‘Women Systematically Underestimate Their Own Abilities’

A while back, I read The New Yorker profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and one of the top female technology executives in the world. In the piece, Sandberg bemoaned the low numbers of women in the upper echelons of business. At the time, the sentiment irked me, in two ways.

  • First, the article kind of glossed over the fact that there are increasing amounts of women in positions of power, maybe just not in the high-paid tech sector. And it’s been this way for decades — I grew up in a city where most of my teachers were female, my principals were all female, the mayor was female and my state’s governor was female. After college, most of my managers have been female, from my direct editor all the way up to CEO (I’m  looking at you Janet Robinson).
  • Second, why should women want to be executives? Sure, the pay may be good — some would say obscene (I’m again looking at you Janet Robinson) — but the lifestyle? Meh. Take it or leave it. It was created by and for men….ever watch Mad Men? Wall Street? What good comes from that? This is an idea echoed by Penelope Trunk, who says women simply don’t aspire to be like Sandberg, although Trunk’s premise is more that women value family life more than men, and my premise is more that my life is too short to work 100 hours a week, at least when working means sitting at a computer and not photographing seals or eating chiles en nogada.

But then I watched Sandberg’s TED conference talk this week. And while I didn’t feel moved to become an executive (and may never), I did start to realize she’s at least partially correct about why women aren’t running more companies. One line in particular made me wince.

“Women,” Sandberg said, “systematically underestimate their own abilities.”

Looking back at my own career, this has been my repeated problem. Sandberg, in her research, no doubt read Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, which is a male professor’s perspective on witnessing this play out in real life, and both of them are dead-on about this sad little difference between the sexes.

I wish I could say “no more,” that I’m going to slay this self-deprecating beast and risk letting the world call me a success-hungry bitch (as Sandberg notes in her speech, this is the risk women take, as “success” and “likability” are only positively correlated for men, not women).

But no, I don’t think that will happen, at least not yet. For now, I’m simply trying to make myself more conscious of the kind of thinking that can hold women back sometimes. After all, even if I don’t want to be CEO, it’d be nice to offered the job. Because I don’t suck, but try telling that to me.

Thanks to Sara Rosso for forcing me to look inward.

(Also, for an interesting read on the digital navel-gazing love fest that is TED, see: Those Fabulous Confabs)

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Harbor Seals

Thank goodness for the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which passed way back in 1972. Before then, harbor seals were killed simply because they competed with the fish stock for humans. Now, thanks to MMPA, they’re coming back, feasting on herring and hanging out at tiny Swinburne Island and Hoffman Island just off the Verrazano Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Princess Cruises runs winter weekend trips to these man-made islands, which were built back in the 1800s to house sick immigrants. It’s a bit of a haul to get to Riis Point near Rockaway Beach (a car is basically essential), but well worth the $25, especially if, like me, you love to see wild seals frolicking within distance of the Statue of Liberty and one of the world’s most human-filled areas. The side bonus to going on one of these cruises is that they support data collection on the local seal population, allowing naturalist (and seal enthusiast) Paul Sieswerda to keep track of how the pinnipeds are doing (which include not just harbor seals, but also grey, ringed, harp and hooded seals).

The risk, though, is you have no idea how many seals you will see — nor whether they’ll be hauled out for a full-body view or swimming and  bobbing up and down in the distance, watching you watching them. While we saw a lot of seals today (or so it seemed like) most were very far away. Still, I got a few good shots thanks to my extreme zoom lens.

The trip takes you right by Coney Island and the Wonder Wheel.

Creepy Swinburne Island, home to decrepit buildings and probably the ghosts of immigrants. That's Staten Island in the background.

Seal! Seal!

Amiga Diana on the first floor of the boat, watching seals.

Probably my best photo of the seals.

Here, they're turned around, watching the gull. The gulls are notorious for stealing the herring from the seals.

A seal in the rays of sun. See his whiskers?

Also: ducks.

For Just $2,300 (!) a Month, a Luxury ‘Fart Fan’ Apartment in Astoria

It’s no secret that new apartment developments in Astoria and greater Queens are often lessons in poor design, high rent, and extreme-amenity hyperbole, especially those labeled “luxury.” In fact, we have several blogs dedicated to these sad facts, among them Astoria Ugly and Queens Crap.

But I got a fresh reminder this week when I asked my architect friend John to look at some photos of a new apartment listing in Astoria (more pics/info here, too).

The kitchen photo shows what, at first glance, looks like a really nice kitchen (compared to the usual NYC fare). But as I looked at the photo for an extra half-second, I noticed the dishwasher and stove are immediately adjacent to each other, meaning they can’t be open at the same time, ever. But there was no apparent reason for this major design flaw, as there is tons of room on the other side of the sink, where a dishwasher would fit in nicely to a logical, ergonomic left-to-right flow as you load dishes from the oven/stove > sink >dishwasher.

A white dishwasher smashed up next to a stainless steel stove. (Photo: Trulia.com)

Still, overall, to an untrained eye, the kitchen does look nice — a giant fridge, dishwasher and a washer/dryer are hard to come by in NYC. (Of course, all of you who don’t live here are perhaps coughing up your last meal at the rental price of $2,300 a month for a one-bedroom.)

When I showed John this, he let loose with a keen assessment. It should be noted that some of this is speculation on his part, as he tries to surmise the “whys” behind the bad design.

“It looks like a large column is in the corner, along with some plumbing & HVAC chases, so they wanted to keep everything close to it (bad detailing with the counter and backsplash, by the way). However, the dishwasher may have been originally located under that bar or on the other side of the sink. Somewhere in the construction process, the plumber may have goofed or the owner got cheap (more than likely) to run piping and drainage that far from the chases.”

But Wait, There’s More — a Fart Fan!

Another kitchen view shows a different apartment with a dishwasher to the left of the sink. Yay. But it still has issues I never would have spotted without John's help. (Photo: Trulia.com)

I think they started to run out of money, judging by the standard white finish of the DW and stainless steel of the other appliances, which also makes me think they were afterthoughts to begin with…There’s no fume hood over the stove, just a bathroom-style “fart fan” exhaust (yep, that’s a contractor term) up on the ceiling by the column (the little square thing in the ceiling, again, an afterthought).

And, notice how cheap the millwork is. Concealed hinges are nice, but the angled upper cabinet by the end bar is just out of place. How does one reach up into it?

Lastly, if you look at the listings, you’ll see it comes with a big patio — also a “luxury” detail since private outdoor space is rare in NYC. However, for inexplicable reasons, the developers decided to glass in the patio.

As John said, this also makes no sense: “Yeah, that won’t get hot in July.”

Who Made Chiles en Nogada? I Did! I Did!

Me, back in 2009, enjoying two of my favorite things in Mexico: Micheladas and chiles en nogada in Coyoacan, Mexico. I can now proudly say I know how to prepare both at home, here in Bland Yankeelandia.

I did it.

I successfully replicated my favorite Mexican dish, chiles en nogada. For those of you unfortunate to have never sampled the glory, it’s a poblano pepper stuffed with ground pork, onions, dried apricots, walnuts, raisins, apples, tomatoes, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, oregano and thyme, then topped with a crema sauce made of cream cheese, sour cream, walnuts and cinnamon. Lastly, a heaping of pomegranate seeds are poured on top.

Spicy, salty, savory, sweet, crunchy, creamy, it’s everything delicious in the world, on a platter.

This dish is intentionally red, white and green. Unlike many popular foods in Mexico, chiles en nogada didn’t spring from Pre-Hispanic traditions or the influence of outside cultures like Spain. No, instead, the dish was created by a group of nuns in Puebla trying to honor Mexico’s new-found independence. (Hence the patriotic colors.) Not only did the dish warm the hearts of the new nation’s citizens, now, many years later, it is served all over Mexico around Sept. 16 (“diez y seis”). It is still a beloved part of the culture, almost 200 years later, for good reason.

When I first tried it not long after moving to Mexico, my eyes nearly rolled up in my head: I had died and gone to food heaven!  I wrote a very emphatic blog post about it: If You See Chiles en Nogada on the Menu, Order It! After that, it became my go-to dish when I wasn’t sure what I wanted, as even half-hearted efforts were still quite amazing.

We moved back to New York in 2010. It seems with each passing month, while certain memories fade away, others get more gnawing, especially the food ones. So, rather than bitching/waiting around for us to finally have the opportunity to go back (either to visit or to live — something we contemplate doing again, all the time), I decided to try and make my own chiles en nogada, with my friend Concetta.

And it was a success, nowhere near as difficult as I thought it would be. We used The Homesick Texan‘s relatively simple recipe, but had to make one big change — we couldn’t find any pomegranates (full disclosure: we didn’t try that hard), so we used dried cranberries. No, not quite the same, but tangy and red enough to step in for pomegranates. This version of the recipe was easy to replicate in a small Queens kitchen, but if you’d like to see a step-by-step on the real deal, check out The Mija Chronicles’ How to Make a Proper Chile en Nogada.

The first step is the hardest — blistering the poblano’s skin over an open fire. Homesick Texan recommends a broiler, we used tongs and the gas flame:

Then, lacking paper bags or Zip-locs big enough for peppers, we loosely wrapped each of them in foil, and let them steam for 20 minutes. (After that, you rub off their charred skin, which was easy.) While the peppers steamed, we mixed up the stuffing:

Both of us knew it was going to be good when we couldn’t stop eating right out of the skillet. While Concetta monitored the stuffing, I threw together the walnut cream sauce in the blender.

Last step: Slice open the poblanos, remove the seeds, and stuff them. Place on a dish, and pour walnut sauce on top, and sprinkle with cilantro and pomegranate seeds (or crasins). The peppers by now will not be hot, but that’s normal — it’s supposed to be served at room temperature.

Pat self on back, and eat (once you’re done photographing your bounty, of course):

And another view, aimed for your mouth.

Goodbye, Lavon

Brendan and Lavon pick blueberries in Wisconsin.

Just a few weeks after the loss of my uncle Steven, my family experienced another loss — my aunt Martha’s mother, Lavon, died from breast cancer. She was 80.

I’m not sure how Lavon is technically related to me (my aunt married my Dad’s brother, does that make Lavon my great aunt? Grandmother-in-law once removed?), but that is, of course, not important. In recent years, I was fortunate to get to know Lavon well. First, when I worked at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as a medical reporter — Lavon was a volunteer at Driscoll Children’s Hospital, so I would run into her from time to time when I was out reporting.  Then, in 2007, we had a big family vacation up at Brendan’s parents’ cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin — my parents, Martha, Steven and Lavon all came.

We did a lot of the fun Wisconsin summer staples, picking blueberries and raspberries, going out on the lake in the pontoon boat, visiting a historic fur trading site, eating fry bread, and kayaking. Lavon joined us for all of this.

Yes, even kayaking. Lavon was 75 at the time, and when I expressed some hesitation in her going with us down the St. Croix River, she was insistent.

“My kids wouldn’t let me go kayaking when we all went on the cruise to the Yucatan, and I was so mad!” she said, referring to a recent Mexico trip she had taken with some of her children and grandchildren. “I’ll be fine!”

Well, OK, I thought, crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

And, boy, did Lavon prove me wrong — she and Martha shared a kayak, and she did fantastic. Never underestimate a 75-year-old woman determined to cross an item off her life list.

That summer was also just a few months before we moved to Mexico City. Lavon — having lived in Bolivia, Chile and Mexico while raising her 5 children — was perhaps the person in my life most excited about my upcoming move.  When some family members were more than a little anxious about us moving south of the border, it was Lavon who brushed away the anxieties. And again, she was right: Living in Mexico City was a dream, one of the best decisions we ever made.

Thank you Lavon, for teaching me these things, and for being a wonderful person to everyone who met you. We’ll miss you.