On Being a Married, Home Owning, PE

It’s been an intense year. In June, my partner and I ran off to Vegas and got married. In August, we closed on our house. In October, I took the Professional Engineer’s exam. That’s three huge life events in the space of four months and five days. To be honest, I’m still processing it all. It feels like it hit me all at once, and I haven’t had time to really digest one before it was time to focus on the next, along with my usual work, parenting, etc. It is all good, of course, but it’s a lot.

We flew home five days after our wedding, having had a fun honeymoon in Vegas, and I returned to work a week after that. I remember thinking to myself as I walked down the hallway that first morning with my brand new alexandrite ring on my finger, “I just did this huge thing, and now I have to come back and design bridges as if nothing has changed.” If you think about it, that’s completely accurate. We try to create buffer zones, to hold space, to give our important life events the respect they deserve, but in today’s society, that hardly exists. That’s no dig at my employer. I have it better than most. It’s just the way society is now. I would have loved a month to just be a wife to this husband, let it sink in what we just did, I’m not even sure what else, but something. I needed more time for something.

The house was more rushed yet. A honeymoon is a known entity, but a homeownermoon doesn’t really exist, although it should. Can we make that a thing? Even if it did exist, I didn’t have the leave time for such a thing, just two months after taking two weeks off. Plus, there were bridges to design, plans to be sent out, training classes I couldn’t miss. I took a total of two days off for the entire home buying and moving process. This took a toll. We’re still not unpacked. Honestly, if I had a week of leave to spare, I would take it for this purpose, even now, because we need it badly. We keep saying that we need a week with nothing else to do but house stuff, and we’d have it done easily. The problem is, where are we going to get a week? We just bought a house, finally can join our lives and possessions in a home, two years after we moved in together in our little apartment. Yet, instead of devoting the time this needs, I’m at work, designing bridges as if nothing happened.

Last but not least came the PE exam. I am incredibly fortunate that my employer values licensure of their engineers enough to provide a very comprehensive course of preparation to us all for the three months prior to the exam, and designate the week of the exam exclusively for study. For three months, we go to work only three days a week because the remaining two days are for prep classes only. It’s wonderful, and I think the week I had leading up to the PE exam may be among the most relaxing I’ve had in months. I went into the exam feeling refreshed and laser focused. I feel like it went ok. I’m still really anticipating receiving the results in a couple months, and won’t feel fully ok until I do (providing I passed), but I don’t feel badly about it.

On Monday, I walked into my office for the first time in a week, and the first Monday in three months (Mondays were prep class days). I felt much like I had felt coming back after I got married. I just tackled one of the biggest and most important milestones of my engineering career, and now I have to come back and, well, be an engineer like everything is normal. Everything is not normal, though. Everything will not be normal until I find out how I did, and get my license application approved by the board, and receive my seal with my name on it.

I am in some weird place between peacefully satisfied and low-key losing my mind because so much has happened lately and I haven’t had a chance to just sit with any of it. There are bridges to design, kids to raise, school functions to attend, groceries to buy, and everything else that goes into daily life. It’s all anyone can do to just roll with the punches. I’m no workaholic. I never work more than 40 hours a week. This is just how it is.

I wonder what next year will be like. I will have my PE license, and will probably never take another exam again as long as I live (providing I passed this one). We already bought our house, and have no plans to move. We aren’t planning a wedding. I hope that there will be time to relax and just be, to take vacations, this time without the knowledge that we’re coming back to mortgage brokers, and exam prep courses, and moving coordination. If all I have to do when I come back, is design a bridge or two, I can handle that.

For all my adult life, I’ve had this massive glaring to-do list over my head like a cartoon anvil, and known that I would not consider myself to have my shit together until I had checked all of it off. Get a job I can keep forever. Buy a house. Get my PE license. I guess it all felt insurmountable for all the years I was stuck in my first marriage, getting farther and farther from what I knew I needed to do, that I never really believed I could do it all. And then I did, but most of it happened so fast that it didn’t really hit me until later that I had done it.

Then I woke up the next morning, went to work, and designed a bridge, as if nothing were the matter at all.

One Month into Home Ownership

We’ve been homeowners for a month. Wow, how’s it going?! I should probably update. It’s hectic! Even if you’ve been out on your own for almost half your life (ahem), and lived in a dozen rental properties in that time, that does not prepare a person for the eventuality of home ownership. It is really not for the faint. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a lot of work. Here are a few highlights.

PAINTING

Paint is a huge deal. The question I got most from pretty much every angle was, “If your house is brand new, why do you have to paint? Don’t the builders paint the house?” and I realized people were picturing us moving into a house with raw drywall. Yes, they painted. We even got to choose what color they used. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to choose the finish, and my first lesson as a homeowner was that having the right paint finish is a really big deal since we’re finally in a position to choose that sort of thing.

We have small children, and having experienced flat paint on many apartment walls over the years being promptly destroyed by small fingers, we opted for satin paint. Yet, we’re frugal (read: first world broke thanks to things like student loan debt, child support payouts, and professional licensing fees) so instead of hiring a painter, we had to figure out how to do this job ourselves. My partner already knows a ton about painting. He’s owned a lot of houses before. I have never painted in my life, but figured, how hard could it be? I was all in for our DIY painting job. Due to my inexperience, we decided that it would be too hard to do an actual color on the walls, plus we liked the color we chose from our builder, so we set out on the search for satin finish clear coat. Apparently, this is a popular thing in Europe, but isn’t often used in the US. Nevertheless, Valspar does make such a product, but only in quart cans. We bought 52 quarts of it, and tested it on a patch of wall in our apartment’s master bedroom closet. It really is a brilliant product.  I looked forward to getting it onto the walls of our house.

When it came to painting, I learned the hard way that it is much harder than it looks. My partner had found in the past that he liked a certain type of mechanical roller that stores and distributes the paint as you go along. I thought it sounded like a wonderful idea, and was looking forward to a nice easy time. I could not have been more mistaken. One thing I did not bargain for was how heavy those rollers would be! I could barely lift it, far less paint effectively with it. I did two walls with that thing, and I don’t think I even got 50% coverage. I felt so hopeless, like we would never get the job done before the movers came with our stuff. My partner came up with a better idea, though. He put a regular roller on a long stick, and with that, I managed to paint most of the walls with ease. He did the high spaces and the intricate things. I took care of the large areas that I could reach.

Ultimately, it worked out well, and I feel proud every time I see our satin finish walls, or feel how smooth they are. Also, one month in, three kids under 10 in the house, and there is not a fingerprint to be found. 10/10 would take on that job again.

BASIC SHIT HAS TO GO

Having lived among builder grade fixtures for my entire life, I had no idea that the two episodes I’ve watched of HGTV shows (I couldn’t even tell you which ones) got into my head as much as they did, but by the time we closed, I was severely disappointed in the fixtures, lighting, and mirrors the house came with. I wanted nothing to do with nearly everything except the things I got to choose like our beautiful cabinets, granite, and subway tiled backsplash. If I didn’t choose it, it had to go.

I learned that my partner is really handy, and has a better eye for things than I had thought. He didn’t even mind the builder grade stuff, but humored me in upgrading our entire bathroom to brushed nickel faucets, side by side mirrors framed in black wood that matches our cabinets, and a custom shower head combination that I really regret living this many decades without. Our bathroom is starting to look really good. We left the kids’ bathroom alone for now, figuring we’ll upgrade it when they get a little older. Builder grade stuff is ok for kids.

Next, we have to do the kitchen. I didn’t like that faucet either, although my partner had no problem with it. I’m not sure he will ever let me live down how much we paid for the new one. It was more than my student loan payment, but it was really the only faucet I wanted after I saw it. Nothing else would do, so we got it. Of course, it’s good we did, because our original faucet broke a couple weeks after we moved in. A lesson for everyone, builder grade stuff is not meant to last.

Then there are light fixtures. I never hated that basic flush mount lighting until I saw it in my pretty new house. Now I can’t stand it, so we got some really cool looking fixtures for some rooms, ceiling fans for others, and sleeker looking flush mount lighting for hallways and bathrooms.

Of course, while we do have custom cabinets, there is work to be done with all of those as well. Door and drawer hardware is a big deal! We got some that I thought I would like, but was actually way bigger than I had anticipated. It was ridiculous looking, so it had to go back. We got some different hardware that looks really good, and we have to put that on all the doors and drawers still, in the kitchen and all the bathrooms. This includes the aftermarket cabinets we hung above the toilets in the upstairs bathrooms. Of course, since our new bathroom lacks drawers, we installed tip-out storage, which is one of the most ingenious inventions I have seen in years.

THERE ARE SERVICES TO COORDINATE AND RULES TO LEARN

Before we knew it, our sod had grown to such a point that if we didn’t get it cut, we would get fined by the homeowners’ association! That went by fast! So of course, we had to find a lawn care person in our suburb. This was harder than it seems because most of the sites I’m familiar with like Home Advisor and Task Rabbit deal only with jobs within the city limits. Since we moved to an outer suburb, it’s harder to find contractors. We did eventually find someone to do our lawn, and we won’t get a fine. I’m glad that part is over with.

On that subject, our HOA is a real trip. Everything about them on Yelp, Google, and FaceBook says they do absolutely nothing. Of course, one look at our neighborhood, and you can tell that’s not really the case. If they did nothing, it would not look as nice as it does. Even so, we didn’t give it much thought, and when we got a warning about leaving our trash cans on our driveway (in front of our garage), we were surprised at first. This, after receiving a warning from the city about leaving them on the street 24 hours after trash had been picked up. Our garage is still in disarray with all the things we need to put together and figure out what to do with, so we were just keeping our trash cans outside until we got it figured out. Guess we can’t do that anymore.

Also, our community pool has a monitor who really reminds me of the school lunch lady from elementary school. My partner tells me this is normal. It is my first time living somewhere that there’s an HOA, so it was new to me. I’m not really a pool person anyway, so it hardly matters, but I still thought it was funny that we were being babysat while we used the pool we pay for upkeep of through our HOA fees.

I am just hoping we don’t get a citation for the pallet of lumber that’s on our driveway right now. We’re building a deck for the spa to go on, and it’ll end up around back, but we haven’t had time to do any of the outside stuff yet because we’re so busy trying to get the inside stuff done.

FURNITURE IS TRICKY

This is not unique to home ownership. Every military person knows the struggle of trying to fit furniture from one house into the next house. I thought I was prepared for this. There’s a key difference, though. There’s a permanence to home ownership that doesn’t exist with renting or post housing, so the idea of just stuffing everything where it might fit, and keeping things that aren’t a good fit for this house, is suddenly distasteful. There isn’t going to be a next house, at least not in a couple years like there always was before. This house is where you ended up. This is the house you have to fit, and it’s worth doing major furniture restructuring to accomplish a good result at that.

This is doubly interesting when two grown adults have moved in together, and both brought a lot of stuff with them. We were in our apartment for two years before buying our house, but we knew that we were going to get a house, so we kept a ton of stuff that didn’t fit in our apartment either because we had no idea what would fit in our house. We ended up with way too much stuff! Do you have any idea how many bookcases and beds two grown-ups with their own homes bring to the table (and how many tables, for that matter)?! I’m not even being facetious when I say we could probably outfit at least five college students with the number of bookcases and Ikea side tables we collectively own.

The thing is, though, just because you have a lot of stuff doesn’t mean it’s the right stuff. Don’t be afraid to just scrap it and buy something that fits perfectly. I would never have done that while we were renting, but now it seems almost foolhardy not to.

LIES AND DAMNED LIES

There is so much that one thinks about moving into a new house (and I’ll admit, I thought these things, too) which is so patently false that it absolutely stomps you in the face with the reality of the situation. “It’s new, it’s perfect, you can just move right in and that’s that.” Oh my god, no you can’t. There is a 100% chance the air conditioning will be wrong. The paint will not be the finish or the colors you wanted. Appliances may malfunction. Sod might die. You just never know. New houses look so shiny and fresh, but they are just as much work as an existing home! You’re literally the test pilot for this huge machine, and with that many moving parts, things absolutely will go wrong. You will be on the phone to the builder a lot. There is a reason new homes come with warranties. This is true no matter what builder you use. We used a mid to high-end builder, and we still had the air conditioning people out three times in our first week. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.

Yes, we are a month into home ownership, and our house still looks like a goddamned construction zone. We haven’t put up anything in the yard yet. Most of our kitchen is taken up with plants, which all have places to be, but we don’t know exactly where yet. We have spent thousands of dollars each at Ikea, Lowe’s, and Amazon, getting everything we need to make this blank slate of a house our own, and every day, more of it gets put together, placed in its intended spot, or otherwise put into service. Is all this necessary? From a food, water, and shelter standpoint, no, it’s not, but from a quality of life standpoint, I think it is. I love looking at all the things we’ve improved and added, and knowing that this is ours. This is what makes our house, our home. I can’t wait until it’s finished, of course, but the ends definitely justify the means.

One Week Out

In one week, we’re leaving for Vegas, and our wedding. I am so excited and nervous. I didn’t sleep very well last night because I kept just thinking about all sorts of details, not in a bad way at all, just really excited. Today, I decided to look up YouTube videos of weddings at our venue, and they’re amazing. It’s perfect. Everything is just so nice. We really made the right decision by switching our ceremony to there.

We finally chose our music. We’ll begin with 2001 A Space Odyssey, then walk together down the aisle to the Wedding March, played by Queen (I think it’s actually from a movie soundtrack, but I can’t remember which). Then we’ll walk out to Groovy Situation. It’s perfect! I can’t wait!

We chose Andrew’s tie, which was the last detail of clothing. It’s a galaxy print, in colors that compliment my dress.

We also decided to have the minister do a reading of an excerpt from Carl Sagan. Andrew said it combines science and spirituality, which is important when a spiritual person such as himself marries an Atheist engineer, especially when both share a love of astronomy and space.

I am so excited. I have no idea how I’m supposed to design bridges for four more days before taking off on vacation! I love my job, but right now, the struggle is real. I can’t believe how well everything is coming together.

I also have to say, I was nowhere near this excited before my first wedding. I was just kind of stressed and on edge. This is a night and day difference, and I’m taking that as a good sign.

On a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…

 

And just like that, we’re eloping.

I guarantee this to be disjointed and probably not make much sense. I also guarantee it is 100% real.

But enough about that, we’re getting married in just under two weeks, and it’ll be in Vegas, which is exactly what I’ve always wanted. I’ve never cared much about guests, have always been bad at throwing parties, and I don’t look good in white. Doing things my family disapproves of has also been a huge hallmark of my life, from joining the Army, to majoring in engineering, to pretty much every article of clothing I have ever owned, and now I get to add eloping to Vegas to that list. This is bucket list material, you guys, serious bucket list stuff. I will wear a purple dress, not give a single care what anyone else thinks, and marry my boyfriend at Planet Hollywood.

I’ve also learned that my idea of what this should look like has changed. At 21, I wanted it tacky. Hell, I am kind of tacky, even now, but something about booking a wedding at a classic tacky Las Vegas chapel felt wrong from about a day after we booked it. Yes, we wanted to elope, but we also wanted good pictures, a venue that doesn’t look like the 80’s threw up on a tacky florist shop, and to be on the strip, not off on some side street half an hour away.

No, I am officially 30-something years old, and have crossed that threshold at some point where cheap shoes hurt my feet, $80 foundation is practically a business expense, and I cannot abide second rate flowers at a cut rate wedding venue or photography in the wrong style for the occasion. I know quality and I’m willing to pay for it. Obviously, when eloping, you’re going to make some concessions, but there are a few things I’m absolutely not willing to compromise on, and so we didn’t. Thankfully, I have a very patient fiancé. He agreed completely.

So with all of this in place, we changed our venue to Planet Hollywood. I keep googling images of other people’s wedding photos there, and I cannot wait to take some of our own. It’s such a beautiful and exciting venue, and totally suits us. When I talk to the coordinators, I think they understand what I actually want, not just that they think they do, and then are going to give me something I would consider crap. I love the sculpture we’re going to be getting married in front of. I love the marble floors of the chapel. I love the lighting. Everything is good.

I can’t wait. A week and a half until we fly out. It’ll be just the two of us, thank goodness. I’m so excited to experience this with him. It’s going to be amazing.

Home Buying 101

We’re house hunting. It’s so strange to even type those words. It seems like the most natural and simple thing in the world until you’re actually doing it. Once you’re in the thick of it, it seems to dredge up some quite unexpected things.

In my case, it began with the financial. I wasn’t exactly surprised by anything on my credit report. I basically knew what I needed to fix, and had some idea of how I wanted to do it. The hard part was showing that report to my boyfriend and answering his questions about everything on it. It isn’t his fault, it’s just that I had become more independent than I had realized, and letting someone else into my finances felt a lot more vulnerable than I thought it would. This is a man I’ve lived with for two years, with whom I fully intend to spend the rest of my life, and with whom I consider that I have no secrets, but going through my credit report with him was a level of nakedness that I had not experienced at any point prior.

To be honest, I find the whole thing nerve wracking. Although my salary is a bit above the average household income for our city, with housing prices off the rails and climbing more every day, the homes in my budget are few. Of course, I want to stay in my kids’ school district, but it’s about $100k more than I can spend in order to do that. Surely, we can get a nice townhouse, but the boyfriend needs an office to see clients in home, so that won’t work. We need a large house. He insists the kids will hate me unless they all have their own bedrooms, so four bedrooms and an office is what we need, on a shoestring budget. This house, if it exists, is going to look like the 80’s threw up on it, and we’re going to be renovating it for the rest of our lives. Even so, in large part, I’m excited. I will take 80’s vomit over paying one more penny to my shiesty landlord. I will take equity over money down a rathole. I will take knowing where my kids will grow up for the rest of their childhood over wondering how much my rent will be when I renew my lease.

We haven’t been too open about the fact that we’re house hunting, but people give us unsolicited advice anyway. I guess we’re to that phase of coupledom where people start asking when we’re going to get married, when we’re going to buy a house, and when we’re going to get a cat. Thankfully, people don’t ask us about babies. We have enough of those already. Plus, I’m in my 30’s, he’s in his 50’s, and we’re ready to just enjoy life with big kids, and several cats. But yes, unbeknownst to most of our friends and acquaintances, we are working on buying a house. No news on marriage yet. We’re in no hurry.

Anyway, people seem to have no idea what the housing market these days is like (lucky them), and say awesome things like, “Just save up 20% and get a condo”. Thanks, but that’s actually a horrible suggestion. First of all, we have school age kids, so anything that resembles a starter home that we’re going to have to upgrade in a few years is an instant no-go. They moved from school to school enough as military brats, and I want them to be able to go to the same schools until they graduate, so moving from an apartment that we rent to a condo that we own isn’t exactly an improvement in the day to day sense, and these days, it’s not exactly temporary. When you buy something, you’re pretty much stuck with it because with housing prices going up as much as they are, yes, you will build equity, but everything else goes up just as fast, and with a cutthroat housing market where homes stay on the market for only a couple days and are often subject to bidding wars, the odds of moving up are slim. In this market, when you buy, you have to be ok with staying in whatever you get.

This hasn’t been all negative, though. This morning, I scanned in my DD-214 (Army discharge papers) and took the steps to get my Certificate of Eligibility from the VA for a VA guaranteed mortgage. I guess those couple years I spent in the Army may have been worth something after all.

I downloaded my pay stubs from my job at the state DOT, and my previous job at the City. I looked at my W-2 form from the past year, which showed the cash value of my salary and benefits package. I suppose those years in engineering school, and all the time I’ve spent commuting, networking, and trying to be a better engineer today than I was yesterday, have been for this.

I look at my boyfriend, and how excited he is to be buying a house with me. He loves this stuff. I hate it, but he loves looking through listing after listing, scrutinizing paint colors, and cabinet styles, and what kind of trees are in the yard. I don’t even know how to make heads or tails of any of this, but I’m happy that it makes him happy.

In all this, I think that maybe success isn’t what we think it is when we’re wide-eyed 18-year-olds thinking we’re going to take over the world someday. Success might not look like a Georgia mansion and a Nobel Prize by 30. It probably doesn’t look anything like that. Maybe, just maybe, success looks like a sensible job designing bridges for the state, and a home about as old as I am, in a neighborhood with good schools, where the commute downtown is bearable, but the prices are low enough to still take the kids to Disney World every other year, and visit family in Florida or Europe on the others.

Maybe it’s the fact that raising all these kids on an engineer’s salary is not easy these days, but it’s feasible, largely through the ingenuity of a man who is cool headed when I’m anxious, understands home buying better than I ever will, has been through every inch of my credit report, and for some unfathomable reason, loves me anyway.

I am grateful to be here for this. I strongly feel, for the first time in my adult life, that we are going to be ok.

On Distrust of Intellectuals and Artists

Does anyone else remember when the US was known for being a highly innovative country? Sure, we’re not the only one, but some great stuff has come out of here in the past couple hundred years, inventions that have changed the world. There’s a reason we have forever attracted the best and brightest to our universities and our corporations. Nikola Tesla didn’t choose this place for nothing. We used to be really good at engineering. We also used to be really good at science and art, for that matter. As individuals, we still are, but as a society, I don’t think we can say that anymore.

I’ve read probably a hundred articles, from every type of source, about the mentality that brought our world to things like Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, and the one common thread is distrust of experts. Say what you will about why that is, but it’s virtually undeniable that it’s happening. I remember growing up, being taught that when you really want to know about something, you ask someone with a PhD in it. I grew up in a university town. People with PhD’s were everywhere. It wasn’t uncommon to get help on your economics assignment from a friend of your parents, who just happened to be a Professor Emeritus on the subject. You weren’t going to win the science fair any given year without enlisting the help of a grad student to proof read your paper for style, or even to give ideas on methodology. Where I come from, we trust experts. Call it millennial disillusionment if you have to, but I always expected that when I grew up and became a subject matter expert, people would trust me when it came to my field. It isn’t that I want to have the last word on all things road and bridge related. Everybody knows that doesn’t exist anyway. It’s that I want people to understand that maybe, just maybe, a person who has published research on a subject knows more about that subject than someone who googled a few conspiracy theory articles.

That’s the world we live in, though. Google makes people overestimate their knowledge on subjects, for profit universities are rampant, and quality education is so far out of reach to so many that our society has, in large part, convinced itself that it isn’t worth it anyway. They seem to figure that those of us who have attained it are so far out of touch with the “real” people (Everyone thinks their group is the real people) that we’re really not worth listening to at all. As a group, we have no idea what to do with this. I’ve read articles about how to deal with people who just don’t care about facts or research, and not one has had a real solution to the problem. How can we reach these people when we are on two different planes? I don’t have an answer to that question.

What I do know is that every time a harmful regime has taken over any country, anti-intellectualism was one of their most powerful weapons, and like it or not, about 25% of our country elected one hell of an anti-intellectual government. (I don’t just mean the president. Have you seen Congress lately?!) These people love that Average America distrusts experts. It means that when those experts say of any given policy they propose, “Hey, guys, this is a really bad idea because [insert well researched reason here]. Call your representatives and tell them you won’t vote for them again if they pass it.” The voters respond, “You clueless academic! You don’t know my life!” and the politicians screw the people once again. Anti-intellectualism is more effective than just about anything else when it comes to getting horrible laws passed that don’t benefit the people in the slightest. By disempowering everyone who knows enough to discredit their ideas, the politicians leave the people with nobody to listen to but themselves, and to some extent, low information news sources.

We are seeing a lot of results of this lately. Here are a few:

-The National Endowment For The Arts is likely closing. It will take NPR and PBS with it, in addition to countless grants that people rely on to fund their work. -Research fellows in climate science and water resources are losing funding for their work. -The government is refusing to answer questions from the press. -All reference to climate change has been removed from White House web pages. -There are proposed cuts to government agencies that are vital to engineering, such as the Department of Transportation.

This is scary. As a member of the STEM community, an engineer who relies on climate scientists and water resources engineers to advise me so that I can design effectively, the uncertainty of what the next four years (at least) will hold, never leaves my mind. In light of this, we have to act mindfully, and all of us who are in the business of innovation, information, or anything related (yes, that includes art!) have a huge responsibility right now.

Journalist friends, when you are in a press conference, and one of your colleagues does not get their question answered, you ask it again for them, and the next person after you ask it again, and the person after them, until it is either answered, or you get to document photographically that you were all thrown out without a single question answered, and the people can see for themselves what is going on. I know this repeating tactic works because female engineering students have been using similar tactics to be heard in hostile lecture halls for as long as anyone can remember. Do what every female engineer has known to do since the beginning, and back your colleagues up, loudly.

Everybody, support your artist friends who are losing their funding at an alarming rate. Buy their work. Don’t be that jerk who asks them to do things for free. Pay for quality. Buy local. You always thought your friend made the prettiest paintings? Now is the time to buy one. You’re getting married and need music? Your friend plays the violin? Connect the dots. Make donations to your local folk life center, community art education organization, or community theater. We have a responsibility to preserve our national artistic heritage, and this comes down, in large part, to voting with our dollars. Vote for your artist friends’ success, and with it, our nation’s cultural heritage.

Scientist friends and engineer friends, we are the guardians of data. Keep it safe. Yes, most of us are working under intellectual property agreements that mean our work belongs to whoever signs our paychecks, but at the end of the day, we discovered or created these things, and without breaking any agreements, we can do quite a lot to make sure they’re not lost. Save things in multiple locations. Publish internationally as well as in the US. Your facts are your facts. Nothing can take any of that away. Even if it seems like nobody is listening to us anymore, someday they will, and when that day comes, we will need our research and designs more than ever.

Teacher friends, tell the truth. I don’t mean spread biased political opinions. I mean teach evolution. Teach climate change. Teach art. Teach that all of these things are important because a society is not a society without them. Our children are looking to all of us, but they particularly like you, so you have to do this for their good.

More than anything, we need to check in with each other. This isn’t going to be easy. All of us who are in the information and innovation business are feeling threatened right now, and we have to support each other in any way we can. Speak truth, guard information, support what is real. I don’t know what else we can do.

Thank you for asking. No one ever has.

Today, I had a meeting with my mentor. This happens once a month, as required by our employer, and the idea is that experienced engineers help make sure that newer engineers are being raised up right. We talk about what training I attended that month, what projects I have, how close I am to being ready to take the Professional Engineer’s exam, and also any concerns I may have in general.

My mentor is the most stereotypical no-bullshit engineer I have ever seen. I like that about him. He tells me exactly what he thinks, and isn’t afraid to correct me (or anybody else for that matter). Of course, this means our meetings are usually pretty perfunctory and quick. Today, though, just as I was leaving, he said, “This is something that we’re putting out in general throughout our organization, because we want our engineers to like working here. If you ever feel that you’re not getting challenging enough projects, or a good enough variety of projects, tell me or your team leader. We don’t want that to happen and we’ll try to fix it.”

I was surprised, and said that I assumed projects were assigned mostly on a luck of the draw basis, what comes through the door is what you get. He said that’s actually not the way it is at all, that there is a lot of thought that goes into matching engineers with projects, and that we have more to say about it than many of us probably think.

It was an interesting conversation. I have been happy with my selection of projects, and have actually remarked on how I have gotten a chance to design every kind of structure we do here. Until now, I thought it was a lucky coincidence.

The thing that stood out to me about this was that this is the first time in my life that my employer actually cared if I liked the work I was doing. This pretty much blew my mind. I realized that I never really stopped to think if I like the things I am doing day to day or not. I like the mission I am part of. Keeping up our infrastructure is awesome. I had never allowed myself to question whether I like my part of it, though. I just felt lucky to be here.

As it turns out, I do like the things I am doing. I like the faded old plan sets that make me act as half detective and half engineer. I like making old bridges new again. I like being part of history, and knowing that long after I’m gone from this life, my name will be on all these plan sets, and my structures will still stand. I like the things I can understand through analysis. I love paging through a finished plan set, and knowing that I made that.

I like what being here has entailed for me. Thank you for asking.

 

On My Last Working Day of 2016

Today is my last day at work for 2016. It’s rainy outside, but not too cold, and the office is empty. We are running a skeleton crew today, just enough engineers and inspectors to cover an emergency if there is one. We don’t suspect there will be, of course, and the general mood is informal and light. I am happy, and genuinely grateful, to be here. 2016 was a hell of a year. Aside from the world going completely off the rails, it was a great year for me professionally.

I started this year at a job that looks impressive on a resume, but was awful in reality. I was the only engineer on a team that did not want an engineer, far less an engineer who was younger than they were and not from around here. Being hated just for showing up was an interesting experience, and distinctly different from being disliked for a reason. Even so, I learned a lot in that job, and I managed to walk away with good references, and bosses who were sad to see me go.

My departure was in the least likely way. I had been applying for jobs that closely related to my experience since just a month after beginning the bad job. It was less a matter of hating the job at that point than it was that it was a contract position, and I didn’t want to live for too long without health insurance and paid time off. I’d been to a lot of interviews, but all were near misses. I felt like the second choice of every firm in town. I decided, around this time last year, to cast a wider net.

This led me to apply for a position as a structural design engineer at the state DOT. I didn’t expect to hear back. They get tons of applicants, and I presume most of those would have more structural experience than I did. Mine was limited to acing all my structural courses in college while expending as little effort as possible since I was mostly focused on my research in pavements. Nobody was more surprised than I was when I was called for an interview.

On March 9, at 9:00 in the morning, in the rain, I came into my interview fully expecting to bomb it. I was pleasantly surprised that my interview panel was mostly women, and that all of us seemed to get on well. I didn’t feel nervous. I answered all the questions easily, and talked a bit about how my experience in construction management, original research, and materials, would be relevant in a structural capacity. I made everyone laugh at least once. Then I walked back to work, and second guessed my answer to every technical question for days.

Three weeks later, I got a call back, letting me know that I had not gotten the job, but encouraging me to apply again because there would be another posting. They liked me, but they weren’t able to hire as many engineers as they had wanted. It was another near miss. I wasn’t even mad.

A week later, on April 9, they called again, offering me a job. They’d been able to hire one more engineer than they had originally been told, and they’d like that engineer to be me. The salary was fantastic, but I counter-offered anyway. They accepted, and I set my start date to May 9. At this point, I was still nervous. Could I really design bridges? I thought back on every lecture I’d ever attended on reinforced concrete, steel, and analysis of structures, and tried to remember what I’d done to make A’s on everything relevant to those subjects. I was nervous that I had never taken prestressed concrete class, because I knew that bridge girders were prestressed. I googled bridge design standards put out by this agency. I read every one I could get my hands on. I still didn’t know if I could do it, but I had to try.

As it turns out, the job I applied for and subsequently accepted because I’m extremely passionate about having health insurance and paid leave is more amazing than I ever could have imagined. As it turns out, I can do this, and I have designed seven structures this year, ranging from multi-span bridges to subterranean drainage structures.

I have the best boss I could imagine, and she genuinely wants her engineers to be their personal best in whatever specialty they’re called to. That means I get to study geotechnical engineering, foundation design, and things that relate most closely to my previous work in pavements, and allows me to tie that to my current work in bridge design. It all ties in, and even though I miss the asphalt lab, I know that structures are where the money is, it’s drastically less likely to give me cancer, and the working environment could not be more positive.

When I signed my tenure agreement, I realized that for the first time in my life, I am not looking for what is next. I see the senior engineers who have been here for decades, and they are still happy to be here. I see that there are many possibilities, and most of it is my choice. I don’t have to aspire to lead people. I can design increasingly difficult structures, and that’s respected just as much. I can see what the future will probably look like for me, and for the first time in my life, nothing about it seems remiss. I will stay where I am, and move up in design. This is where I want to be, and for the life of me, I could never have guessed it before I ended up here.

There’s no moral to this. I think I’m more shocked than anything that the trite advice, “Work hard, take opportunities, and you’ll do well” actually worked for me. In today’s world, one does not expect that, so I appreciate it for the glorious fluke that it is.

I’ll be a busy engineer in 2017. I begin the classes that lead up to the PE exam prep courses. Most of the year will be about procuring manuals and building my reference library for when I take the PE exam in 2018. By this time next year, I will be registered for the exam. I will also design as many structures as they’ll give me, and I’m hoping for my first steel truss, although I don’t know if that will happen so soon. Whatever next year brings, I’m here for it, and I’m honored that they chose me. 2017 is going to be great.

And now, with my design notes tucked safely away, I’ll now do something I’ve been wanting to do since shortly after I got out of the Army…. Take a week off work WITH PAY!!

Things That Should Have Warning Labels: Cub Scouts

When my sons came home from school one day in September, raving about how they wanted to join Boy Scouts and learn all this cool stuff that a presentation that day had featured, I didn’t need much convincing to allow it. I was a Girl Scout. My daughter is a Girl Scout. Logically, I figured Boy Scouts, and thereby Cub Scouts, would be basically the same thing. I located a troop (Den? Pack?) and the leader (Master?) soon returned my email to tell me all about the year’s activities. It sounded amazing, so we signed up. I was so wrong.

At the first meeting, I began to get the inkling that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. All talk was excitement over an upcoming camping trip. It sounded amazing to me, and I was so excited that my 7-year-old would get to go camping for the first time. When they came up to talk to me after the meeting, I realized they expected me to go on the camping trip, too. Oh my. No. Why did nobody tell me this? Parents aren’t required to go along on Girl Scouts camping trips at any age, so it never occurred to me that it would be any different in Cub Scouts. So because I don’t own the first piece of camping gear, and my personal idea of hell quite closely resembles spending a weekend sleeping on the ground among 7-year-olds, we opted out.

For a while, going to the meetings wasn’t too bad. They’re only an hour, and while being in a room full of rambunctious kids after I’ve been at work all day, and spent the past hour and a half commuting back to my part of the city is a bit awful, it was workable since it was only for an hour, and we always get tacos afterward.

Then it became apparent that I was dropping the ball on this part, too. “Is he ready to do his Wolf badge requirements?” they asked me at the last meeting. Shit, I haven’t even bought the book, or the uniform, or any of that. By the time I get back to this part of the city, the store that sells that stuff is closed, and on weekends, I barely leave my apartment because I’m so exhausted! Plus, I only have two hours after picking up the boys from after school care, before it’s their bedtime. So sometime between cooking dinner, eating dinner, cleaning up dinner, making sure everyone gets a bath, making my quite possibly dyslexic second grader struggle through his spelling words, and getting everything is ready for the next day, I somehow have to do Cub Scout homework, too. This is getting to be a bit much. I’m only one person.

I realized that over the past two months, we’ve skipped more meetings than we’ve attended. I don’t even open the pack emails anymore because it’s always some activity that there is no way I will have the time and energy for. I can never just drop them off to participate with the troop. It’s always required that I be there, too. How do people do this? We are only attending the meeting tonight because Pinewood Derby is the subject, and since they’re going to their dad’s for a week over Christmas, I thought maybe he could help them build the car. He likes that sort of thing, and it would allow them to participate in an activity that doesn’t require sleeping outside. If not for that, I’d skip this one, too. I’m exhausted, and I don’t want to go, but I get tacos afterward, and my sons will love making Pinewood Derby cars, so I’m going.

Now, none of this is anything against the organization. I can see how much a lot of people enjoy it. Some families really enjoy camping. Some of these families have been friends for years. A lot of the dads were scouts when they were younger, too, so they’re enjoying passing this on to their sons. For me, though, it has been a grand endeavor in biting off more than I can chew. I have a demanding career. I commute. Their father lives eight hours away and cannot help me with these things, even though he would probably love to. I am starting to think Cub Scouts is not for us. I just hope that my sons will not be too disappointed when we do not participate next year.

If I could go back in time and tell September Me a few things before signing that membership application, I would start with the following:

  1. They will expect you to go camping.
  2. The basic assumption is that you have a lot of family in town who can help you sell really overpriced popcorn.
  3. Just because you can make the meetings after work does not mean you should. How exhausted are you when you get home already? Now sit in a room with 20 rambunctious boys for an hour after your commute, and before you can go home.
  4. There will be homework.

I think we can officially say I have failed at Cub Scouts. I’m not even ashamed.

The Things Your Vegetarian Friend Wishes You Knew

In my experience, nothing gets a quicker or more divided reaction than telling a mixed group of people that I am a vegetarian. Some people think it’s cool, and are eager to tell me how they tried that once, and wonder if I have any recipes to share with them, because they still really like to go meatless from time to time. Others take it as a handwritten invitation to tell me how much they love meat and offer me some bacon. Everyone has an opinion on the decision to opt out of meat consumption. There are a few things that I wish more people understood about vegetarians, though.

Most of us aren’t trying to convert you.

Yes, we have all met the ones who are trying to convert everybody. We’ve also met religious people who try to convert people, but that doesn’t mean all, or even a majority, of religious people are like that. The same is true of vegetarians. Most of us are happy to just eat plants and let you do your thing. When we mention that we’re vegetarian, we aren’t saying anything about your dietary choices. We’re usually just trying to get lunch, and understand that this is relevant information to that process.

We can eat pretty much anywhere.

This varies for hardcore vegans, but your average vegetarian friend can join you for lunch at almost any restaurant in town. My one exception is barbecue restaurants that don’t have a salad bar. Those places tend not to have anything that is made without meat. I’ll go anywhere that I can at least get a salad and fries. I even eat at Texas Roadhouse sometimes because I love their margaritas, and my boyfriend, who is also vegetarian, gets a kick out of throwing peanut shells on the floor. Almost any chain restaurant you can think of is ok for vegetarians. Local restaurants are also usually good. Nearly every ethnic cuisine has good vegetarian options, but many of us especially love Indian, Italian, and Mexican food because the options are plentiful. We would even love to go out for sushi with you! We’ll just order the avocado roll and some miso. If in doubt, just ask, but know that your vegetarian friend is not going to limit your dinner options by much.

Plant based meals are our default setting.

Sometimes it happens that I’ll mention making a veg version of some otherwise meat based dish, and a friend or coworker says, “Why not just make the meat one? Is it really worth all that effort to make a veg one?” Then I explain that it would actually be more effort to make a meat based one because I would have to go to the store, buy meat, remember how to cook said meat, and then probably get sick since I haven’t eaten meat in years. Whereas, I can make a plant based version with ingredients I have on hand. For me, plant based meals are the norm. Adapting recipes is almost second nature.

We do not share your views on humanely raised meat.

This happens often. People feel the need to justify their dietary choices upon finding out that their friend is vegetarian, and the first thing many of them say is, “I only buy humanely raised meat”. I understand that this is an important distinction to those who eat meat because it was to me at one point, but to the average vegetarian, it isn’t. It doesn’t matter how many acres of pasture that steer lived out his life on, he didn’t want to become somebody’s dinner after living only one year. I don’t want to debate this with you, so I won’t bring it up in normal conversation, but I think it bears mention in this context that the average vegetarian does not see an ethical difference in the processes. With that said, see Item 1. Since we’re not trying to convert you, there’s no need to justify your dietary choices. Just do your thing.

Your bacon memes aren’t funny.

Without fail, every time a vegetarian posts some cooking video, recipe, or food pic on social media, at least one person, and usually a lot more, reply with a bacon meme, or a comment about how it needs bacon, or some other type of meat. Even if you don’t care that this is rude, maybe you care that it is played out. Do you really want to be the millionth person to tell some joke everyone has already heard many times? Nobody is laughing by then, even if they laughed the first dozen times they heard it. Also, when is the last time I went to your page, and commented “Needs less murder” on your latest barbecue pic? Exactly. Unless you want me to do that, keep the bacon memes to yourself and your bacon loving friends.

Men often choose to be vegetarian.

This one makes me laugh. Most of the time, people assume automatically that I’m vegetarian, and my boyfriend isn’t, or that I am this horrible oppressive girlfriend who won’t let him eat meat anymore. They’re often surprised to hear that he’s been vegetarian for roughly three times as long as I have. At work, we have six vegetarians in my department. Three are men, three are women. I find that it is common for men to be vegetarian. We just don’t hear much about it.

Raising my kids this way is like any other lifestyle choice.

I don’t cook meat for my kids. They’re perfectly healthy, and their pediatrician finds nothing objectionable about their diet. People often think that raising kids on a vegetarian diet is a strange and harmful thing to do, or that they are deprived, or somehow being forced to be “other” to society. I don’t see that this is any different than any other lifestyle choice a parent makes. As parents, our kids live our lifestyle, whatever that consists of. That means my kids don’t eat meat, my neighbor’s kids regularly drink soda, some kids are raised religious, some work on their families’ farms from a young age, and some are introduced to athletics from toddlerhood. We all make choices as to how to raise our kids. Vegetarianism is like any other.

There might be more to our choice than meets the eye.

Everyone knows the ethics side of vegetarianism, but did you know that a lot of us consider the environmental aspect equally important? Many people also choose to go veg for health benefits. I know multiple cancer survivors who adopted a plant based diet during treatment, and never went back to eating meat after they were cured. I even know one person who is vegetarian because they simply dislike meat. The reasons to be vegetarian are numerous, so if you’re curious, ask. If you’re not curious, just tell us where you want to go for lunch. Chances are, we’re cool with that place, too.