a few Goodwill spots around town, but we're about 20 minutes away from all of them and none of them are enroute to anywhere we ever go. There are charities who will pick items up at your house, but I don't have time to sit around and wait for them and am not a fan of asking strangers to show up at my house when I'm not home.

Yep, sounds like a crazy problem. But crazy as I am, I still have closets to clean and junk to get rid of. My most recent project involved my almost-4-year-old's closet. It's a nice-sized walk-in closet where we've installed extra shelving, but the shelves have been stuffed full of boxes of out-grown clothes for the better part of two years. Somewhere in the 12-18 month size, we ran out of friends and relatives with little boys who were still littler than our son. As Trystan finally outgrew things, we had no easy way to give them away. So they accumulated. And accumulated.

Friday was a day off school for Charlotte (but Trystan went preschool), so I seized the opportunity to haul the boxes out to my car. I filled my trunk. And the backseat. And the front passenger seat. And the floor under Charlotte's booster. We took it all to Once Upon a Child, a local resale shop. They spent about 45 minutes digging through my things and picked a few things they wanted. 35 items, $35. Well, $25 after Charlotte chose a few things off the racks for herself. Except 35 items barely made a dent in the stash.

Back at home, I moved all of the clothes out of the plastic storage boxes and into trash bags and loaded them into my husband's SUV so that I could safely transport children again. Then we lucked out. He was prepared to drive it all to a goodwill drop off site when I saw a sign at my daughter's school for a clothing drive. We unloaded them Tuesday morning.

I am happy to know that Trystan's outgrown clothes will good to a good cause. And I am even happier that my son can now choose his own clothes in the morning because I have room to hang them all low enough for him to reach (previously, the low rack was mostly crowded with boxes so his clothes were high up in the closet). We might even be able to store a few of his toys in his closet now and can make our basement family room a little less of a chaotic kid-mess. Well, maybe after we get the crib and changing table out of his room.

Anyone need a crib?