Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 retrospective

Hey, it's the end of the year, everyone else is doing it, why not me too?

Garden-wise, 2012 was a surprisingly good year. As other folks who live in the US Midwest have noted, the decreasing polar ice cap seems to have affected the usual march of weather systems. The jet stream locked itself into unusual flow patterns for weeks at a time. In St. Louis, the result was an abrupt end to winter on March 12. I worried when the fruit trees burst into bloom before the spring equinox, but as it turned out our last spring frost was on March 10 and we had high yields of bush cherries, plums, peaches, pears, and American persimmons as well as a few apricots and apples. We also had an early and excellent spring strawberry crop. With all the different fruits available in sequence, we stopped buying fruit in late April and didn't buy any more fruit until November, other than some local peaches when I happened to find myself across the street from one of the orchard's outlets. We also had a good year for nuts: we harvested quite a few black walnuts courtesy of the neighbors' tree that overhangs our back yard as well as some chestnuts from our chestnut trees (young and just starting to bear) and some American hazelnuts from the various shrub borders.

We had enough rain through early May but then very little rain until August. It was hot, very hot, all summer long. Did I say HOT? 2012 will end with the highest average temperature on record for St. Louis, beating the previous hottest year by nearly a full degree. We smashed the old record for days with highs of 105F and higher and set several other records for number of days with a high of various temperatures. Over half the days this year had a high of 70F or higher! With the combination of heat and lack of rain, we spent most of the summer and fall in one degree of drought or another, from as high as extreme drought to the current moderate drought. In some ways that made it an easier summer for growing food. The high humidity of the past two summers was very hard on my pepper and tomato crops of each year. This year, by contrast, peppers did reasonably well and tomatoes were superb; the low humidity cut down on disease problems I can have with these crops. I also had good crops of cucumbers, zucchini, dry beans, garden peas, blackeyed peas, edamame-type soybeans, and popcorn, but almost no squash due to planting too early and thus attracting too many squash bugs. Spring greens generally bolted early due to the heat and drought in May and June, although onions, garlic, broccoli, and cabbage all did well. We also had an early and productive asparagus crop. The potato crop was very poor. On the other hand, fall greens and root crops yielded pretty well because Isaac brought us about 4 inches of rain in early September and the rest of that month and October were cool and moist.

With the very hot, dry weather I had to water a lot. I limited watering as much as possible to the vegetable gardens and newly planted trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, but that still meant hours of moving a garden hose around the yard from late June through early August. As a result we had by far the highest water bill ever for the three months including May, June, and July, using about 3 to 5 times the amount of water we have used during the same period in previous years. St. Louis had plenty of water, this year, as the rivers were at reasonable levels over the summer. Now both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are near historic lows. The latest prediction is that drought will hang on in most of the Missouri River's watershed for at least the next three months. I don't think St. Louis has ever restricted water usage, but if the drought continues, it wouldn't surprise me if 2013 brings water restrictions in the summer. With this in mind, I am planning next year's garden to be more drought tolerant than this year's was. Our big garden purchase this year was a 10 foot by 12 foot garden shed with a metal roof. Besides holding all the garden tools and supplies in a central location, it will have gutters and downspouts added to the roof to feed into a 500 gallon water tank. The shed sits at the highest spot in our yard, so we can gravity-feed water collected in the tank to the nearby vegetable gardens. This will supplement the rainwater we collect off the roof of the house, used to water containers and the plantings in the front yard.

The very warm weather this year meant a lower than usual use of natural gas, the fuel that provides our household heat. The glassed-in front porch contributed a little solar heat as well, especially in late winter and early spring and again in October and November. The lower humidity this summer, combined with being out of town for 12 days during the hottest part of the summer, reduced our use of air conditioning to only 16 days in 2012 and thus meant a lower than usual use of electricity in 2012. The glassed-in front porch also provided an excellent place to keep our collection of subtropical and citrus plants over the winter; our rosemary plants bloomed from November through March!

This is long enough now, and we have neighbors due to come over soon to eat blackeyed peas and cornbread, the traditional Southern foods to bring good luck to the new year. May all of you enjoy the best year possible in 2013! I'll be back soon to continue the series that I interrupted for this post.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Part 3: Starting to Wake Up

After marrying Mike, my performance at work began to improve. Part of it was that after five years at the company, I had a better idea of what was expected of me and how to meet expectations. A larger part, I think, was that I now had a good life outside of work. Besides being happy within our marriage and home life, I was also learning to play the mountain dulcimer. I’d wanted to learn to play the instrument since shortly after moving to the St. Louis region, when I first heard it at a re-enactment of pioneer days at a nearby Illinois state park and loved the way it sounded. Taking up the mountain dulcimer was the first thing I’d done that had no connection whatever with trying to get ahead within an empire since college. I’d played the clarinet from fifth through eighth grade and enjoyed making music within a school band, but I had stopped playing after leaving eighth grade and had not taken up any other instrument until I chose to play the dulcimer. I knew how to read music, but making music on a woodwind instrument is sufficiently different from making music on a stringed instrument such as the dulcimer that it was almost like starting to play music from scratch. Nevertheless, I persisted with it and though I did not practice often enough to make rapid progress, I did make slow progress and more importantly, mostly enjoyed the effort, even the recitals (after they were over and my shaking stopped). All these things helped me devote some energies that used to be wasted on feelings of unworthiness and unhappiness back toward my job, and not surprisingly, improved both my performance and, according to management, my attitude as well.

I was also learning a number of useful skills in my volunteer projects. For three years I was a demonstrator in the small auditorium at the St. Louis Science Center, putting on gee-whiz science shows for audiences of all ages. As a demonstrator I received free training on how to do the best job at it and plenty of exposure before audiences, some of whose members then asked me to prepare and offer talks to other audiences. The result was that during a five year period I prepared and presented talks on laser science and on opportunities for women in chemistry to audiences ranging from 1st graders to adults aged 50 and up, learning by doing how to tailor presentations to the needs of the audience. During the seven years I volunteered with the local section of a society for professionals in chemistry and chemical engineering, I worked as newsletter editor, chair of one of the committees, secretary, and a member of the board of directors, honing my administrative skills in this friendlier environment and gaining experience with writing and editing, skills that helped a lot with the written communications I had to make for my job.

Though I’d been trained as a physical chemist, within the company I was more useful as an analytical chemist, in particular a thin film analytical chemist. This was a field I could understand and I formed good working relationships with scientists elsewhere in the company who operated the instruments that provided results that I could not obtain on the lower-tech instrumentation I had available in my lab. My stock at work rose along with my effectiveness level and end of the year results review, though I still spent Sunday afternoons and evenings dreading the Monday morning return to the lab.

Up to this point, however, I’d held myself aloof from the economic aspects of working, and indeed from economics in general. I’d developed a dislike for economics during the introduction to accounting course that I took my senior year of college. It wasn’t the accounting for actual monies earned and spent that bothered me; I could readily understand the value in that. It was all the approximating that went into, for instance, assigning values for depreciation. It didn’t make sense that a piece of equipment could be assigned a useful life of, say, five years and zeroed out on the books at the end of year five when, one day later, it still worked perfectly, in fact might still be in use. It seemed to me that by the time the various sorts of approximations required to develop a balance sheet or profit-and-loss statement had been made, the numbers on them had only the most tenuous connection with reality. As a experimental scientist, I dealt with numbers all the time, with plenty of institutional checks to ensure that the numbers I measured and reported were both precise and accurate. I didn’t see any such commitment to physical reality in what accounting did. And they called it a science? As usual in the courses I disliked, I made sure I learned it well enough to get an A and as a result I could read and understand balance sheets and had a nodding acquaintance with economic terms, but I avoided any further engagement with a subject that seemed to me so riddled with subjectivity as to be nearly worthless. At work, this meant I tuned out during meetings as soon as economic concepts were discussed. I knew we were supposed to be helping the company make a profit, but that was all I felt I needed to know. Let the folks above me determine how to make that profit; it was their job, not mine.

It was the summer of 1990 during an offsite departmental meeting at a conference center in a rural area when I first realized what growth in profits actually meant. At the time, team-building exercises were popular management tools, the theory being that if a group of people could solve a made-up problem that had nothing to do with their work, at someplace that was nothing like their workplace, they could somehow translate that into effectively working together on real problems in real workplaces. (During one such activity we were to allow ourselves to fall over backward from an elevated platform into the supposedly waiting arms of our colleagues. I was the only person who refused to participate in this activity; it struck me as not just pointless and an opportunity for my male colleagues to touch me in inappropriate places, but possibly dangerous as well. In fact, they didn’t fully catch one of my colleagues and she tumbled to the ground, but luckily she wasn’t visibly hurt by the experience.) It was at the concluding meeting of this exercise in money-wasting that either the second or third boss up from me was giving us the standard pep talk including the usual 15% return on investment company goal. (If that sounds absurdly high, remember that this was 1990 and it was a common expectation in the industry at a time when oil was far cheaper than it is now.) Perhaps because I was so miffed at my colleagues and the entire corporation, I didn’t tune out of the discussion. For the first time in the six years I’d been working, I suddenly grasped that this was exponential growth we were expecting, for as far into the future as anyone expected the company to be around.

My first reaction, I admit, was grim amusement. This was because Mike worked for a bigger and meaner multinational corporation than I worked for. In my mind’s eye I saw my company grow, and his, and eventually both grow to the point that they were the only two corporations left on Earth ... and then his company swallowed mine up with a smack of its lips and a burp. I liked watching my company get what I thought was its just desserts. But now his company can only grow a certain amount more, I saw, because after all, Earth is finite; obviously the company can’t grow larger than the Earth itself. As soon as I grasped that I realized that what my hypothetical exercise meant was that profit growth has a finite lifespan, at my company or any other. I didn’t know how long that lifespan was or what might replace profit growth as an economic driver, but as soon as I grasped that profit couldn’t grow forever, I couldn’t help wondering why seemingly no one else, in a roomful of people practically every one of whom knew exponential functions inside and out, had picked up on this basic absurdity. In brief, I began to wake up. And once I woke up that much, I knew that I couldn’t stay at the corporation for all that much longer, that in the long run whatever I did for money had to made sense on a finite Earth as well as be something I actually enjoyed doing.

After the meeting, Mike and I discussed what might happen at whatever time I chose to leave the company. We decided to dedicate as much of my income as needed to remodeling work on our house and to save some of it toward whatever period of time I would be out of work while deciding on my next career. Although Mike earned less than I did, he felt he could support both of us for awhile while I looked for different work. I got busy on interviewing and hiring companies to do landscaping work and to remodel the kitchen, bathroom, and back porch. Knowing that my time at the company was finite, that I wouldn’t be there for the more than twenty years I needed to reach early retirement age, freed up more energy that I could put into doing my job well during the time I had left. I finally figured out that I not only had a budget at work that I was supposed to stay within, but that the goal was to get the maximum amount of analytical work done while staying within that budget, and I dedicated myself to that effort. My supervisor was delighted with my newfound enthusiasm for staying within budget, and I turned out a competent body of analytical research over the next two years. During this time the period of employment to be vested in the company’s pension plan changed from ten to five years. Now that I was vested in both the pension plan (a plan in which I could receive a pension as early as 55 years of age) and in the 401(k) investment plan I was also taking advantage of, all the financial barriers to resigning ended. It was just a matter of knowing when the right time to leave would be. I trusted I would know when that was and continued to work while I waited for whatever sign would let me know the time was right.

By spring of 1992, I’d had enough success at work that I’d been invited to one of the monthly luncheons the CEO held to meet a cross section of people from throughout the company and a similar luncheon that the president of our division, four levels above me, held to meet people in our division. The luncheons, I knew, were supposed to reward me for good work and encourage me to devote even more effort to the company. However, other events suggested the time to resign was approaching.

A few months previous during a department-wide meeting, the manager three levels up from me had told the department that we had about a year in which to develop at least one product which was deemed sufficiently good to begin the steps toward commercialization. No such product had yet come out of our department, and upper management was clearly becoming impatient with us. Awhile later came rumors of a departmental reorganization. I’d been through enough reorganizations by that time to suspect that this was the prelude to a big shakeout, though I wasn’t sure how the process might play out.

Part of our yearly results review involved identifying a long-term career path for each of us. I had not responded with any real enthusiasm to the long-term career path that had been proposed for me. On the surface the path made sense to the various managers who had signed off on it. It acknowledged my lack of interest in what they called exploratory science, meaning that I wasn’t any good at inventing the new products that the company needed to keep its profit increasing. In contrast, I was pretty good at what they called explanatory science (I could clarify questions about and identify problems with something someone else had invented), plus I had good communication skills. Combined with my history of work on one of the products made by the division’s plant in Massachusetts, a plant I’d visited numerous times over the past several years, that suggested a transfer to the analytical department at that plant with a potential of rising to supervisor of the analytical department. But I didn’t want anything of the sort. I hated that plant. During one visit I’d gotten sick on the odor it generated. (I got no sympathy from my colleagues at the plant, one of whom commented that it smelled like money to him.) I’d lived on the east coast during high school and college but didn’t like it much; nothing about the town the plant was located in suggested I’d find anything about it to like. Mike is a lifelong resident of the St. Louis area and most of his family is here; I had made a home here as well and intended to stay here the rest of my life. On top of that, I’d had plenty of time to observe colleagues at levels ranging from technicians to the CEO of the company, and my observations had taught me that any supervisory post meant changing one’s values to those of the corporation. At my level I could still resist most of the pressure to conform at the cost of hiding aspects of myself, but I saw that those just one level up faced far more pressure to conform than I did, and the process of value change was complete one level above that. Even at my level I was having some health issues related to the mismatch between my values and the ultimate corporate goal, and I knew they would only get worse the longer I spent with the company. At home, the landscaping and remodeling work had been completed and we’d put some money aside toward the several months to a year I thought it would take for me to determine another way to earn some money. I was finally ready to take the first big action of my life that would not mesh well with the goals of empire.

Toward the end of May, I resigned effective the last business day in June, a couple of weeks past my eighth anniversary with the company. I handed in my resignation just a day or two after the reorganization plan was announced that made it clear I’d picked exactly the right time to resign. When my shocked boss asked me why I was resigning, all I could say was that I was tired. If I’d been able to tell him why I was tired, I would have said that I was tired of the endless pressure to conform to the corporate imperative to grow that was at odds with the Earth’s very real limits; I was tired of pretending I liked the work; I was tired of having so much of my energy sucked up by work and work-related volunteer activities; above all, I was tired of the feeling of dread that crept up every Sunday afternoon. With my resignation handed in, I put one last burst of effort into writing reports and cleaning up my laboratory and walked out on my last day with a huge burst of relief and gratitude. During those last few weeks I noticed the difference in how I was treated once it became widely known that I had resigned with no other job in line. If I’d resigned to take a better offer someplace else, or because my spouse was relocating and thus I was as well, I would have been congratulated in the first circumstance, wished well in the second. Resigning without a job in hand, though, intrigued and challenged my colleagues. A few of them told me confidentially that they wished they could do the same but that they had families to support, that I was fortunate to have a husband to support me. I agreed with them, of course, but they did not know that our household income would drop by close to two-thirds when I quit. But I felt I’d challenged them enough as it was so I kept that last bit, as I had kept so much else over the years, to myself.

Once I walked out of the building that last time, I faced deciding what to do next, a process I hadn’t had the energy to deal with while I was working for the company. The story will continue from there, though I may make an unrelated post first to sum up 2012 here at Living Low Acre. May you all have a happy New Year, and see you here again about then!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How I Got Here, Part 2: Crisis

In part 1 of this series I described how it was that I came to obtain a PhD in chemistry despite my neither liking chemistry much nor being all that good at it. I’ll pick up the story with my job search and its results.

1984 was a good year to graduate with a chemistry PhD; all the major chemical corporations were hiring, courtesy of Reagan-era easing of pesky “restrictions on the productivity of business” that had lifted the US out of an energy-related economic recession at the cost of many working-class jobs. As a woman seeking a research position I had an advantage: businesses were under pressure to increase diversity among their workforces. Since the percentage of women working in research positions was still low, I could provide them not only with the research to help them keep the new products and higher profits coming, but I could also make them look as if they were socially responsible while doing it. I still had to get through the hiring process, however, which included a presentation on my research project as well as personal interviews. Fortunately my research director had been an avid debater in high school and college, learning through debate clubs and meets how to make effective presentations. I’d never been interested in debating myself, but I do enjoy speaking in public. That trait, combined with my director’s instructions on how to prepare and make an effective presentation, helped me make a better impression than my level of understanding warranted. What helped me with the personal interviews, in addition to decent social skills, was my pride in the work I’d done, not so much for the sake of the work itself but because I knew I had helped my director get a lot of research done when it needed to happen for him to get tenure. (He did in fact receive tenure a couple of years later.)

I wound up with job offers from three of that era’s major chemical corporations as well as an offer to do a postdoc with a well-known research laboratory, the offer my research director wanted me to accept, as much because it would look good for him for one of his students to be working there as it would be beneficial to my career. I didn’t take the postdoc offer as I had no desire for an academic position, something I’d taken care not to reveal to him until then because I thought it might lessen what he was willing to do on my behalf. All that remained to do was choose which employer to chain myself to. For various reasons I picked the one headquartered in the St. Louis area, moving here in June of 1984.

Making the change from student to corporate research scientist proved quite difficult. For one, I wasn’t working in a field I had training in (I started out working on catalysts while my training was in spectroscopy), so I was immediately faced with learning the field on top of learning how to work within a corporation. At least I was working in the corporate research laboratory so I didn’t have too much product pressure on me, but the goal remained to make the company money, a goal that I soon learned didn’t mesh well with my own motivations. I still don’t know why the company kept me on past my first year or two, though it might have had something to do with a management potential they saw in me based on the volunteer work I was doing with an internal organization helping young scientists like myself get acclimated to the organization and also for the local section of the American Chemical Society. (I’d joined the latter because I realized that building a network of colleagues would be essential to my obtaining another position should the company come to its senses and get rid of me.) I think it also had something to do with the wealth pump of empire still being functional at that time. They could afford to keep me on while they and I figured out what kind of research I could do that would benefit them, even if it took a few years. I was at least improving their workforce diversity, if nothing else. 

A friend of mine within the corporation had told me early on that one of the big hurdles facing many graduating students upon entering the work force was finding a goal to strive for. During our student years we didn’t have to think hard about what our purpose was, as the degree we worked toward provided an obvious goal. Once we began paid employment, however, we were faced with finding motivation within ourselves and setting goals based on that, not always an easy thing to do. He was right. The only thing motivating me for the first few years was keeping enough money flowing in to afford the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. In due course I had a car and a condo as well as the job and the volunteer work. I’d achieved everything I had worked for to that point: I was supporting myself. Problem was, I was miserable. Besides not enjoying the work and not doing an especially good job at it, I hated being inside an office or laboratory for so many hours. Though I endeavored to spend as much time on the weekends as I could with friends, at area gardens and parks, or riding my bicycle in the nearby river bottomland or on day tours, I could not get away from the knowledge that I’d have to be back in the lab come Monday morning. My life was dominated by paid employment and the extracurricular activities I had to engage in to keep that employment, activities which were increasingly at odds with anything I found meaningful or even enjoyable.

It was a setup for a crisis. That crisis hit when I turned thirty. While it was precipitated by a series of poor relationship choices, the problems went much deeper that that. By that time I was far from living in alignment with my values. To get back on track I needed help from a therapist to see how a deep sense of not being “good enough” propagated into my choices in all of life. I was grateful to be earning enough money to afford the therapy and in enough of a crisis to be willing to do the personal work needed to face some of my shadow aspects. During the course of the therapy, I met the man who was to become my husband at the home of mutual friends. The connection was instant, but it took the insights I gained through therapy to not screw things up when the relationship got serious fast. We were married eight months after we met.

Mike’s background is quite different from mine. While I grew up in a solidly middle class household, Mike comes from working class stock. Though his high school counselor wanted him to go to college, Mike had had quite enough of formal schooling by the time he graduated from high school. After a few years of working for small camera stores, he went to trade school and got a degree as an electrician, turning that into a factory maintenance position with an even larger multinational corporation than the one I worked for. Mike had the good sense to not get his identity tied up with his job. He put in his time at work and did a good-enough job. His off-work hours were spent on his varied personal interests, including music and reading (he’s always enjoyed learning when he can choose the subject). He’d bought a small house in the North County suburb where he’d grown up, only because he was tired of continuous increases in apartment rents, not because he had a big desire to own a house. The house came cheap because it needed a lot of cosmetic work. Mike had gotten the required work done to bring it to code but didn’t have sufficient motivation to do the cosmetic work. When we became engaged and started to discuss where we were going to live, Mike proposed a deal: I could decide on whatever kind of work I wanted done on his house if I would be willing to move there. He had no interest in living in my condo in West County, a much too middle class area for his taste. Generally in a situation like this both parties sell their respective dwellings and buy a different house together, but we knew his house would not sell quickly or for much money while my condo was nearly new and much more salable. I liked the idea of moving into his house, not just because of the chance to take charge of the details of the cosmetic work and because I could finally have a small garden of my own, but because living in Jennings would be a chance to get out of the middle-class rut I’d gotten myself into. The decision to sell my condo and move into his house was to have much farther reaching consequences than either of us could have guessed at the time.

It looks like I’ll need more than three parts to tell this story and that it will drag on into January. So be it. I remember I promised to discuss low-cost ways to start seeds and it’s about time for that post as well; if need be I’ll interrupt the ongoing story for the seed-starting post.