International Women’s Day

This past week, leading up to International Women’s Day (today), the Canada Aviation and Space Museum tweeted about some Canadian women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs.

While I don’t work in STEM myself, I feel strongly that girls should be encouraged to go into these fields. One of the best ways to do that is to make them aware of all the trailblazers who have gone before. Incidentally, this was the premise of last night’s episode of The Big Bang Theory. The joke was that the female scientists spoke to a classroom full of girls on the phone from Disneyland, where they were dressed as princesses and fighting over who got to be Cinderella.

I remember when Roberta Bondar went to space. I was in Grade 7 at the time. Because she was the first Canadian woman astronaut, it made the news and was talked about at school. Other than that, though, I didn’t hear a lot about women in STEM jobs growing up. My own mother was a teacher and then a librarian, and I credit her with my lifelong love of books and writing. Aunts, grandmothers, female friends of our family — if they worked outside the home, they were secretaries, hairdressers or store clerks.

I loved to read and write, but from a young age, I was also very interested in computers. I was good with them, too. I took programming in high school, and each year there were fewer and fewer girls in the class. In the most advanced class, there was just one other in a group of 20 students. And the teacher, a middle-aged man, definitely treated the two of us differently than the boys — in the handsy, borderline-inappropriate way that really discourages girls from doing things like staying after school for extra instruction.

When I got to university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet. My school required first-year students to take at least two math/science credits and two arts/humanities credits. So I took the entry-level courses in algebra, computer science, English, film studies and women’s studies. I enjoyed comp sci, but again, there were very few young women in that room. And I was shy. I thought about taking more courses in my subsequent years, but I baulked at the idea of doing group projects with all men.

So in second year, I declared a combined major in English and women’s studies, and that’s the degree I got. Sexual politics weren’t the only reason for that choice, but they were a factor.

Setting aside the fact that I never actually went into a career related to my degree, I wonder if I would have had the courage to pursue comp sci if I had had different role models as a child, or if I had had better experiences in high school computer classes. (Not that the teachers were all pervy; just the one.)

One of my best friends is an actuary and very successful in her field, and she and I came from very similar backgrounds, right down to what our parents did for a living, and have similar minds (in my opinion; she might not agree with that). Why did she take her aptitude for math and statistics to its natural conclusion, while I didn’t? Was it the influence of one or more teachers in the K-12 years, determined by pure chance? Was it that she was involved in Girl Guides? Or was I just overly hung up on the gender of classmates, something that seems not to have bothered her?

All kids need to be encouraged to pursue whatever job they think they’d like and to be aware of all the different options. But girls, in particular, need to know that there are and have been many successful women in fields that are traditionally male dominated. As I said last week, I am so disheartened by the thought that any child would name a reality TV star as their role model, because in general, in my opinion, those people are not modelling values or behaviour that are good for society as a whole. Ditto for a large portion of entertainers. But brains? Innovation? Critical thinking? Environmental awareness? These are qualities we need, and need to promote, for the continued health and strength of our whole species.

Looking to the stars

Actress Anne Hathaway

Photo by Jenn Deering Davis, used under Creative Commons

My local paper recently ran a story about a teenage girl, Celeste Templeman, who died of a brain tumour. One of her dying wishes was to meet a number of entertainment stars, including Anne Hathaway, Celine Dion and Robin Williams. Each of these celebrities granted her request, either by phone, Skype or emailed video greetings.

I have such mixed feelings about this.

On one hand, it’s great that these celebrities responded to this girl. The article doesn’t say how they were contacted but there isn’t any mention of a group like the Make a Wish Foundation being involved, so ostensibly the family contacted the celebrities independently — possibly through social media, since that’s the easiest way to get a message to anyone you don’t know nowadays.

On the other hand, I can’t help being sadly disappointed that this is how a young person chose to spend the end of her life. When she found out she only had weeks left, Celeste’s mother told her she could do anything she wanted. “Top of the teenager’s bucket list were celebrities she was desperate to meet,” the newspaper article says. Desperate to meet. This kid was given carte blanche (well, I’m sure budget was a factor, but still) and her number one priority is to talk to famous people. The article doesn’t mention a single other item on the so-called bucket list. Continue reading

What planet is that?

I saw this picture over on National Geographic today, and I was like, Holy crap! That can’t be real!

It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. But actually, it’s an underground cave in Mexico, full of selenite crystals. Amazing, isn’t it?

So that’s what my hair would look like in space

A lot of the things I tweet and post about are things I wish were required reading/viewing for kids. (Too bad thekidshouldseethis.com is already taken.) Here’s a prime example: a 25-minute video tour of the International Space Station, recorded by astronaut Sunita Williams on her last day as commander of the station in November of last year.

Watching this, I felt a sense of awe — almost bordering on jealousy — at the idea of looking down every day and seeing the entire earth outside the window, and of zipping around like Superman in the weightlessness of space. I would truly love to experience that myself. That being said, the ISS is pretty claustrophobic. The astronauts sleep in little closets, almost like coffins, the very sight of which made me a little twitchy. And don’t even get me started on the close quarters of the Soyuz vehicle that carries crew members to and from Earth. The whole thing is an interesting blend of freedom and restriction.

Oh, and I really don’t care for the idea of peeing into a vacuum hose.

Money off for good behaviour

Used and dirty cup, plate and sliverware

Photo by Flickr user Chellbie. Used under Creative Commons License

Last week I read about the Washingon state restaurant that gave a discount to a family with well-behaved kids. There seem to be two camps in the responses to this:

1. “Hurrah!”

2. “Since when do you get rewarded for basic parenting?”

I understand the rationale behind #2, but I have to side with #1 on this. I applaud this restaurant and any other businesses who go out of their way to recognize good behaviour in kids. In theory, we shouldn’t have to do it, but the reality (however disheartening)- is that a heck of a lot of kids are badly behaved. Why not throw a bone to the ones who aren’t, and their parents too?

Maybe I should have started this post with a disclaimer: I don’t have kids of my own and I never will. So maybe you’ll argue that I don’t have any right to an opinion on this subject either way, as I have no idea how hard it is to be a parent. That’s true; I don’t. But if it’s difficult (and I have no doubt that it is), isn’t that all the more reason to encourage the brave souls who are somehow getting it right?

To me, it comes down to respect for other people. That’s what’s lacking in those kids who push and jostle other customers, who don’t say “please” or “thank you,” who don’t use their inside voices — those kids haven’t been taught or encouraged to respect their fellow patrons or the wait staff. Maybe their parents are trying but not quite succeeding, or maybe they don’t have that respect themselves. This particular restaurant chose to let the King family know that their demonstration of respect was noticed and appreciated (and hey, if the discount encourages the Kings to eat there again, it’s a win-win).

Not to get all “pay it forward” on you, but don’t you think positive reinforcement is a wonderful thing?

Colouring on the walls

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Although I bought these posters (from Ron Guyatt on Etsy) back in June, I only just got around to framing and hanging them recently. These are three of the most remarkable geological features on Mars — the Valles Marineris, the Seven Sisters, and Olympus Mons. They make me smile every time I walk down the hall, much more than the black and white photos of New York that previously hung there. Sometimes they make me think of the Sarcastic Rover and then I smile some more.

And here’s another wall in my home:

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I’m not really sure about this yet. I wanted to try something different and colourful, and I wanted to incorporate artwork that the Ns have made for me. The mirrors are from Ikea, part of the ongoing effort to make the apartment brighter. Mirrors are supposed to bounce light around, right? Maybe you’re not supposed to put them up so high.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is coming

Logo for Bell Let's Talk DayThis coming Tuesday, February 12, is Bell Let’s Talk Day in Canada. Intended to raise awareness and start conversations about mental health, this initiative is being advertised in radio and TV commercials featuring a woman executive recording her outgoing voicemail message for work. It’s a pretty standard message — I’m not here, leave a message, for immediate assistance dial whatever.

It’s her voice that’s notable. It’s shaky. Like she might be about to cry. In the TV ads, she hangs up and just stands there, breathing unevenly. The voiceover tells us that 500,000 Canadians miss work every day because of mental health issues. The scene is all too familiar to me (minus the executive part) and conjures up the memory of standing outside my apartment building one morning in December 2008, waiting for the carpool to pick me up, tears streaming down my face, unable to stop them no matter how many times I told myself there was nothing to cry about.

I didn’t end up going to work that day. I missed about three weeks over a two-month span (as well as my family’s Christmas party and a cousin’s wedding) before I got my anxiety under control.

On Tuesday, Bell will donate 5 cents to Canadian mental health initiatives for every text message sent and long distance call made by a subscriber. They’ll also donate for every tweet using #BellLetsTalk and every share of the event logo on Facebook.

I encourage everyone to participate, both in the fundraising and in the conversation. Half the reason I couldn’t go to work those days was the fear (I actually just typed “knowledge” there, but changed it) that I would face negative repercussions if I were caught crying at my desk. Even after the dust settled and I was functioning “normally” again, I avoided talking to co-workers about why I missed those days. I assumed they wouldn’t understand, that they would hold it against me.

But we need to talk about this stuff. The more we talk, the less power it has over us. It’s not a shameful thing to be affected by mental health problems. I shouldn’t be ashamed to say I’m taking medication for anxiety. My co-workers, friends and family shouldn’t be hesitant to ask me about it. Let’s get it all out in the open.

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