Friday, May 10, 2019

Election Results

Ironwood High School Homecoming Parade, 1996

After conveying in my last post how important I believe it is for girls to participate in student government, I thought I would share the story of my own high school campaign.

At the end of my junior year, I talked myself into running for student body president and decided to file early, knowing I could just as easily talk myself out of it.

Applications became available on a Monday morning. I picked one up before school, quickly collected the requisite signatures, then waited anxiously for Friday's deadline, wondering who would file to run against me.

The week dragged on with no news, and by Thursday afternoon I was still uncontested and breathing a sigh of relief. No one to run against meant no campaigning. No posters. No speech. No self promotion or trying to convince anyone I was a superior choice. This might have been bad news for the democratic process, but it was great for my limited comfort zone.

And then at the eleventh hour, on Thursday afternoon, a baseball player showed up on his way to practice to throw his hat into the ring. He had been recruited by the student government advisors to run, and they couldn't have picked a better candidate. He was popular and well-liked. Smart. Good looking. Quarterback of the football team. Kind to animals. I was toast.

It's remarkable how quickly a person can turn from reluctant dreamer to Tracy Flick, but that's exactly what happened to me. For every poster he hung, I hung five. I crafted and distributed 500 neon paper neckties with my slogan on them. Did you know that six rolls of butcher paper will cover an entire wall of the cafeteria? Neither did I, until he decided to mess with me.

As the week went on he campaigned casually, maintaining the breezy demeanor of someone who was only running because he'd been asked to. I, on the other hand, was sleepless. Think Hilary Clinton in October, when the Access Hollywood tape hasn't deterred Trump and Comey suddenly decides to investigate your emails. I lobbied the cheerleaders, rallied in the quad, and delivered my speech like Winston Churchill before the House of Commons.

In the end it all paid off I suppose, although I was too exhausted to even enjoy the victory. My opponent conceded and congratulated me like a gentleman. I thanked him, and apologized for hiring someone to run over his dog. I'm kidding!

A month into my term however, there were fireworks. Literally. My vice-president, whom I will call "Phillip" was implicated in a scandal that involved the homecoming bonfire and dynamite, and asked to step down from office. Looking back on it all, I gotta give Philip the credit he deserves. The bonfire incident made for a night none of us will ever forget, and as a politician if you're going to go down in flames, why not literally go down in flames?

After the ashes settled, the student government advisors were tasked with filling his vacancy, and decided to do so by appointment. Their choice was obvious - The guy who had run against me. He accepted the position and was sworn into office. We shook hands, buried hatchets, and posed for this official yearbook student government photo which, for reasons I honestly can't remember, we thought would turn out best if we stood behind dead bushes.

As the year progressed, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this vice president and I actually worked really well together. So well in fact that at the end of the year he asked me to prom.

And four years after that, asked me to marry him.

This month marks twenty-three years since that campaign, and there's still no one I'd rather have as my second in command.

Friday, April 26, 2019


It's student government election season at my daughter's middle school. Because no proper American campaign is without a good controversy, I always find myself instinctively trying to sniff one out - even if it is among ninth grade candidates whose chances hinge on how much glitter they use in their cafeteria posters.

In the case of this campaign however, controversy presented itself without any effort at all.

The election process began a couple weeks ago, when all interested students were encouraged to fill out an application that included teacher recommendations and questions about their qualifications. Next, each applicant was interviewed by two teachers and asked to role play scenarios that included, for instance, how they might help a new student feel welcome on campus.

Of the applicants, these teachers were tasked with selecting four finalists to appear on the ballot, two of which would then be elected officers by popular vote of the student body.

On the day the applicants were notified who had been selected, I happened to be on campus. It was after school, and an administrator announced over the loudspeaker that anyone who applied for student government should report for the results. Always a sucker for breaking news, I followed a few of them to watch. I should note here that my daughter was not among the applicants, so I was able to observe what happened next from a pretty objective standpoint.

Thirty students had applied. As they entered the room they were each given a sealed envelope that revealed whether they had been selected or not. Four emerged with congratulation letters. All of them boys. Every girl - and the majority of applicants were girls - was rejected. Smart girls. Kind girls. Well-liked girls. National Junior Honor Society girls. All of whom will be casting votes next week on a boys-only ticket.

I tried so hard not to let this bother me. I really did. I went through all kinds of justifications in my mind, about how the deciding teachers must have known more than I did, or maybe the boys really were more qualified than the girls. I reminded myself that I wasn't a fan of gender politics anyway.

In the end however, I couldn't shake the feeling that a mistake had been made, and wrote the following letter to the principal.

Dear Principal (--) ,

I'm the parent of a 9th grader and am writing, first, to express my appreciation for efforts that have been made at (--) Middle School to encourage female students. I applaud your decision to participate in SheTech, and display empowering messages throughout campus. It has been wonderful to have a female principal who serves as such a positive role model for girls of confidence, leadership, and what is possible.

I also wanted to respectfully convey my disappointment upon hearing that only boys were chosen to appear on the student government ballot this year. I worry that in denying female representation, you have missed a great opportunity to send an encouraging message to all of your female students, whether they have political ambitions or not.

As you're aware, women are decidedly underrepresented in politics at both the local and national levels. When they do run for office, they are just as likely as men to win their elections. The reason they are so underrepresented is because they are far less likely to run in the first place. Two of the most frequently cited explanations for this are the fact that females are less likely than their male counterparts to be encouraged to run, and that they are less likely to consider themselves capable of doing so.

It takes a lot of courage for girls in middle school to decide to run for student office. Presenting them with a boys-only ballot could perpetuate their self doubt, and make them less likely to consider it as an option for themselves. It's discouraging enough when boys self-select more frequently than girls, but particularly disheartening when teachers are the ones who have done the selecting.

I hope that in the future, you will consider ensuring that those who oversee this process take advantage of the opportunity to empower young girls to perceive themselves as capable of campaigning and holding leadership positions on campus.  So often what happens in school can shape what happens in real life.

Thank you,
Katie Erb

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Donde esta tu aguijon?

Atonement by Kate Lee 

My Dad didn't speak Spanish, but that never stopped him.

He was convinced that the Portuguese he learned decades earlier on a mission to Brazil, and subsequently forgot, qualified him to strike up a conversation with every Hispanic we encountered at the grocery store, library, restaurants, etc. I have many memories of their patient smiles as they tried to understand his commentary on the weather or last night's Sun's game in Portuspanglish.

When he was given an ongoing assignment to address Spanish-speaking congregations of our church, he refused the interpreter that was offered him. Rather, he preferred to write out his messages in English on a large yellow legal pad and pass them off to my brother Jeff, who was fluent in Spanish and would interpret for him. He always began those talks by joking that if people didn't love what he had to say, it was because Jeff had translated it wrong.

One spring, Jeff was handed the usual yellow lined paper to interpret and said that as he did so one particular phrase seemed to jump off the page. "Donde esta oh muerte tu aguijon?" Translated, this means, "Oh death, where is thy sting?" For a long time after, he said, that phrase kept coming back to him. "Donde esta oh muerte tu aguijon?"

Seven months later, Dad was suddenly gone. When I look back on that blurry time, of receiving the news, the funeral, and sorting through our unexpected loss, one memory that stands out to me is how peaceful Jeff was. He was Dad's firstborn, only son, and favorite teammate. I knew the loss for him was devastating and yet he was so composed, and calm. Sad, but strong.

I found out later, after he told me of this experience, that one of the reasons for his inexplicable peace was the echoing of this question asked by Paul to the Corinthians, "Oh death, where is thy sting?"

Death is a lot of things. It can be confusing. Sad. Lonely. Heartbreaking. But the sting of it was taken away on Easter. On Easter, Christ emerged from the tomb, overcame death, and promised that we will too.

Much like my dad's attempts to converse in Spanish, I find myself inadequate to express exactly what this means to me, but willing to try.

Estoy agradecido.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Plastic Eggs & Deadly Plagues

March 2011 

The kids and I went grocery shopping at Safeway this morning and when we were finished, decided to browse through the Easter display.

I was sifting through the shelves - and half ignoring their desperate requests for jelly beans, stuffed chicks and chocolate bunnies - when Cal hands me this.

I beg your pardon?

I read the label again, confirming that yes, that there was a bag of PLAGUES. Who knew? The calamities suffered by the Egyptians? The disease, the darkness, the locusts…Turns out those weren’t just the wrath of God unleashed on Pharaoh. Those are toys you can put in your child’s Easter basket.

And I for one could not resist. I had just told the kids we didn’t have enough money for popsicles, then I turned around and tossed a bag of plagues into the cart.

The fun started at the register. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but I loved seeing “bag of plagues” on my grocery receipt, right between “Tostitos” and “parmesan cheese.”

Now let’s take a look inside -

First, we find the usual items one would expect in a child’s bag of plagues. Blood, lice, locusts, wild beasts…

Then of course there are boils. 

Most kids today have never even heard of boils, and I think it's high time they learned. Boil Handz could be the next Silly Bandz.

The cow is cute, but don’t be fooled.

He is diseased.

The frog? Not diseased. Leah loved the frog.

Until I told her to imagine millions of him, overflowing the neighbor’s pool, filling up the streets, spilling through our windows and into her bedroom….

Fun's over.

Here is Cal, plagued by darkness...

The bag also contains a puzzle,

Which will go in Jolie’s basket, obviously.

She might be disturbed at first, but rest assured I can comfort her with stories of people slaying innocent lambs, slathering their blood above the door, and then listening to the deafening wail of Egyptians whose firstborns had been killed. Sweet dreams, darling, that is the final plague. 

The label promises that all 10 are “Fun & Educational,” and I would have to agree. I think another selling point are the kinds of arguments these toys are likely to prompt among siblings (“Quit touching my boils!” “Take the lice out of your mouth!!” “Where’d you hide the blood??” etc.). With a little luck, these kinds of exchanges will occur in public.

I highly recommend offering up the $5.49 sacrifice. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bruce at Smiths

There is a real-life rockstar in my neighborhood.

His concerts are the hottest ticket in town. He has over 20,000 followers on Facebook, with a loyal core of groupies who thumbs-up nearly every post. Fans of his never turn down his invitations to happy hour, and have been known to line up before sunrise for a chance to score some of his swag. He can hardly go anywhere locally without being recognized or asked for a selfie.

Who is this celebrity?

He's Bruce, Assistant Manager at Smith's Marketplace in West Jordan.

Bruce has worked in the grocery business for 35 years, and four years at this particular location.  If you doubt his celebrity status, ask yourself how many other grocers you know whose face is requested on children's birthday cakes -

Or whose likeness has been used as a Halloween costume -


I asked Bruce's assistant of four years, Jolyne Gailey, for his official job description, but it's hard to narrow down exactly what he does. (Did I mention he serenades customers with his trumpet in the produce department?). His role is to ensure that customers have a positive experience, but don't you dare call them customers. "I don't have customers," he has said. "I have friends who happen to need a few things at my job."

For four years Jolyne has watched those friendships form from the sidelines. Or rather, the deli section. People walk through the door looking for a particular produce or cut of meat, and leave with a genuine advocate. "For Bruce, there is no distinction between business and personal," she says. "Everything is personal to him."

She's not kidding about the blurred distinction. Bruce routinely comes to work early, leaves late, and rarely takes a day off. Recently however, he took his first vacation in years, to Calfornia, where he sent the employees back home pictures of himself at Disneyland and on the beach...In his apron and name tag.

"They brought me in to slow him down," Jolyne says with a laugh. "But no one can slow down Bruce." She said that he uses his job as a chance to silently watch for needs in the community, and then does whatever he can to meet them.

That silence is his charm. Bruce certainly hasn't campaigned for his celebrity. In fact, the attention seems to make him downright uncomfortable, but is the inevitable result of one single, positive interaction at a time.

Take his Facebook account, for instance. After Bruce received the site's maximum 5,000 friend requests, it became necessary to set up 'Bruce at Smith's,' a public page that currently has over 16,000 followers. Last week, among the photos of current cereal deals and soda discounts, he wrote a heartbreaking post about the sudden death of his sister. To the thousands who read it he began, "This is quite personal, but you are my friends, so I'm sharing it with you."

Scroll further through the page and you'll find an outpouring of public affection. Posts of gratitude for picking up someone's favorite Canadian soda, stocking Toy Story ice cream for their kids, or consoling someone's wife in the floral department after her father passed away.

But, just like life, some of the best examples of charity and goodwill can be found off of social media.

I asked my neighbors who shop his store for examples of his customer care, and was flooded with stories.  One friend shared about the time her granddaughter was upset after she missed seeing Bruce dressed as Santa, and when he heard about it showed up on her doorstep in costume.

Another had posted to Facebook that her son got stitches, and shortly after Bruce arrived with bags of his favorite candy.

There were meals delivered to sick parents, and meals delivered to healthy parents because they deserved a night off from cooking. He has brought presents to patients in the hospital, and played songs of celebration on his trumpet after successful surgeries.

When shoppers need something that isn't in stock, he will drive around town until he finds it. He assists with school and community fundraisers, and has walked customers to their cars on rainy days using patio umbrellas from the furniture department.

One mother shared, emotionally, that she was selected as a contest winner on what happened to be the anniversary of her child's death. When she received her prize from Bruce it was with the inspired message that "someone upstairs was shining down on her."

Another shared the time he stopped by her house because her kids had requested he help them build a fort.

All of this has resulted in a customer loyalty reminiscent of a different era. One woman drives 60 miles each way, every week, to shop Bruce's aisles. "It's his genuineness," says Jolyne. "You can't fake kindness like that for that long."

One of my favorite personal observations of Bruce has been the tours he provides for young children, which are in high demand for local kindergarten, preschool and Cub Scout groups. Even if you have nothing on your grocery list, it's worth a trip to the store during one of Bruce's tours just to hear the belly laughs of children when he tells them to close their eyes so he can sneak food from the shelves into their hands, or hides in the dairy fridge to moo like a cow.

And why should kids have all the fun? Every night Bruce and Jolyne host a free event for customers that include unlimited "happy hour" fountain drinks and and Slurpees, or bowls of cereal for the entire family. He hosts Price is Right for womens groups and daily Facebook giveaways with prizes that include delivering ice cream to your door, and washing dishes while he's there.

Bruce has also won a competition or two himself. He's been recognized on the local news and in national contests for his customer care but always gives away his prize winnings, and he takes the same approach to birthdays. If it's your birthday he'll give you free banana splits and a trumpet concert, but if you ask when his birthday is, he'll deflect and changes the subject.

Forgive me then, for publicizing that his birthday is today. But for a store manager who accepts returns as freely as he does, I don't think recognition should be any exception.

"Everyone knows him as 'Bruce at Smiths,'' says Jolyne. "But I like to remind him that Smith's doesn't define him. He's more than the apron and name tag. It's his love for people that defines him."

Friday, March 1, 2019

It's a World of Hope and a World of Fears

When the government shutdown ended last month, it was four days before I heard the news. This wasn't because I was uninterested or insensitive to it. We experienced a shutdown ourselves when we lived in DC and had quite a few friends affected this time around.  I had been pretty attuned to news of a compromise or reopening and yet when it did reopen it took me four days to realize it.

This was because I was at Disneyland, which brings me to the best thing about Disneyland.  It is that from the moment your feet touch the cobblestone on Main Street you lose all connection to the outside world. For the four blissful days we were there I didn't know or care what the date, day or time was, or what had been on my to-do list before we arrived. It didn't matter to me how much anything cost or how often we ate dessert. For once I didn't worry about what my kids were doing or who they were with, whether the federal government was open or closed, and even missed the four days when Jussie Smollett was a victim.

That Baloo is not kidding when he invites you to "forget about your worries and your strife."

This of course is all by design. Every inch of Disneyland - every sight, sound, and smell is meticulously imagineered to shelter you from the outside world and blanket you into a blissful, reassuring 1950's existence. There's a reason employees are referred to as "cast members." Their performances makes you feel safe and respected. Suddenly you're comfortable striking up a conversation with any random stranger. Trash and spills disappear instantly, and renovations and repairs are meticulously hidden from sight (with the exception of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, which looked like a prototype for Trump's border wall).

When I mentioned this immersive design to my 14-year old she said, "I know. I heard that if someone dies in Disneyland, they roll the body out of the park before pronouncing them dead." How magical!

It isn't a perfect system of course. On our second day there, we were standing outside Haunted Mansion when three military jets blasted by overhead. I felt a bit like Jim Carrey in the Truman Show when he found a camera hiding in his kitchen. What is this! Who am I? And yet, it was Disneyland. Even if the jets had been emblazoned with North Korean flags I probably would have just shrugged, bit into my churro, and wondered if it was time yet to fast pass Indiana Jones.

There was another jarring moment on our third day, when a man who rode Space Mountain after us climbed off it mid ride, and they shut it down for a week to investigate. Did you know that a woman was decapitated on the Matterhorn in 1984? Also in 1984, when I was five, Goofy used a photo op as an opportunity to grab by mom's behind. That's a true story, but it's hers to tell.

Anyway, one afternoon on this trip, my sister and I stopped at the Hungry Bear Restaurant for churro funnel cakes and Coke. We asked the cast member serving us where the straws were, and were told that they were "over there, if there are any left." She said that straws and lids have been eliminated from Disneyland and that once the current supply was depleted, they would not be replenished.

Upon hearing this, my sister grabbed a giant fistful of them to stockpile in her purse. We thought this was hilarious but our cast member didn't seem to appreciate the humor and told us, "You know, there is more plastic in the ocean than fish."

More plastic in the ocean than fish? Is she serious? Maybe on the Nemo ride, I thought, but didn't think she would appreciate that humor either.

I was curious after I got home, so I read the press release from the Walt Disney Company announcing that straws and lids were in fact being banned in 2019 as part of their "commitment to environmental stewardship." Several Disney Food blogs reported that the park is considering paper straws and sippy cup lids as an alternative, which I suppose is good news for anyone who visits hoping to feel like a kid again. Perhaps next they can tackle water conservation by strapping us all in diapers.

I am all for environmental stewardship, but this makes zero sense to me. Paper straws, aside from making you feel like you're sucking from a rolled up phone book page, cost ten times as much to produce as plastic straws. And what about the trees required to make them? And subsequent greenhouse gases, global warming, and other factors of environmental stewardship?

Then there is the sippy cup solution, which Starbucks has already enacted. These have to require at least ten times as much plastic to manufacture as a straw. Also, after Disneyland banned lids, cast members began receiving complaints of more frequent spills, so the park switched from their flimsy Dixie-manufactured cups to sturdier Solo ones, requiring twice as much paper. It's all a classic case of overregulation. One step forward, ten steps back.

I want clean oceans as much as Ariel. I would love for us to deflect the plastic from them, clean the air, and create a thriving environment for the next generation. But a ban on straws and lids is a proposal made in Fantasyland that's more effective as a headline-grabbing marketing campaign than sound environmental policy; another imagineered photo op designed to makes us feel good about ourselves.

Which I suppose is why we visit Disneyland in the first place.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Gender Disparity Barbie

Last week I found myself in the Barbie aisle at Walmart, picking out a present for my son's seventh birthday. Now, before anyone praises my noble attempt to eradicate gender stereotype with this particular gift choice, I'm afraid I have to steer you toward what I noticed in the clearance section while I was there.

Robot Engineer Barbie and Astronaut Barbie, both discounted. Suspicious, I asked the manager why certain Barbies were on clearance and not others, and was told that it was to clear an excess of inventory. In other words, these Barbies weren't selling.

Not on clearance?

Teacher Barbie, Babysitter Barbie, Music Teacher Barbie, and Gymnastics Coach Barbie.

This made me curious.

Limited by the research options available to suburban stay-at-home moms such as myself, I launched a further investigation the best way I knew how - in the form of an Instagram poll, requesting that my friends with daughters under age 12 ask them, in a non leading manner, which of four different career Barbies she would most like to play with.

Of 51 responses,

23 (45%) chose Babysitter Barbie
13 (25%) chose Teacher Barbie
8 (16%) chose Robot Engineer Barbie
7 (14%) chose Astronaut Barbie

Obviously, this wasn't a flawless study. Participants were limited to children of my Instagram friends, and the Babysitter and Teacher Barbies come with more accessories than the Engineer and Astronaut. But it was the best I could do. You're welcome to unravel it, but first please put in a good word for me at the Boston Globe so I can finally start conducting higher quality investigations.

I was also hoping to acquire official numbers from Mattel on the popularity of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career Barbies, but the only statistic I could find was a 15% drop in sales in 2017 when they took away her thigh gap and introduced "real" body types, but clearly that deserves its own separate blog post.

So while I may be attributing way too much meaning to the sale of a doll whose waist can't even accommodate internal organs, all of this made me think.

So much attention, money and effort is focused on narrowing the gender gap in STEM fields, and for very good reason. Women are undeniably underrepresented in science and engineering. While they make up about half of STEM bachelors degrees and graduate school enrollees, they hold only about 29% of related jobs in the field.

And it's certainly not because they are less capable. Female students consistently perform as well or better than male classmates in high school and college math.

So why the disparity?

Read any of thousands of speculative articles online, and you'll find the following most common explanations - Bias. Obstacles in schooling. Cultural stereotyping. Gender discrimination. Sexual harassment, etc. All are valid, and all obviously very concerning and worthy of addressing.

But what also concerns me is that so few seem willing to discuss what seemed so obvious to me in the Walmart Barbie aisle, and looking at the results of my homespun poll.

Maybe girls don't aspire to STEM careers because they don't want to.

I know it's so much more fun to blame the patriarchy, but I really think that empirically, you can't find a stronger argument. The research showing an inherent difference in interests between males and females is politically incorrect for sure, but it's also staggering. For instance -

Multiple studies have shown that newborn girls prefer looking at faces, while newborn boys prefer looking at mechanical things, like mobiles.

Also, babies as young as 9-months old prefer to play with toys stereotyed to their own gender, with infant girls showing a strong preference for dolls and cooking items, and boys selecting cars, toys, and shovels.

As for the disparity in job selection, it is fascinating to observe that in countries with the greatest gender equality in education and employment opportunities, women are actually far LESS likely to choose math and science professions.

Females also have more emotional brains, and surpass their male counterparts in verbal skills. All of this contributes to the fact that in general, women prefer working with people (physicians, teachers), while men prefer working with things (engineers, mechanics).

Of course, none of this is absolute. There are plenty of girls who would much rather play with a soccer ball than a baby doll and work with computers instead of children, and my own son asked for Barbies for his birthday.  But I'm not suggesting that we steer all girls away from STEM careers. I'm suggesting that when they steer themselves away, we don't treat it like a national crisis.

The National Science Foundation recently announced a campaign intended to "un-brainwash" girls and increase their chances of choosing STEM. I have a 14-year old daughter who wants to be an interior designer and homemaker, and has no interest in coding or robotics. Am I to assume she's been brainwashed?

Mabye the NSF should also un-brainwash these monkeys while they're at it.

And then there are campaigns that try to attract girls to the field with the message that their gender is underrepresented. LOL, as though this is motivating. Who makes career decisions based on what society needs? "Gosh, I really want to be a musician, but I suppose I can take one for the team and major in electrical engineering."

So should we continue to encourage them? Sure. Those who excel at math and science certainly deserve to understand their options. But if and when the majority continue to choose teaching, art, childcare, medicine, or public policy instead, I don't think it means we have failed them.

I think the measure of how well a society serves its girls and women is not how many of them are scientists and mathematicians. I think the measure of how well a society serves its girls and women is how many of them pursue what they're passionate about. Whatever that is. The girl who is passionate about starting her own tech company is no more valuable than the girl who is passionate about being a preschool teacher.

She's just luckier, because her preferred Barbie is cheaper.

Election Results

Ironwood High School Homecoming Parade, 1996 After conveying in my last post how important I believe it is for girls to participate ...