Nevertheless, She Persisted

Monday, February 27, 2017

When I'm not trying to do right by my spectrum kiddos or training for the next race or pouring my dream of published authorship into Scrivener, I'm writing for my clients.

I'm looking at you, Ikea.
©2014 Jeff Stahler
As a natural born writer and a geek with half an engineering degree, a technical communications degree and a biology degree, it isn't hard to guess which writing niche I fell into. Since most copywriters come from English, marketing or journalism type backgrounds, writers who can, for example, converse with a product design engineer and translate what she said into functional marketing copy, just aren't all that common.

I've been called "the best technical writer I ever met" by a senior marketing manager at an enormous global industrial firm. I am often sent resume referrals for C level executives, by C level executives. I know I'm good at my job. It took me almost 20 years of repeatedly being told that to catch on, but I know it now in a way the anxiety can't penetrate.


Every time a new medical or industrial client comes my way with a project, I hesitate.

Even after 20+ years of always understanding the material, and generally knocking it out of the park, I hesitate.

It just happened again.  I was offered a project writing a case study on a successful custom solution to a highly technical industrial process. And I hesitated. Because no matter how skilled I am, I can't stop wondering...what if this is the time it's too complicated for me to learn enough on the fly about a technology I haven't heard of and I can't do my job?

And, as happens every. single. time.... I opened the background materials and grasped the crux of the piece in less time than it takes to reheat my forgotten coffee.

I have thought about this at length.

I do think my anxiety disorder plays a part in this.  It plays a part in everything.

But after so many years being a woman in a technical job, I have become certain there is more going on here. Recent conversations with several women executives have reinforced my theory. (Real talk... we commiserated and had a good laugh at the male ego stroking and elevated performance level we have to maintain as a matter of basic professional survival.)

One the commercial side of my business, I work with mostly technical material from industrial firms.

On the resume side of my business, I work with mostly IT professionals, mid-upper level corporate managers, directors and C-suite executives.

Which is to say, I work with mostly men.

Tina the Technical Writer is my spirit animal
© 2012 Scott Adams, Inc.
As such, I have become accustomed to spending the early stages of any project convincing them I am qualified to even be speaking to them on the topic at hand. And to having them argue with many of my suggestions and decisions as projects go on, even on details squarely within my area of expertise.

It only recently occurred to me... after a rare and wonderful meeting with a group of all women managers in which we got right to work and everyone's professional competence was assumed up front...  that the average male consultant, having been referred by a mutual colleague as a subject matter expert who can solve the problem at hand, would not have to exert the kind of effort I do to establish credibility.

Several recent experiences also made me realize that men probably don't have to defend every decision they make when they were hired to make those decisions in the first place.

In contrast, my most recent experiences with women executives include being told they appreciate my professionalism, being told they were reassured by my obvious skill and competence, and being thanked for the great work I did.

I don't know why I'm only seeing the pattern now. Maybe because the landscape has changed enough over 20 years I've been able to work with more women. Maybe because I just watched an incompetent, narcissistic Twitter troll be elected over the most qualified candidate in history. Maybe because I just watched a woman get shut down trying to speak in the Senate when four men were allowed to read the exact. same. thing.

What I do know is that I need to stop reflexively questioning my own expertise simply because society has conditioned my clients to do so. I need to stop engaging in the emotionally undermining exercise of re-convincing myself I'm qualified to do my own job when it was never a real question to begin with.

I thought about it a lot, and decided how I'm going to move forward since having this epiphany.

I will keep on supporting every girls and women in STEM program I can find. Because the world can only benefit from more women working with each other at this level.

I will keep on supporting my peers as we roll our eyes at the systemic professional barriers we have to climb for less money and less recognition. Because we may know our own strength, but it sure is nice to share the burden once in a while with someone else who sees it for what it is.

I will keep on  having the audacity to be a woman who is really goddamn good at my job in a male dominated field.

Sensory Friendly Banana Bread Hack

Sunday, February 12, 2017

One of the most enduring lessons I learned in my Grandma's farm kitchen is that brown bananas = banana bread. Period. You don't waste them. You make them into something delicious.

I personally have expanded that to include scones and smoothies. But yeah, no. You don't throw away brown bananas. (And I secretly judge people who do.)

But. The problem with banana bread... especially my Grandma's banana bread... are the gooey chunks of banana throughout the bread, and the slimy wet ridge along the top.  (The woman could fry the hell out of a squirrel, but her baking left something to be desired.)

The old way.

I remember loving the bread's taste, yet trying not to gag on the bits that made the texture so very wrong.

Another issue is that a day later, quick breads start to get kind of wet and weird on the top crust and I just can't.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and I'm making banana bread for my kiddos. And my food texture sensory issues combined with their food texture sensory issues... something had to give.

I summoned my inner Alton Brown. I lit a candle at my shrine to Cook's Illustrated. I got to work.

There were three problems to solve. The first was easy. The second took some tinkering. The third was just application of an established concept. All solutions were simple and transferable to pretty much any quick bread recipe.

(Worth noting I have yet to sort out a gluten free banana bread my textural issues can choke down, but the first hack will work the same regardless of your recipe.  The second is generally addressed by most GF recipes due to the challenges inherent to that kind of baking. The third came from a GF recipe to begin with.)


After trying a few, I settled on an old school recipe from a solid, baseline source that's done me right since I first had my culinary monkey-touch-monolith moment. I even had to buy the cookbook again, the first one fell apart from use.

I found the same *recipe online here: BHG Banana Bread
*I find their suggestion of 5 bananas to get that quantity is insane. I rarely need more than 3.

Pretty much any recipe will do. They all seem to have the same general textural problems.

PROBLEM 1: Gooey Chunks

I don't know if I've ever seen a banana bread recipe that didn't suggest mashing the banana with a fork. The resulting texture is uneven, and affects the bread.

My first attempting at fixing this was a potato masher. Little to no improvement.

The solution? Stick blender! (AKA How did I ever survive without this miraculous tool?)

Just chuck all the wet ingredients (remember, sugar counts) into a bowl...

Seriously. Chuck 'em in whole.

...and blitz!
Noise reduction headphones optional

The resulting emulsion is perfectly smooth, and gives the bread a uniform texture devoid of those nasty, slimy, chunky bits.

I also find this emulsion easier to incorporate in general, which means less risk of overmixing the batter, which means less gluten development, which means less random air bubbles, which means more uniform overall texture... all good things.

PROBLEM 2: Unbaked Ridge

I think the extent of this is affected by individual ovens. But in all the ovens I've used, I've yet to see a loaf of quick bread bake up without it being at least a minor factor.

Simply extending the baking time didn't work - the edges of the bread burned before the top cooked through. I thought about the pan, but I already used Pyrex instead of metal so that wouldn't help.

But, that got me thinking... having been reluctantly, medically gluten free for a few years now, I've had plenty of time for some epic gluten free baking fails. And time to do some reading to figure out why.

What I learned is that proteins in GF baked goods take longer to set, which is why they need to be baked in ceramic dishes at lower temps for longer, so the edges are protected while the centers have a chance to coast to completion.

I decided to apply a version of this technique to the unbaked top problem. It worked like a charm.

1) Bake the bread at the usual temp (generally 350) for 5-10 minutes shy of the bake time specified in the recipe.

2) Reduce the oven temp by 10 degrees. At this point I check in 10 minutes, then in 5-10 min intervals, depending on how it's doing. It rarely takes more than an additional 20ish minutes past the recipe time.  Once it gets close to done the toothpicks comes out to start checking for doneness. Before it's close you can still see how wet it is.

3) Sometimes, if the top is really being stubborn but the edges are going past done, I turn off the oven and let it coast a little while longer. That does the trick.

In for ~20 extra minutes at a lower temp - the top finished and the crust did not burn

One thing I particularly like about this technique is that it addresses the x factor of variable moisture content and slight differences in banana quantity from loaf to loaf. If there's a little too much moisture from the fruit in a particular batch, finishing the baking off this way has a much greater chance of baking off the excess and giving you a good result.

PROBLEM 3: Damp, Sticky Top Crust

Once a loaf of quick bread has cooled, the top goes from delightful to damp and sticky in a hurry.  I noticed this is especially true of GF bakes, and one day mused that must be why a particular muffin recipe called for what seemed to me an incongruous sugar topping.

Cut to me making my next batch of banana bread... light bulb moment. Gave it a shot.

Just sprinkle the top of the loaf with a raw sugar (I've used turbinado and demerara). I do a generous sprinkling, it makes for a nice crisp top.

Much more than this and it becomes tricky to slice.

Yes, I know sugar is hygroscopic and of course it doesn't stay as shatteringly crisp as when it's fresh from the oven. But the next day (a loaf of banana bread rarely lasts more than 24 hours around here), the top is still reliably pleasant, often still on the crisp side.

These simple hacks have become routine when I bake any quick bread. (Though, the stick blitz step isn't necessary for something like pumpkin or applesauce bread.) I no longer have to throw away leftover bread. It's better from the start and stays better until it's gone... which is faster than ever.

Do you have any sensory friendly recipe hacks that help your family? I would love to learn about them!

On a Scale of 1 to Me: Super Bowl Edition

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

An illustration of the range of human responses to hosting half a dozen friends for the Super Bowl.

I think we can all agree that the fact I can laugh at myself is what's important here : D