Monday, April 25, 2011

home again

We had a nice visit up outside Seattle. The town feels like The Truman Show: most of it was built in the past 5-10 years. The streets full of identical 1900-sqft houses sit on 3,000-sqft lots, putting some perspective on our California "postage-stamp" 5,000-sqft lots.

You really notice the northern latitude there, with long days, even so close to the spring equinox. The long winter nights drive away a lot of people, including my uncle's wife. (Not to worry, my uncle went with her.)

It was a pretty good weekend. Anna's mother kept the crazy reasonably under control while we were there: not a sustainable thing for her over the long term, but I think we all appreciated the effort. Time with Grandma usually translates into J navigating life with greater difficulty, but again, it could have been worse.

I read the blog of Marco Arment, who created Instapaper, a marvelous tool made more unbelievably awesome by the iPad/iPhone app. He reviewed a quirky iPad game called Super Stickman Golf, and I figured for 99 cents it couldn't be that bad, It's compelling. We all know the video game mechanic of shooting projectiles at an angle, with a certain amount of force, from the original 2D artillery games, to the far more sophisticated and artful Angry Birds. The graphics are simple, the music is annoying (and optional), but the gameplay is just cool. There's a few dozen courses, quirky golf ball options (I unlocked the Sticky Ball, which sticks to anything, thus allowing shots on vertical walls or overhangs), and a really pleasant interface. I'm not obsessed, but I do enjoy having something lightweight to do with my brain, and it's more engaging for me than most games.

J, on the other hand, is willing to do homework just to watch me play it. We've had a couple of snuggling periods where he just lies on me and gets very excited about whatever's going on. Sometimes when I say "Doh!", he'll be all reassuring and say "No, that's okay, you can just hit it up on the ledge!", which is charmingly unnecessary and very sweet.

I also walked in from work and got a smiling child charging at me to give me a hug. So that was pretty awesome, too. It's been a parental sort of weekend, in a good way.

Finally, I am proud and somewhat startled to discover that I have, in fact, scuffed the finish on my tungsten carbide ring. My best guess is that it's from diving into the sand playing beach volleyball at the company picnic a couple weeks ago. I guess it's an argument for continuing with the tungsten: imagine what I'd do to gold.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

voyage to suburbia

We're spending the weekend in a very cozy, white, subdivided outskirt of Seattle, at Anna's brother's place, with a passel of my future in-laws. (It is strange to think of them that way.) Her mother lives a few blocks away, and her father came up from Oregon. It's a nice little community. I'm a little disoriented by the number of red-haired children, and the lack of non-whites. San Francisco and Oakland people refer to the Peninsula, sometimes scornfully, as "suburbia," but a trip to a place like this shows they've clearly lost perspective.

Naturally, we're at the coffee shop, by ourselves. (Though really, this slice of the family is fine, except for her mother, and there's no indication she and I will have to talk.)

(You know how I always make great effort to communicate with and relate to people? The fact that I'm avoiding my future mother-in-law should tell how you, uh, problematic, she can be.)

We had a fine trip to get here. J's solution to the air pressure change of the descent into Sea-Tac:

J prepares for descent

We've had some nice bonding time today. It's possible that when we're away from the house, he more clearly recognizes me as one of the known and safe touchstones in his life, so he's more connective. He was trying to sneak up on Anna and he was doing a really horrible job, so I taught him how: placing the feet slowly and carefully instead of stomping, and looking to see if she was looking our direction. For some reason, the process of sneaking into the kitchen starts with hiding under a blanket in the living room, but while we were making breakfast, he managed to get past all three of us and we didn't notice until he was in the far end of the kitchen and said, "I snuck in!". So that's pretty awesome.

J's cousin M is, charitably, a handful: he's got some genuine issues, and with medication, he's now merely ADD. I've never actually seen it before, but the joke we tell:
How many ADD kids does it take to change a light bulb?
I don't know, how--
is pretty true to life.

So, J is a stickler for names. He reacts very strongly and loudly to nicknames, even when I referred to him and Anna as "the barbarian horde" (this particular one is okay since barbarians are now cool). He's not super happy that I call my car "Car," instead of a proper name like Anna's Molly. But twice now, M has referred to Anna and me, in talking with J, as "Anna and your dad," and J has completely let it slide without correcting him. It's impossible to know how he's processing it: whether "dad" is code for "that adult male in my family who's always there," or if he's just calibrating his response to his cousin's mental state, or if something deeper is happening. Pretty interesting, either way.

Monday, April 18, 2011


J and I have been getting closer, at a good, gentle pace. There's usually a shift any time I do anything to take care of him, like watch him for a couple hours while Anna does something, but it also helps that we have our regular 10-15 minutes in the morning between the end of the Morning Snuggle and Anna's having breakfast ready. The other day I hung out with him a bit and then fed him dinner, which he started eating with his hands (and probably nibbling like a squirrel, though I wasn't paying much attention).
"Use the fork, please."
"Whyyyyy do you always have to sound like Mama?!"
"Hmm. Do you really want to know?"
"Well, I've had to think about this, because I'm new to this whole parenting thing. My initial thought was that we ask you to use a fork because we want you to grow up to be happy. But then I was wondering, what does that mean? What I came up with is that we want you to grow up in harmony with the world around you. As we get older, people really expect us to do things the way our culture says we should, and eating with a fork is one of those things. It's kind of strange, we can wear whatever clothes we want, but we have to eat with a fork. If you don't eat with a fork, there's a lot of conflict with other people, and it makes our lives really difficult. So that's part of what it means to be in harmony with the world. Does that make sense?"
"You sure? I was talking for a long time."
Then he ate the rest of his dinner with a fork, kind of: J's fork-fu usually means he places the fork on the place, impales a piece of food using his non-fork hand, then lifts the fork to his mouth. It's a process. We'll get there.

Apropos of nothing, really. We are J-less for about 6 days, and after 3 or so, I miss him.

crunch. grind.

I've been feeling a bit down this past week. This isn't the crisis it used to be: now I just feel crabby and down for no real reason, and I just make room for it. I see myself when I try to pin it on something (small apartment, future spouse with different taste in music), and just let myself feel down. It comes and goes, moment by moment: let go, laugh, feel sad, let go, laugh, feel sad. Lather, rinse, repeat. It's refreshing, in a way, seeing the endless dance of impermanence and contingency and cause-and-effect playing out just in my thoughts. The fact that everything is contingent and transient is what makes us free to change anything we want, from one moment to the next. I can be a new person! I can be someone laughing, and then I can be someone sad, and then I'll be someone laughing again.

At times like this, my job is not much help. From most jobs I get a sense of productivity and accomplishment, and with this one, not so much. That's really about me, though. If I start thinking, "Wow, I'm a really bad sysadmin, this is horrible," I can calibrate with reality:
  • I told them repeatedly, in every interview, that I was a bad sysadmin, don't like being a sysadmin, didn't want to be a sysadmin. They said "Come do this job that's 50% sysadmin," and I said "Sure, why not?". Nobody was hiding anything.
  • In 7 weeks no one has come to me to say I should be doing more stuff, or doing it differently.
  • People seem generally happy to have me around.
  • My boss and team lead both friended me on LinkedIn.
So, whatever. Clearly my perception of myself at my job is crap, and I have to trust things outside myself. Because that's not terrifying at all.


On Saturday I went with my Zen teacher to a tokudo, a Zen priest ordination ceremony. I went partly to be supportive of the guy (though I'd never met him), partly to hang out with my teacher a bit, but mostly because I've never actually seen one. That's relevant because I'm in the process of sewing the various articles for my own tokudo, sometime in the future.

(It's perfectly reasonable to ask how far in the future. It's measured in years. More on that in a minute.)

The ceremony was...uncentered, ironically. The daily rehearsals ultimately produced a feeling of everything being unrehearsed, and nobody quite knew what to do or in what order. The ceremony was missing a couple important things:
  1. Some chanting normally done by the audience.
  2. The Ten Precepts, which are sort of the fundamental ethics the guy was committing to.
Anyway, it was weird. The guy is really nice and upright, though.

So, when's mine? I have some work to do, first. In our lineage we sew the articles of a monk, by hand. It gives us a lot of time to consider if this is the right path for us, and the final products hold the years of care and concentration that went into them. They are:
  • A rakusu, a miniature of the full monk's robe, that hangs around the neck. (For my lay ordination, this alone took me about 18 months.)
  • An okesa, the large robe that goes over the left shoulder. It's about 4-5 feet square.
  • A zagu, a cloth spread on the ground for bowing on.
  • One other small piece whose name I forget.
When the Buddha was teaching, to become a monk was a less formal but more complete thing, called "going forth into the homeless life," as opposed to grinding it out with a wife and kids and a farm. Zen Mountain Monastery decided to re-apply that model for their monks, really more like Benedictines than anything else, but as the scholar Stephen Batchelor points out, the original intent of the "homeless life" was to be, well, homeless, kind of on the edge, with your day-to-day living reminding you of how precarious life really is. Monasteries are actually a place of security, of all things, where you're guaranteed food and shelter. And nowadays, if one tries to be a "lay" Buddhist teacher for a living, that living is probably quite precarious indeed. The Japanese model offers a couple of options: some monks who stayed celibate and homeless, others who stayed as temple priests, usually marrying and passing the temple down to a son.

None of these are necessarily better or worse (though you've seen my rants on the Theravada monastic rules). It's just by way of saying that I get to keep the wife and kid while being a Zen priest, and I'll probably end up referring to myself as a "monk" even though I'm not exactly living like one, except both "monk" and "priest" have changed meaning to accomodate our modern reality.

Anyway, I'm guessing all the sewing will take at least 3 years.


Busy with work! But the memes never sleep.

And finally, OMG CUTE:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

that's right, it's Tuesday

Anna bought me a new ring! It's tungsten carbide, and I have an urge to try and scratch it up, but it's tungsten carbide, so intellectually I understand that's not going to accomplish anything except to maybe scrape some chunks off a masonry wall somewhere.

shiny new ring

It has a sort of One Ring vibe to it. It's heavy for its size (see: tungsten), about the same shape, polished to an unbearable shininess, and impervious to scratching. (You can, however, break one with a pair of Vise-Grips.)

The three of us went to Six Flags Great America on Sunday, a nice old-school nuclear family outing. I can't remember the last time I went to an amusement park, let alone one that is now located in the forest of Silicon Valley corporate office buildings (you pass by McAfee and Adobe on the way there, for example). When Anna was a kid (back before television), Great America was in the middle of nowhere.

Despite the constant music and barker announcements on the speakers, it was more or less the same noise I remember from places like Riverside Park (now also absorbed by Six Flags). The new thing is apparently to have TVs everywhere, which is what drove Anna and J away from Marine World in Vallejo. Anna's grandmother bought the 3 of us season passes to Great America, so we can go a few more times this year.

We went on a rollercoaster! It looked pretty mellow, but it wasn't particularly, and then afterward we noticed it's called "Psycho Mouse" and it's rated a 4/5 on the intensity scale they provide. And I took J on the go-cart track, which was pretty awesome not only for him enjoying going fast, but also for me to remember how to properly apex corners. Sadly, the guy in front of me started driving like a loon to make it fun for his kid, and there wasn't room or horsepower to pass him, so I had to slow down.

And I am working! So much working. But it's fun. And I'm motorcycle shopping. And Anna is graciously assembling our wedding and somehow taking care of all of us while still getting some work done. And nothing is available for rent, and house prices are going down, so maybe we should just buy a house.

So, yeah. It's a little busy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

too much shallow information

Software guy Neil mix visits his blog after a long hiatus:
Believe it or not, I've been meaning to follow up on my last post, that amazingly bad prediction of handwriting recognition for (what turned out to be) the iPad, for over a year now. Every once in a while the embarrassment hits me, usually when I vanity-Google, but I just haven't had the urge to write. I've been...out of touch.

I've lost my footing with social media. Facebook is an endless stream of updates from people I lost contact with long ago for good reason. And on Twitter for some crazy reason I've lost the ambition to out-snark the snarkiest snark that ever snarked. Solvable problems for sure, but what's the purpose here? I haven't missed them. And the real world is proving to be a pretty awesome place. I'm sure there's a good nerdy high-tech-expert blog post lurking in my post-social-media experiences, but that would be for another day, if at all.

Congratulations on re-discovering what matters, Neil. Welcome back.

maybe you can help me out

I had this conversation on Facebook back on April 8th:
Dear women, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and poor people: You know the Republican Party despises you, right? As in, doesn't respect you enough to tell you so to your face? As in, it will always, always, always end up screwing you over by working to take away your rights and any public services that might help you, for the benefit of industry and oligarchs, even if they told you they wouldn't?

One way in which I've found the Tea Party to be a breath of fresh air is that they've at least been pretty up-front about their hatred. That carries its own very serious problems and brings out the worst in voters, but it has the feel of suppressed urges being laid out on the table for everyone to have to acknowledge.
A friend responded:
I don't buy that the Republican Party "despises" non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and poor people. What I do buy is that the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party has drastically different expectations of how society should be structured, and that those expectations are not being met in the same way they were, say, 75 years ago. Their frame has virtually no overlap with the average liberal frame, such that their fighting/talking points come across as jibberish to a non-ultra-conservative, or in this case that they "despise" those groups.
That's a very generous, not to say politically correct, way of looking at it. That's useful for understanding how conservatives see themselves, but it strikes me as being of the same school as the media's "We'll report both sides, and who are we to judge?". I admit I'm making a value judgement, and "despise" is a strong word, when maybe "fear and disdain" would suffice. When the "frame" from 75 years ago, which they're trying to enact today, says that blacks and Latinos should have difficulty voting, or that women shouldn't have to be paid an equal wage, or that blue-collar (hence lower-income) workers shouldn't be protected from workplace that treating those people as full and equal human beings? The Republican Party, as a governing entity, constantly says through actions and often through words, "I don't consider you a full member of society because of your race/gender/sexuality/income. You do not deserve the full protections and rights that others do." If devaluing someone's humanity isn't despising them, then I'm not sure what is.
It's an interesting question, and really at the core of the divisions in American society, and our mainstream culture's painful addiction to what Paul Krugman calls the "cult of balance":

Think about what's happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating -- offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent -- because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

Krugman once said that if one political party declared the Earth was flat, the headlines would read "Views Differ On Shape Of Earth". It really is that ludicrous.

We're so far from being willing to declare that even the most basic things are wrong (even factually, not just morally or ethically) and not just a difference of opinion that I'm starting to think that with the current media environment we could never even have managed desegregation.

Yet, nothing is simple. Same-sex marriage is alive and valid in six states plus D.C, which was unthinkable just a decade ago.

What do you think? I'm pretty harsh on the Republican Party (and by extension, its supporters) because I find its actions despicable. What's another way to look at it? How else do I interpret things?

interval without sleep: family rambling

J and Anna stopped by the office this week to pick up a marble-track building toy someone is discarding. J was amazing! He met my co-worker Jess and looked directly at her the whole time, with no prompting! I had to remind him to shake Irene's offered hand, but then he did it with Joe by himself. He was being extra-adorable, from the moment I said "Hi J!" and he brightened and said "HI CHRIS!" in that way he has of not really bothering to control his volume, because hey, why would you?

Also interesting to watch people see me differently as I interacted with him. I think I still don't talk a lot about my private world, so for these people who have known me for 5 weeks, I imagine it's educational for them to see me in Stepdad Mode.

It occurs to me that J first met me when he was 3, and he's now 6, so he's known me more or less as long as he can remember.

I wonder when or if he'll decide it's safe to be as much of a jerk to me as he sometimes is to Anna. Right now there's no good name for our relationship, and we haven't explored the word "stepfather" yet; maybe once the wedding's done, I'll get to be Worst Stepdad In The World as Anna is certified as the Worst Mama. (Occasionally this is merely Worst Mama In California, but sometimes ratchets up to Worst Mama In All Of Time.) I imagine it has more to do with that fact that she's the one who takes care of him, and thus makes him do all the necessary things that he hates (which of course vary from moment to moment).

I have a pretty cool outsider effect on J. In many ways, he finds Anna suspect, always encouraging him to try new foods, interrupting his drama-queen moments, training him to use direct communicative language instead of passive-aggressive muttering. What an awful, sneaky Mama! Definitely the Worst Mama Ever.

He has no trouble giving Anna a hard time. But I'm a bit of a conundrum. I'm just this guy, you know? I'm Mama's friend who's now Mama's extra-special friend, and I love J and J loves me, but I haven't raised him, I've just been around and we've gotten to know each other like any two other human beings. Much like we don't believe our mothers telling us we're cute or smart or whatever, we think that people a little farther away from us can see us more clearly; which is true, in many ways. He sometimes finds himself determined that something in the world is wrong, but then finds me doing it, and doesn't quite know what to think.

Take the issue of naming one's car. Anna's car has a name, which J has grown up with, and they talk about her as though she's a person. I don't really name my stuff. I address my car directly as "Car," and any pets I'm interacting with will often be Dog and Cat. J doesn't really like that my car is called "Car": he's very particular about names, and about being called "J" instead of nicknames.

("Buddy," "Kiddo," and curiously, "Monkeyferret" all seem to be okay. But man, the second time I referred to him and Anna as "the barbarian horde," he raised his voice a bit and said, "CHRIS DON'T MISTAKE US FOR THE BARBARIAN HORDE EVER AGAIN." So noted.)

Rightly or not, I perceive in him a desire to be judgemental about Car not having a proper name. But it's me, and I'm special, so he gets this delicious inner conflict. Then he lets go, because he can't really decide that I'm bad or wrong, and then he learns that people can do things differently than how he thinks.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

reality distortion field: real estate

We stopped by a really cute house on the way home today, which I saw a couple weeks ago and wanted to share with her. It's pretty enchanting. Expensive, but 5 years ago it would have been $700,000 instead of $500,000.

Real estate agents drive me nuts. As I tell people, it's not that they're lying, exactly: their skill is that they believe whatever falsehood they're presenting to you at any given moment. Because they believe it, and moreover because acting like that fluid belief is solid and permanent is core to their self-presentation, there's no point in presenting them with facts that represent reality. In fact, I find confronting them to be a little mean, because they'll
  1. fracture their sense of reality and have a nervous breakdown in front of you (this seems nearly impossible), or
  2. engage some kind of defense mechanism to preserve their internal narrative, and you have created needless tension in the conversation.
We walked through the house, and Anna was similarly enchanted, and the agent was sort of baffled and hurt to discover we were just looking--"Oh! So you two aren't actually in market to buy?!"--which Anna paraphrased as "I was treating you like people! But you're not actually going to buy this house from me. Why did I treat you like people? What a waste of effort."
Then I said, "Prices seem to be dropping."
Reality intrudes! Internally, she seemed to convert her terror to disbelief, and thence into counter-narrative (she really needs to work on her poker face).
"Well! I don't know where you're looking, but around here, prices are going up. Now, some things aren't priced appropiately, so some things don't sell, but as soon as the owner prices it appropriately, it sells."
Confused? Let me translate:
Chris: "Prices seem to be dropping."
Realtor: "No, prices are going up! See, they're precisely following the process by which the price of goods in an open market goes down!"
Yeah. I think I'll wait a few months, thanks.

House $/Sq.Ft.

phew. hi.

Hi! I have a blog! I also have a billion other things, like work and Zen retreats, and holy crap I asked Anna to marry me and now I guess we should get married to avoid it being all awkward. My little brother the farmer was very nice and found a week they could come that didn't mean us getting married in the dead of winter, so now we just need 3 other entities to have the same day free seven months from now and we'll be good to go.

Our Zen teacher will do the honors. I asked her a couple years ago what she does for weddings, and she said it's up to the couple, as long as they say the Ten Precepts (to each other or the audience or both, I don't know). We have no idea what we're doing. In our different ways, neither of us has any idea what we might wear, and we need to talk to people who actually know things, about, um, yannow. Clothes, and stuff.

Speaking of Zen things, we just got back from our sangha's semi-annual retreat down in the Santa Cruz Mountains, near Boulder Creek. This was my first retreat since October 2009, and while I've been sitting, all that time, sitting all day (in 35-minute periods with various breaks) is a different thing. Mostly it requires acceptance, in the broad sense that we struggle to explain. Yes, your knees are going to hurt, your back might hurt, anything else might hurt. Sesshin isn't something we do because it's fun; we do it because it's helpful to our practice, whose ultimate purpose is to end our and everyone else's suffering. We spend a lot of our time refusing to accept the realities of life, fighting our minds, often in very subtle ways. Usually I adjust pretty quickly, but it took about a day of sitting before I finally gave up and accepted that my body hurt. Then, of course, it hurt a whole lot less.

It was good, and important, to slow down for a bit, after this month of going full-tilt at work. I wasn't enjoying it, but I could have used another 5 days (the traditional full length for sesshin): I feel like two days barely makes a dent in the tension I built up over my time in Chile.
Then again, someone once asked the teacher Blanche Hartman what happens when we do zazen meditation. She said, "You can't possibly know."
I did get a bit closer to seeing all that tension and defensiveness. We can't let anything go if we can't find it. So I'm finally unwinding, maybe. We'll see. I probably won't narrate the process, because really, who cares?

One other notable thing, which I'll have to mull over and probably write about, was to see again the dissonance between how I see myself (withdrawn, lazy, disconnected) and how others see me, at least in the sangha (kind, helpful, listening). At some point I have to give some weight to everyone else's view of me. Because that's not terrifying or anything.

Tomorrow: back to work.