Thursday, December 20, 2012

almost awake

I promised I was going to write more, and I haven't. That's the story of this year, really. There are numerous things more important than writing that I haven't been doing, either.

The sleep clinic seemed pretty confident they can fix me, mostly using cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is fancy-speak for "tweaking your sleep schedule with science." Their first tip, to go to bed when I'm drowsy and fix my waking time, may or may not be helping: this past week I was approaching "rested," until yesterday. I've been through this before, so it's just as well I'm taking a week off from work.

The clinic has a 6-8 week lead time on appointments, so the followup won't be for a while. I liked the feeling of going there, though. Most doctors I've met, they don't seem particularly smart. Obviously they have the mental abilities to get through medical school, but those are not overwhelmingly abilities of curiosity, intellectual engagement, learning, and problem-solving. The internist I talked to has already trained as a neurologist, then went to Stanford to learn more about treating sleep. And I met the insomnia group's director. They are smart, not just doctor-smart.

Here's hoping.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Vegas, baby.

I've been sleeping! The makers of NyQuil, the mightily soporific cold remedy, saw another niche and decided to make ZzzQuil, which skips the "cold remedy" pretense.

It uses a different antihistamine to knock you out--diphenyhydramine instead of doxylamine--so the quality of sleep is better and the hangover is, for me, not so bad. In fact, it's not so much a "hangover" as it is "I could just lie here and sleep another 3 hours," followed by a day of being able to lie down and sleep at almost any time. I skipped it one night, though, and decided this is preferable to the usual routine of broken sleep.

I have an appointment at the Stanford sleep center on Monday. I don't think I've ever looked forward to seeing a doctor before, though I'm trying to keep my hopes down.

I went to Las Vegas last week, to do a panel with my boss at the Amazon Web Services re:Invent conference. (The short description of AWS is that it's an infinite number of virtual computers and services that I can use without having to worry about the physical hardware for.) The panel went really well, and in general I hated Vegas less than I expected, though that's probably just because I'm more grounded than in my younger years.

I may have been a little crabby about it because the night before I slept about 2.5 hours, then spent a day talking and learning stuff, went to bed responsibly about 10:15, and woke up two hours later. This is the shopping center at the Venetian at 2 A.M.:

2 AM at the Venetian's 

It's quite pretty, actually.

I went for a long walk down the Strip. There are some profoundly sketchy people walking around Las Vegas at that hour. The distinction between "working prostitute" and "partying woman" is not always clear to me. And the drunks! Las Vegas is like the never-ending party of Bourbon Street in New Orleans! Except with the added reek of human desperation. It's amazing that humans build places like that, but imagine if we could put all those resources into something useful! Instead of building a populous monument to degradation in the middle of the desert.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

work work worky work

Work had a disconnect for a few months, where my team has been doing incredible work, and I was really unhappy with my job. I have the biggest team in Engineering, with arguably the most complex technology, and so more and more over the past 6 months, I've been sucked into being purely a manager, without the time needed to focus on making technical contributions. (Doing ordinary coding work alongside the team has always been out of the question, but for a while I was able to do useful prototyping and experimentation.)

This reached a terrible crescendo a couple of weeks ago, and I sent a big "help me" email to my bosses. The initial response was to promote my senior minion Jess to co-tech lead, a creative solution that addresses several needs at once. That's taken a bunch of pressure off, and I've been able to unwind and do some more technical things. I'm still not doing mainline coding on the team, but that may or may not ever be possible. I also have to be careful not to just drop my workload on Jess, however happy she is to help: otherwise, she'll just end up with the problem I had.

The team is close--SO CLOSE--to the first milestones of this massive re-architecture we've been banging away at for the past year. We had a great meeting with the executive team today, which went something like this:
"Our customers are screaming with frustration and anger. What are we doing to fix it?"
"We've been working on it all year. We're expecting to have something in production by the end of Q1."
"Phew. What can you do to help in the meantime?"
"Nothing, really. We've done it all already."
"That makes me a sad panda."
"I know! Us too."
We established a common understanding of the situation, and everyone feels heard and nobody has any idea what else we can do that's faster than the re-architecture. It was a good bonding experience.

Also we told the CEO we'd have it in production by the end of March. So, hey. We should get on that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

an alt-medicine fiesta

I accumulated enough stuff to do today that I just bailed on work entirely. In between fetching my motorcycle from the shop in the morning, and getting the oil changed and tires rotated on the car in the afternoon, I did a Great Circle of the Bay Area, visiting a Chinese medicine guy in San Francisco and a wacky hippie doctor who defies description in Oakland. These were probably the last step in my Quest For Sleep before going to talk to an actual medical doctor (which would be sad, since I find them mostly useless).

(The Oakland guy is a certified and practiced chiropractor and obviously very smart, but he uses these magnetic-field generators and he sets off my low-level Bullshit Detector. Except that magnetic fields are used for various therapies, as they induce currents in the body, and our nerves do run on electricity. The world is a big place and there's a lot we don't understand.)

The Chinese medicine guy listened to my issue--essentially, waking up many hours too early--and said it was a pretty standard case, which was a relief, since he'd thought my case would be "out on the fringe somewhere." Then he actually took my pulses, whereupon he decided his theory was wrong, and we talked about how to address the massive chi and yin deficiency he found. I don't think he has a theory about the insomnia, actually: I asked him about it twice, and both times he sort of circled around it and talked about the underlying issue. Whatever: he could tell I'm deeply fatigued, and he suggested a couple over-the-counter supplements that won't hurt me in any case, and unlike obscure Chinese concoctions, I don't think there's any worry about the supplements interfering with the obscure Ayurveda concoctions I normally take. (Traditional medicine systems are great, but you shouldn't mix and match.) In particular he said I have a massive B-vitamin deficiency.

He also got my pulses more or less back in sync somehow--my wrist pulse was delayed from my neck pulse, and if you're healthy all your pulses should happen at the same time.

After a stop at Rainbow Grocery to buy supplements and lunch, I headed over to Oakland to see Dr. Hippie.

Holy crap.

I didn't try retaining the vocabulary for what this guy was doing, but basically he put a thing around my head with electromagnets controlled by a computer (but not touching my skin). The first phase was diagnosis, where, I gather, the computer manipulates the electromagnets so they use electromagnetic pulses like sonar, bouncing them off different...things, to get information about different parts of the body. I didn't get a picture of the machine, but it looks like it's from 1980 and it was made by "Maitreya, Ltd.",

Bullshit Detector notwithstanding, Dr. Hippie came up with a very similar profile to Dr. Chinese, even though he was reading straight from the computer--the only thing he knew about beforehand was the insomnia. Common things:
  • Systemwide fatigue, where parts of my body are not getting enough energy.
  • Broad B-vitamin deficiency.
  • My liver is a little crabby. (Dr. Ayurveda has done a lot of work for that this year, so I'm not surprised.)
Dr. Hippie's machinery pulled out some other useful and pretty accurate results, and then he proceeded to have it adjust...things. It does double duty as both diagnosis and treatment, depending on what you have the computer do with the electromagnets. I did start to get drowsy while the treatment part was running: qualitatively different than any usual afternoon drowsiness, but it was an unusual day.
"When do you want to go to sleep and wake up?"
"Uh...exact times?"
"10 P.M. to 6 A.M.?"
"Okay, that'll take a few minutes."
Apparently this is a thing he can do. I'm very interested to see what happens tonight.

housing doom

With Anna's business, our finances are now complicated enough that she had to go talk to an accountant. I didn't meet him, but he sounds really nice,. In examining our situation, he did the math that's always been too hard for me, and demonstrated with numbers that we should buy a house.

We're already up to our ears in difficult projects, but there was this beautiful little house for sale. The price would be ambitious for us, but whatever, it couldn't hurt to try.

Let's set some expectations, for those of you not accustomed to Bay Area house prices. In Redwood City, where I live, the absolute lowest you'll find a 2-bedroom house within a couple miles of downtown will be $450,000--that's likely to be a fixer-upper--and it goes up from there. If you have normal American expectations about what kind of house and neighborhood you'd want to live in, you're looking in the $500k-$900k range for an 1,100-square foot house on a 5,000-square foot lot.

I went to talk to our realtor about this house, to find out whether it was worth buying, but also whether it was possible or worthwhile to put an offer in. It turns out the answer was "no":
  • Banks are tight on financing right now, so you need 20% down. On a $500k house, that's $100,000 in cash. On a $700k house, it's $240,000.
  • Houses in this range are getting multiple offers, at least one of which is typically all cash with no contingencies. Cash offers usually win.
  • For an offer to be considered, it usually needs to be at least 40% cash.
That's $200,000 in cash for a $500k house, or $280,000 for a $700k house.

Life's been really good to me, but not quite that good, yet.

With much less excitement, we're keeping an eye out for a condo we could live in for a couple years before renting it out and buying a house, but the outlook is pretty grim.

Sometimes I really want to move somewhere with weather and a sane housing market.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

music: what makes a song?

I've never really written a song, passed from half-assed efforts I wouldn't show in public. For a lot of artists, songs develop a life of their own, as they're bound up in the writer's experience and carry a lot of emotions. I'm fascinated by what makes the essence of a song, and so I love hearing different versions of the same song. This got really started with Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes". Unless you're my wife, that's a really pretty song, and I was always caught by the rich instrumental layers.

But think for a minute: Peter Gabriel didn't write the first version of that song using a dozen different synthesizer tracks. The overwhelming majority of lyrical songs are worked out on solo piano or guitar. So we get Jeffrey Gaines's solo-guitar version.

One of my favorite songs of the past few years has been "Fireflies" by Owl City. It has a really, really recognizable opening riff.

This is a ton of electronic stuff, right? It's very much descended from The Postal Service and some other lyric-electronic bands of the mid-oughts. Guys like this often perform what you could call a "laptop show", where they're onstage with a bunch of boxes, twiddling knobs. And this song pretty much telegraphs its presence immediately. So, how cool is this?

SO MANY INSTRUMENTS! It's so tempting to think the orchestration defines the song, because that's the idea of the song that I've built up in my head. But the songwriter knows the song in a way that I can't.

Music is awesome.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

nasal toast intrusion

Anna left for a business trip on Tuesday morning, as a punishment for doing the amazing work she does, so I did all the kid routines on Wednesday and Thursday. (He didn't starve to death or anything. We're all very proud of me.)
I haven't slept well this week, so Tuesday morning I was a bit of a zombie, and breakfast ended up being gluten-free toast with Trader Joe's goat brie, instead of something good for me. I was idly chewing my toast and drinking coffee, doing something on the computer, when suddenly I snarfed, and the airflow and timing in my throat and esophagus just kind of...broke, somehow. My soft palate failed to do its job, and I felt a significant amount of chewed toast go up into my sinuses.

At this point, I'm thinking two things:
  1. I've only been married for a year and I've already turned into one of those guys who can't manage life alone. My wife has been gone for 90 minutes and now I have toast up my nose.
  2. My sinuses are full of toast, and I'm supposed to care for a child?!
It didn't hurt, though it did feel quite awkward. We're really not meant to have chunks of food up our nose. Naturally I knew kids in school who could, at will, put milk or spaghetti into their mouths and have it come out their nose; like many things other kids did, I decided that fell outside my comfort zone.

Since the toast wasn't coming out by blowing my nose, I brought out the neti pot. That loosened the toast bits up enough to get blown out. The biggest chunk was about 4mm.

Luckily for me and you both, subsequent mornings have been less eventful.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

use of weapons

My half of Engineering played paintball on Thursday! I need not say that running around a course shooting each other with guns appeals primarily to men, but the women engineers have fun too, if perhaps not quite at the passionate level the men get to. (Apparent consensus: "That was pretty fun, I guess.") As a broad generalization, maybe we can all accept "men usually enjoy simulated violence as a hobby, and women usually don't" as a starting point.

We can afford to enjoy it, of course: we don't live in a state of physical threat from the other half of the species. As Margaret Atwood formulated the power difference, men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them. We've also had the luxury of not experiencing actual combat with real guns, like almost everyone we know. So, hey, acknowledging our extreme privilege, let's go have fun and shoot each other for the afternoon.

Paintball accurately mimics, at a low level, the basic things I know about being shot at:
  1. If you are capable of executing some kind of organized military tactic, do that.
  2. Otherwise, take cover behind something solid. If you have a gun, shoot back.
We did a bit of #1 (often directed by our former-Israeli-sniper VP), but mostly it was #2. This is a good quadricep workout, since you're constantly doing cycles of crouch-look around-shoot-crouch.

Paintball hurts, but not excessively. I'd compare it to getting with a fast tennis ball, but over a smaller area. Sharp stings that fade after a couple minutes. The worst are the paintballs that don't explode.

As with most things involving weapons, I am naturally better than average. My brothers are naturally gifted at sports; I'm naturally gifted at things like swords. I recognize what's in me and my history that makes weapons appealing, though I don't have an explanation for why my motor coordination is optimized for martial arts and not, say, soccer. Sometimes I feel like this:
It was a warship, after all. It was built, designed to glory in destruction, when it was considered appropriate. It found, as it was rightly and properly supposed to, an awful beauty in both the weaponry of war and the violence and devastation which that weaponry was capable of inflicting, and yet it knew that attractiveness stemmed from a kind of insecurity, a sort of childishness. It could see that--by some criteria--a warship, just by the perfectly articulated purity of its purpose, was the most beautiful single artifact the Culture was capable of producing, and at the same time understand the paucity of moral vision such a judgement implied. To fully appreciate the beauty of the weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy.
That's from Iain M. Banks's novel Excession. I don't typically find quotable introspective passages in his Culture novels, but I was quite struck by that one. I am who I am, and I have to be that, to the best of my ability; at the same time, I recognize that a way of life exists, or should exist, where warriorship in the forms we know it doesn't occur. If my childhood baggage--let's call it "karma"--leads me towards martial arts and weapons, I can't really deny that honestly.
To fully appreciate the beauty of the weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy. 
Instead, I practice a martial art focused on defense and protection, even the protection of the person attacking you. I learn how to use weapons mostly to feed my own inner requirements for a feeling of safety, with the hope that if needed, I can provide that safety and protection for others. I've been able to do that for people a number of times, and in general I feel like I am successfully being a man who can look the world in the face and construct a useful spontaneous response to help people, instead of panicking.

It's worked pretty well so far.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

work work worky work

I had a bit of burnout at work last week, and I'm currently trying to recover, which I've never done before. The crux is that over the past couple of months I've ended up being a manager instead of a technical lead. It's a fine-grained distinction, which at my company gets explained more by example than by principle, but managers generally don't make technical contributions, and spend their time herding cats and coordinating and organizing things. That's important, don't get me wrong, and I'm also good at it; but I don't like it at all, and it turns out that my technical contribution is really important to both me and the company.

My higher-ups have been really helpful, and I'm working on two antidotes:
  • No meetings in the afternoons. Ever. 1:30 PM onwards is my time.
  • Have people email the whole team to get implementation details or up-to-the-hour status updates on projects.
The latter is the most interesting to me, as I realized I was becoming a sort of documentation repository, with people expecting me to know the technical details of the dozens of bugfixes and projects we might have going on at any given time. That's becoming impossible, with the team's size and scope: I've been spending all my energy studying and tracking what everyone's been doing, which is already difficult when I haven't been part of the implementation.

People also expect a certain unreasonable level of omniscience: if you ask me about something's status at 4 PM, I'll have no idea. The team does status updates every morning at 11 AM, and I don't bother people after that. (Partly that's projection on my part, because I despise when managers ask me for status updates every couple hours; but whether an engineer finds it annoying or not, it is an objectively disruptive thing to do.) Don't get me started on trying to keep track customer issues. I could literally spend eight hours a day doing nothing but reading and understanding what my team is doing. In fact, that's not far from what I've been doing. I hate it.

I'm feeling better, certainly. I've been a bit at a loss, in that having clawed back some time for coding, I'm not entirely sure what to write code on. It's starting to come into focus, though.

I gave a short talk today at the company meeting, about my team's (pretty amazing) reduction in costs this year. The funny thing is that we didn't start out trying to reduce costs: we were trying to make things work, having faith that once we had stability and consistency, we could tweak it for efficiency. We were right, our costs are down 83% since July 2011 and about 60% so far in 2012, and we're not done yet.

I like giving talks. I'm good at it, people tell me they learn things and have fun, and it's not super hard. I'm comfortable enough in front of a crowd, and my brain is soaked with enough knowledge and experience that I can give myself a basic outline to speak on and I can just extemporize in a relatively engaging way. I can do it in Spanish, too: I spoke for 15-20 minutes to a group of teachers in Valparaíso about my experience of their (very bad) school system. The next level up in speaking, where I actually rehearse a more detailed and less hand-wavey version of what I'm going to say, is pretty easily achievable, and I've already done it once or twice.

Being a grown-up is weird.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


When you take a kid through airport security these days, if the kid can talk, they ask his name, since they don't usually have ID, and check that the name matches the boarding passes. During one of our many trips over the summer, the TSA guy said something to J about his "parents," and J being the almost unfailingly honest little urchin he is, immediately started a monologue in response as he walked away.
"Actually Chris isn't my father, I don't live with my parents and I don't know if I've ever lived together with my parents except maybe when I was a baby..."
Wanting to quickly dispel the idea that maybe I was kidnapping the child, I rolled my eyes and said "I'm his stepfather," and we continued on. Perhaps inevitably, I felt a little sad, even though he's right.

I left Anna and J to go to the bathroom, and when I came back, J walked up and...apologized! We can't remember the exact words, but he very clearly apologized for hurting my feelings. It turns out Anna was explaining to him why that might leave me feeling excluded, and how sometimes it's okay to let people have the wrong idea--there's no harm in letting the TSA guy think I'm his father.

While she was explaining, though, I reappeared and J immediately decided on his own to come apologize. Not your typical Asperger's kid, by any stretch.

I usually refer to J as my son, which works fine until I mention that he's at his father's house for the weekend, which creates understandable confusion. As I explained to him in the airport, though, I do a lot of Dad Things in his life: I take care of him, teach him stuff, play with him, bring him places, snuggle him when he's hurt. We keep getting closer and closer over the years, as he discovers I'm pretty reliable and trustworthy and loving. So I've been thinking a lot about the process of acquiring a pre-grown child by marriage, instead of making one yourself.

With the make-your-own route, you get a substantial head start on your relationship with the child. That relationship still depends on you and the child interacting and feeding back into each other, but you are, always and inevitably, The Mom or The Dad. By default, you're the child's primary--for many years the only--exemplar of that role. In fact, it comes as a bit of a shock when kids learn how different other parents and parent-child relationships can be: both more and less permissive, abusive, demonstrative, controlling, or cooperative than the reality they've known so far. You're the baseline, though. The Ur-Dad.

If you acquire a child by marriage, you don't have the luxury, or the hazard, of not treating the child like a person, with his own already-distinct personality and complex view of the world. You start out as Just Another Guy: he's already got a father, he knows what fathers look like, and you're just someone Mama likes. For this to work, you have no choice but to take him for the person he already is. You're not The Dad. You don't get that head start. You have to get to know each other like any two strangers in the world.

People obviously respond to this differently. There's all manner of possibilities for bad chemistry, bad assumptions, bad relationships. J and I are blessed in really liking and loving each other, and that the three of us have felt like a family together from the beginning. Someday soon he'll be old enough to reflect on his experience, and I'm looking forward to pointing out to him that he made a father out of me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

welcome back, everything's broken

[I wrote this after one of our trips over the summer and never got around to publishing it.]

I got back to work on Friday to a flurry of accumulated issues, quickly dwarfed on Saturday by an across-the-board inability for our customers to upload our videos. Note that this is really the only thing our customers do, and while overall it's far more important that users be able to watch our customers' videos, an inability to upload brings to a halt the work of every individual and company that actually pays us.

I spent 2 hours in a sunny car on I-80 working on my laptop over a cell modem, and another half hour in a Starbucks when my battery ran down, mostly explaining to Tech Support that "Customer cannot upload videos" is not enough information to work with when we have more than a dozen different ways to upload a video. (It turns out they all go through one component, and that's the thing that failed.)

Yesterday I had a 1-1 talk with my boss, which I always enjoy, and I remarked on how my team and its primary software (the video encoding system) are so much better than when I started. He said, "Yes, it's so much better that no one asks about it any more." It turns out that during the uploading outage, several customers commented that video encoding continued to work perfectly. Neither of us really knows what it means for video encoding to continue functioning when you're unable to submit videos for encoding, but I never turn down a compliment.

I took over my team at a time of incredible chaos: the previous team lead is a very smart guy, but not good at either management or software engineering, so the software was a wreck and the team wasn't working coherently, and their constant flailing to keep the awful system running had them aiming for burnout. The company had planned to hire a new team lead, a video encoding expert like my predecessor. They offered me the job because in my anger at the state of the system and especially its human costs, I made a plausible plan to fix it and declared in no uncertain terms that this is what we were doing, and anyone who disagreed had to convince me otherwise (no small challenge when I've spent months thinking through the plan). It turns out this is exactly what you need from someone running a completely autonomous team with a ton of problems.

I complain a lot about my reduced technical role. I do some prototyping and experimenting and smoothing the path for the team, but my overarching role is to make my team work effectively. Not me; my team. As one lead discovered, "Coding is priority number five." It's a common complaint of leadership roles that we no longer do tangible things. It's true, it's a lot of email and talking to people, making design diagrams and plans and sometimes slide decks. We lack the sheer power, the playful omnipotence of typing into a computer, pressing a button, and watching the computer do exactly what we tell it to. (Whether what we actually told it to do is what we intended to tell it to do is, of course, why software has bugs.)

Obviously dealing with software is the core work of the team, as our patron saint Rands reminds us:
Those 15 people don't work for you; you work for them. Think of it like this: if those 15 people left, just left the building tomorrow, how much work would actually get done?
 All that effort has to be directed, though. Someone has to steer the ship, resolve disputes, tell the rest of the company to sod off, and make all sorts of random decisions. There is so much deciding.

Things I learned this year: I'm really good at running a team.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tassajara, jury duty, and an unexpected encounter

A couple weekends ago, we went to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia (part of San Francisco Zen Center). Our teacher takes small groups there every summer, where we visit for four days as "guest practitioners": we eat breakfast and lunch with the students, and work with them in the mornings. In the afternoons we have a dharma discussion, then some unscheduled time, then we eat dinner with the guests.

I missed jury duty back in July, and when I called to reschedule, for some reason I thought I'd just get it done with--who actually gets picked for a jury?--and I scheduled it right before the Tassajara trip. I promptly forgot about it and then discovered I had to go to the courthouse.

I had fun calculating the odds of getting picked for a jury: there were 165 of us, and before the morning started they knew they needed 120. I ended up in a courtroom, where they were selecting a jury for a 5-day trial of a gentleman charged with various drug offenses, and something about importing a dagger into California. (I don't know under what circumstances that's illegal; I know people who have done it recently, and knife sellers are happy to ship daggers here, which they won't do with e.g. nunchuks.)

Notes about jury selection:
  • The process is absolutely fascinating, in almost every way. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  • I am reminded of how many kinds of people I never encounter. One woman had an FBI agent ex-husband and her son and two cousins are DEA agents, and decided that affected her impartiality. Another woman saw her husband murdered a few years ago, but figured she could be impartial.
  • The bar for serving as a juror is fantastically low, and the judge was very articulate about why that should be.
It was particularly interesting to watch the judge decide whether someone's English was good enough for jury service. One guy who was up in the jury box at the same time as me didn't even understand that he was dismissed, just as he hadn't understood that he was supposed to go sit in the jury box. To save everyone some time, I turned around and said "Se puede salir." It's possible he wasn't a citizen and could have saved himself a day of waiting around--I thought English was a requirement, at least de facto, for naturalization.

The judge was a little cranky about letting me go, but Anna helped with the proper wording: "I have a pre-arranged religious retreat in two days with my wife and our teacher, and I won't be able to go again for a few years." The judge is properly skeptical and reluctant to let anyone go, but eventually let me out. This saved us all the awkward conversation where it turns out that I (a) believe in jury nullification, and (b) have a small knife collection and would be hard-pressed to convict someone of something as lame as simply possessing the wrong kind of knife, as opposed to using it on someone.

I felt genuinely bad for my lame planning. It would have been interesting to serve, and I'm lucky that I can afford the time and money to do so.

And then we were at Tassajara! There is no electricity, it is very warm during the day, and we got up for the morning zazen at 5:50. I love, love, love being in a monastery. This was Anna's first monastic visit, and she now understands the draw. When we have successfully turned J into a self-sufficient adult, maybe the two of us can go there for a while.

The big surprise was that Richard Baker showed up. You can read the history yourself, but the short version is that he built San Francisco Zen Center into the mammoth organization it is today, and was forced to resign as abbott and teacher in 1983 over various ethical failures. He disappeared from Zen Center's world, teaching some in Colorado and mostly in Europe. People have been working all these years to effect reconciliation between him and SFZC; I was at City Center in 2008, and while the organization had done a lot of healing, his shadow hung over the place. Finally, at Zen Center's 50th anniversary, he came to give a talk, and...apologized at the beginning. For the first time. It wasn't a long or detailed apology--you can watch it here, starting at about time 29:00--but according to my teacher, it felt like the entire room exhaled, because it's been 30 years that Baker and Zen Center have been stuck like this.

On the drive up to Tassajara, we talked about reconciliation and forgiveness, what's the difference and who has to be involved. One person unilaterally forgives another, but for reconciliation, everyone has to be there. Zen Center, as the individuals who were there and the group culture they passed down to subsequent members, has done the work to forgive Baker, and understand their own role in his behavior, but reconciliation was impossible, because Baker wasn't there for it. All Zen Center has had, all these years, is Zentatsu Richard Baker as a historical construct, just a reputation and a bunch of stories. You can't reconcile, you can't have a relationship, with a reputation and a bunch of stories. For him to be present and acknowledge, even briefly, that he made a lot of mistakes and hurt people, makes all the difference for the people who were there, and it could have a remarkable effect on the general culture of Zen Center.

Baker Roshi's visit was spur of the moment. I was actually detailing the temple cars at the front gate when he came, so I got to say "Welcome!" and have a brief exchange, which felt nice; I wondered if he'd been there since he had to resign in 1983, and I suspected not. For whatever reason, when addressing the combined Tassajara residents and guests, he did not start out by mentioning The Great Unpleasantness. As a result, the first question after the talk was a tactless interrogation from a resident in his early 20s: "How does it make you feel when people demonize you?". Which has a pretty obvious answer ("Not very good.") and maybe was not the question that young gentleman really wanted to ask.

The endnote is that Anna and I ended up at Baker-roshi's table for breakfast, which was a trip. This poor resident was there and asked him about the previous night's talk.
"You mentioned a few times that Zen is a 'yoga' practice. What did you mean?"
"Oh, I just meant that Zen is a Yogachara practice, that's all."
It is obvious to me, but not to Richard Baker, that this girl has no idea what Yogachara is. And isn't about to ask.
"Could you talk a little more about Yogachara?"
"Oh, well, there's an amazing book about it, very dense, but worthwhile: [insert a couple minutes of recommending very dense and somewhat scholarly books about Yogachara without ever explaining why one would care]."
I intervened.
"Sarah, do you know where Yogachara falls in the timeline of Buddhist history and everything?"
"Uh, well, no..."
So I told her. Maybe being observant isn't Baker's thing.

I still had my question.
"Is this your first time back here, since way back when?"
"This is my first time staying overnight. Once or twice I drove out here to the end of the road, looked around, then drove back."
"Welcome back. We're glad you could come."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

a visit to church(!)

I keep starting posts and then not finding the time/energy/focus to finish them the way I'd like. As part of my Zen practice *cough* or something, you can look forward to the publishing of much somewhat-finished writing that starts out really promising and then has bad endings! You lucky devil.

I went to church today, which happens at least every couple years for one reason or another. I mean going to an ordinary church service outside of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Usually this has to do with my friend M, who has been leading the singing at various services for quite some time, first in his native Catholicism, and then at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and today he was the cantor at his new home church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.

(I got drafted into the choir, which is apparently what happens when you show up early as a newcomer and look wistfully as the choir warms up. "Are you a choral singer?" "Yes." "Want to join us?" It's fun having semi-professional-level skills.)

I've been meaning for years to visit St. Gregory's, ever since I read Sara Miles's conversion-and-food-pantry story, Take This Bread. The book itself comes and goes in quality--sometimes it's a little self-involved--but the spirit of St. Gregory's comes through unmistakeably, and parishioners told me they do get random visitors from around the world because of the book. Sara Miles gave the sermon this morning, actually, so that was pretty cool. I could have met her but didn't: authors being complete strangers like anyone else, I don't think we have anything in common to talk about.

St. Gregory's is Episcopalian only in name and origin. M says it started as a mission church of San Francisco's Trinity Episcopal, but I grew up Episcopalian and I can safely say there is nothing Episcopalian about how they do services. I'd be surprised if you found more than one copy of the standard hymnal or prayer book in there.

It's an astonishing place, and well worth a visit. Ethiopian crosses abound (yeah, I wouldn't recognize one either), the English writing on the walls has Greek translation, and Eastern Orthodox-style iconography abounds, to the point where they have icon-painting workshops on weekends. (Making icons is a complex, disciplined meditative practice, following strict rules of symbology and technique. You knew that, of course. Though I suspect maybe they use paint-by-numbers.)

They generally aim for a sort of closer-to-the-original Christianity, with its egalitarianism and universal participation. Everyone starts together in the rotunda with some singing, then processes into the rectangular section with the chairs, where the majority of the service happens: readings and a sermon followed each by a series of Zen-style Japanese bells meditative silence, more singing, a time when people can speak if they're so moved. Then everyone processes back to the rotunda, using a special step: right-left-right, left-step-back. More singing, drums, clinking things (kids were recruited for this part), liturgical bits from the priests. The Communion bread plates and wine cups go out, and everyone just passes them around to the next person. Then there's a short acknowledgement of the Eucharist, and then it just sort of ends and flows into everyone talking and hugging and saying hello. No "Go forth into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord", which is one of my favorite traditional bits, and no ending procession. As an attempt to get back to Christianity's first couple centuries, it's pretty awesome.

Will I go back? Who knows? I imagine so. I liked it. On the other hand, it's not clear that Christianity speaks to me now much more than it did when I was a kid. Partly, they didn't exactly teach Sunday school for the kind of kid I was. Unsurprisingly, the very kind and loving teachers didn't have a satisfying answer to "What is a soul, exactly?"; and if they knew how to make the Bible and the faith intellectually coherent, they weren't sharing the secret with me. Any vaguely inquisitive and literate child can see that the God of the Old Testament was a murderous psychopath; people have been trying to make sense of that for the past 2,000 years, and it seems like there could be a pretty in-depth Theology For Kids class that would do everyone some good.

It's possible I wasn't normal.

Anyway, I know my own way. I'm sure I'll make it back to St. Gregory's occasionally. I highly recommend it if you're anywhere nearby. There's nothing like it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

three cheers for the Internet

I'm going to share a video that makes me happy. (The audio is fine, the video may not be safe for your workplace.)

Some time ago, someone had the genius idea to make ChatRoulette, a website where you would video-chat with essentially random people. As you would expect, it has a lot of naked men up late by themselves at night.

Look at everyone's faces. This is your weekly reminder: humans are amazing and awesome.

true to life

I had a spectacular, utterly realistic dream about J the other night.

In the dream, I come home to the front door. Often they hear my bicycle or something, and J runs to the door, very excited.
"Chris is home! It's Chris!"
Then he turns around and goes into his room to read a book or play with Legos, humming and squeaking and burbling happily.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


We (my entire immediate family) are visiting my brother on his farm in Minnesota. There are fewer mosquitoes than I expected, and more people: I hadn't tallied it up before, but now that we're all married with kids, if you get the whole crew together it's 11 people. We got here on Wednesday, and I'm more than a little fried, because my brother has a relatively small house. Anna and J and I are living in a very large REI tent we brought with us, but the level of cacophony and the effort of family take a big chunk out of any recharging I can do.

What's "the effort of family"? I've never written that before. As humans, we're not good at seeing the world directly, as if for the first time; instead, we form a mental image or model, composed of a little bit of what's happening now, but mostly of our past history with similar things. We especially do this with other people, where we conflate our past experience of them, our assumptions about their inner experience, and then conflate that with other people and experiences that remind us of them somehow. Then we convince ourselves that we know this person, and we're a little shocked when they deviate too far from our mental composite to which we assign their name.

Given that you and your family have known each other your whole life and have spent all that time building mental composites of each other and mistaking that for the real person, it's possible there is no group of people in the entire world less likely to see you freshly and clearly, for who you are at this moment, than your family. Love you unconditionally, I hope so. See who you are, no.

The effort of family is the constant struggle of being pulled into being who your family thinks you are, while pushing back to have them see you as you really are. Of trying to connect with each other through the fog of your shared history.

I'm also exhausted because we've done too much traveling this summer. We have been flying somewhere, with J, about every other week since the beginning of June. It is lovely to see everyone! It's time to be done.

My brother and his wife and daughter are at their friends' wedding, three farm fields to the south, and I went to chase down their marvelous dog who so wanted to join them. On the way back--someone else captured the dog--I met an uncle from the wedding, a very nice man named Frank, and we were talking about autism-spectrum kids and Buddhism. Naturally, he's a Tibetan Buddhist, because that's the sort of person visiting from Virginia that you run into, adjacent to your brother's farm in rural Minnesota.

Anna continues her unblemished streak of awesome, of course. And there's good coffee.

Monday, July 23, 2012

hello chaos, my old friend

I keep starting blog posts, and holding myself to some silly standard of coherence that means I don't finish them because I can't focus.

We spent a week on Cape Cod! Hung out with my parents, got to see my nieces. There are pictures. It was awesome. Lots of excellent parent-kid time with J.

Then Friday at work, and then we were off, kidless, to a relative's 50th anniversary party! Lots of good heavy food, many second cousins, a manmade pond with a bottom of sticky clay and water like it had a bunch of milk in it, underwater visibility about 1/2 inch. Anna recommended naming it Clear Pond.

On the drive up I spent 2 hours on my laptop in a sunny car, fixing a production issue. Many people had separate production issues, and then I came into work today and wow, chaos. Endless emails, planning, what went wrong, how do we fix things, re-prioritizing, did this customer issue get fixed yet. Wow.

Anna got sick yesterday, so I left work mid-day to go pick up J and bring him back here so Anna could take him to an appointment, then I took the train back to work, where I stayed until 8 PM.

TV was made for nights like this.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

dad stuff

We just got J from his dad, so naturally he was a crabby little thing tonight, getting angry at Anna right before bed because he came out of his room during Reading Time, which is disallowed as part of our rigorous bedtime ritual, to offer her some bullshit deal about how he'd go right to sleep if he could watch Minecraft videos tomorrow. We managed to get him settled, and a little while later he opens his door to come out: also strictly forbidden. I got up and followed him back into his room.
"I'm sorry for leaving, I just thought I was going to have a bad dream, you see I was thinking about death and how everyone dies and then I was realizing that I'm closer to death..."
"It's okay. Would you like some more snuggling?"
"Yes, I would like snuggling." (He actually talks like this.)
"Would you like snuggling from me, or Mama?"
"You, since you're already here."
Proximity is a form of love, I guess. We lay there for a bit. I did my best to hold him still; his automatic stimming helps keep him awake.
"Chris, I'm not thinking about it at all. You did good. Now I promise I won't leave again unless I have to pee."
I stayed for a little while, just to make sure he settled a little--being all wound up, every so often he thinks of some joke in a book or whatever and explodes with sleep-inhibiting laughter.

But, hey! I did good.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Garden Of Your Mind

Mister Rogers, Remixed.


Monday, June 25, 2012

June recap

We went to Legoland California for a few days. It's in sunny Carlsbad, CA, between Los Angeles and San Diego. I despise Southern California and have no love for amusement parks, but Legoland is far and away the least loathsome I've ever seen, and I recommend it even if you don't have kids. Stay at the Sheraton next door: there's a private entrance for the hotel, so you can just walk down the hill and skip the chaos of the main gate. (If you wait long enough, they're building a Legoland Hotel which will be properly Lego-themed.)

J got sick and we missed most of the second day of park-going. I was sad for him and Anna, but not unhappy myself to be inside instead of out in the very, very bright sun.

Last weekend we visited the in-laws outside Seattle. I get overwhelmed just walking into their house, so it was a long weekend.

I'm often pretty brain-fried at work this month. The technical scope of my team has somewhat suddenly grown far, far beyond what I can track in my head; I am forced to pull back more and more so that I hold fewer and fewer details. Luckily my team is amazing, but it's hard to keep my head in the game, especially where I actually have to do engineering work. It's extremely difficult for me to switch out of the interrupts-and-meetings mode into a think-deeply-about-things mode. The search for solutions is ongoing.

Finally, my first Father's Day. J was with his dad, but I did get this:

Look at that handwriting! This is the kid who used to melt down sobbing when he tried to write anything. A few weeks ago I complimented him on it and he gave his current response to compliments: "I know!".

He is a marvelous and kind little monkey, and it's a privilege to be a father for him.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

marriage update

We've been married all of 8 months, but we seem to be bearing up well. Marriage has all sorts of legal consequences we didn't really bother to research. There's a fashion these days for couples to discuss the prospect of marriage in-depth for months and years, and decide together when it's a good time. I find this almost literally abhorrent, and I think this more than anything else ultimately marks me as a romantic. There's a place for marriage as a tool to manipulate finances or immigration status--I know one couple who accelerated by years their marriage plans for the latter reason--but that's not really us. We didn't do the reading or the math. We just wanted to be married for no discernible reason other than an absurdly unlikely enjoyment of each other's presence.

Of course I support marriage equality for gay couples, because there every reason to do so and no reason not to beyond a mistaken belief that marriage has always and everywhere, or even in our own cultural history, been between one man and one woman; and the equally mistaken belief that homosexuality is a choice, or is somehow harmful.

(I recommend reading at least the Wikipedia article on the California Proposition 8 case. The decision itself is also good reading, especially as court decisions go.)

However, nothing quite drives home the ubiquitous civil power of marriage like this:
I rented a car, and Anna was automatically allowed as a driver. Because we're married.
I can't imagine what else is waiting for us, certainly not between us as a couple, but especially in how the everyday world treats us. No wonder you can't construct a new institution that's equal to marriage: how many thousands of these little things like rental car rights are granted just because two people happen to have the right license on file together at the county offices? The federal government alone can think of 1,138.

Does that include the car insurance?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

nothing is wasted

I did the "club shoot" today, which is the archery club's monthly tournament. It turned out they were running a state-circuit tournament at the same time, so it was a whole big thing. I think the only people doing just the state shoot were me and the four compound-bow guys with me.

  • It's a long day. You're hiking several miles, on your feet for 5 hours.
  • If you're shooting "traditional," which is a recurve bow without the bells and whistles like sights, you're spending a lot of time hunting for arrows in the undergrowth while your companions rack up points from their 4-inch groups at 80 yards.
  • The technology on compound bows is amazing. They have spring-loaded arrow rests which are linked with a string to the bowstring. When the bowstring moves as it's drawn back, the arrow rest is held up by that link; when the shooter looses the string, the arrow rest collapses right as the string casts the arrow, so the arrow rest doesn't interfere with the arrow at all (which is exactly what you want from an arrow rest).
  • I think shooting a compound bow with all the gadgets is more like shooting a gun than shooting a recurve bow. The technology, like mechanical string releases, takes out so much human error that what's left is holding still and shooting without disrupting the system. That's not easy, but it's also fewer things to screw up.
I didn't actually enjoy it. It was frustrating, I was shooting poorly even for me, I lost one arrow point and one whole arrow, and I was tired. I did finish, with a score of 120 (out of a possible 560), to my companions' 425-475. I had a nice chat on my way out with a traditional shooter I'd seen, who's been shooting for years, gets similar scores, and doesn't do the club shoot.

Years ago, there was a huge Chagall show at SFMoMA: hundreds of paintings, appearing only in San Francisco and Paris. So I left work early, waited in line for a couple hours, went through the show, and you know what?

It turns out I hate Chagall. I think his palette was dim and boring and full of black and dark red, and he was obsessed with stars and roosters. Brilliant and all, but unaffecting in the way I find most visual art.

But I don't regret it, because I make that judgement from a pretty sweeping experience of his work. Literally, hundreds of paintings, one after the other. It's not like anyone can say, as they do with Frank Zappa and any Japanese anime, "Oh yeah, you really have to listen to these 5 other albums for a few weeks/watch this first few dozen episodes and then it gets really amazing." No, I've seen a large representative sample of his work.

Now I know I don't really like club shoots, and I don't have to do one again.

field archery

Most of us grew up thinking of archery as that thing we did with the crappy one-piece fiberglass bows at summer camp. At my camp, there was was a kid, W--who had some serious family and behavioral issues, was sent to a military academy, and now appears to be a Nissan car salesman--who had a compound bow and I believe actually competed. He was certainly better at it than the rest of us, equipment aside.

His bow had a 55 lb. draw weight, and when I was 13, at the beginning of the session, I could barely move it. I took the weightlifting class for two weeks, though, and at the end of the two weeks, I could draw the bow pretty easily. So that was cool.

Anyway, without knowing the hows and whys of his very complex-looking piece of equipment, I knew there was more to archery than one-piece fiberglass bows and cheap wooden arrows.

One of the privileges of being a self-supporting grown-up is that I get to go do whatever I want that looks fun, so when I found out about the free archery range up the hill in Huddart Park, and furthermore that the club maintaining it offers a free class, I went and enjoyed it. It turns out that archery is a pretty small basic investment (compared to, say, skiing, photography, or any number of other things): for all new equipment, the shop kitted me out for a few hundred dollars. I still use the same gear five years later, minus the lost arrows. I have easily paid more in gas money going to the range than I did for the equipment.

The Huddart Park range introduced me to the idea of field archery, which is a course of targets laid out through the woods and hills and such. This is nominally about the shooting skills needed for hunting, although if you're taking shots like Target #12 and trying to hit a deer at 80 yards across a gorge, you might be doing it wrong. You certainly have a more powerful bow than I do, and probably a scope: at that distance I'm happy to get my arrows back, let alone hit the bale. (The course is extremely well-designed to maximize safety and minimize arrow loss: you're normally shooting at the side of a hill.)

I had Monday off at work, so I decided to do the course. It's beautiful, a long walk up and down hillsides in the redwoods, almost all shaded, lots of gullies with bridges over them. I'll have to take pictures next time. I made it to Target #23, about 90 minutes, before I decided I was too tired for it to be fun. Then I walked off onto the fire road, which turned out to be at least a half mile straight uphill. Of course, it turns out there are only 28 targets, so it probably would have been easier to walk the whole range.

It's sweaty work! And I was totally dead for the rest of the day, but it was good exercise.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

back from the mountains

What kind of blogger writes a post every ten days? Lame.

We spent a couple nights at Harbin Hot Springs, with J and Jess. It's a nice place, full of hippies. I mean really full of hippies. On the wall was a flyer for a class taught by the "Poet Laureate Emeritus of Lake County." (Not making this up.) That's weird enough if you don't think counties usually have poets laureate; it's weirder if you know that Lake County is mostly known for Indian casinos and crystal meth.

Harbin has hot pools, cold pools, some nice trails, honey-sweetened chocolates for sale at the health-food store. We scored a sweet campsite, on a platform next to the creek. There was the usual amount of slacking and reading. J was unusually fragile, with lots of angry and meltdown moments. The latest thing to address is his habit of collapsing in a puddle on the floor when something goes wrong. Besides being weird and quite challenging to deal with even if you're used to it, he does it without any great regard for his own safety, so sometimes he hurts himself, and the initial freakout gets completely blown away by the utter meltdown that usually comes with an injury. (I say "injury" here in a general sense. Usually it's a scratch or a bump; one time he "got sad" and started kneeling down on the ground, but knelt on something pointy. Commence the shrieking.)

I had the beginnings of an interesting conversation with a woman in the kitchen, when I sat J down for a snack. She looked over and said, "He's not autistic, by any chance?".
"Yeah, Asperger's. Though we haven't talked about it yet."
"Oh, sorry."
We managed to have at least a bit of conversation about her high-functioning autistic daughter, but at various points the woman was spelling out words, in some kind of attempt to keep J from understanding. I was too surprised, and too busy trying to understand her, to explain that J learned how to read when he was 3 or 4, and mostly without anyone teaching him: he just started reading sentences out loud one day. He spells out long words at us, just for fun.

That's the first time any of his parents have explicitly talked about his Asperger's within earshot. Anna is still prepping the conversation with him about it; more specifically, prepping his dad, who may not be entirely on board. J needs to know, though. He knows he's different, and he does all these various therapy things that other kids don't do, and he has trouble doing things other kids find easy. (Like most of us, he's not so good at noticing the things he is good at.)

The woman and I had this conversation while J was eating ravenously, compounding the usual impossibility of knowing when he's actually listening to the sounds around him. He'll often stare off into space, and sometimes you can say his name repeatedly and tap him on the forehead and he won't notice because he's off in his own internal world; other times, you can fail to get his attention in the same way, but twenty minutes later he will demonstrate perfect recall of everything he overheard. The "interesting" outcome would be if he asks his dad about the Asperger's comment before asking us: there's an unfortunate conflict if his dad freaks out or generally doesn't go with the flow of there being a diagnosis and his kid not being the idealized imaginary (neurotypical) kid he sometimes thinks or wishes he has.

Like J's life isn't confusing enough already.

Friday, May 18, 2012


It turns out my friend Jess is also into archery, and she roped in a co-worker, who then arranged for a lesson on Sunday with a guy who turned out to be the Stanford head coach. I've been meaning to arrange a lesson (though not with him), so this was perfect.

It was amazing! He did a bunch of stuff with alignment, and when I pointed out my release of the arrow had been screwy for months, he saw it immediately and tied it into the overarching alignment theme. Basically, your bow arm has to be locked, so you're minimizing the muscles involved in holding the bowstring back. Releasing the arrow means squeezing the shoulder blades together, so the arrow hand pulls through the string, which magically makes the arrow go straight. Iron-rod posture, shoulder blades together and chest forward at the end.

It's actually that simple. When I do all that, the arrow very naturally goes more or less where I want it. ("Aiming is very natural, and it's absolutely the last thing you need to think about.") a few thousand more shots and I should have it down pat.

Generally, it's impossible for us to see ourselves. We always need another person giving us feedback, whether it's a coach or a Zen teacher. Even surgeons.

I decided randomly to check craigslist for a used sight, and found a guy selling an entire Olympic archery setup: sight, stabilizers, stand, carrying bags, bow. I had to promise myself not to spend the $800 on a setup that's not necessarily right for me, but the sight seemed a safe bet. I, uh, kind of ended up buying the stabilizers too--it was all a fantastically good deal--which means I now have accessories worth far more than the bow.

As expected, my shooting isn't stable enough for the sight, but the stabilizer, which I use without a weight, makes a huge difference, much more than I expected. It balances the bow, so it takes less effort to hold it and I can focus on my body position, and it also absorbs the vibration from the shot and makes it more pleasant.

I miss aikido, but this is also fun, and takes less energy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

TTMMR: blind longing for community

[Part One of an ongoing series, Things That Make Me Ranty. I watched myself going into Rant Mode about something and realized I have a whole list of things I'll get ranty for, and they might be worth writing about.]

Summary: Community is not an inherent, unalloyed good. It can inflict incredible damage on individuals.

The modern world in general, and America in particular, have a serious problem with community. I don't know who my neighbors are, and I haven't, really, in any of the places I've lived in California. I have a huge network of friends, who I can count on in times of need, but we keep in constant contact through email and real-time chat in between seeing each other every few weeks. Typically no one is randomly visiting, or asking to borrow a cup of sugar or anything.

Our families are also scattered. My brothers and I see our parents a few times each year, but we see each other rarely: maybe every 1-3 years, depending on what we've got going on. I tried to explain this to Chileans, who live with their parents until they get married, then they move into a house within 15 minutes (preferably 5) of their parents. Just because you're speaking the same language doesn't mean you're communicating: I might as well have said "I enjoy stubbing my toe, and my favorite hobby is drinking castor oil." It was so far outside their experience that most of them couldn't wrap their heads around it.

So there are books, and studies, and this is all to the good. We do need to understand what's changed, and how to enable and allow more connection and relationship in our life. We need to know that Facebook is not the same as friendship. With no offense to the handful of you that married your World of Warcraft guildmates, World of Warcraft is really not a good way to build actual human relationships that will support and sustain you.

I will now tell you something you may not have thought of, especially if you're like me and you grew up in modern urban America.

Community can have a very, very dark side. Not all tight-knit communities are open and loving. Like any relationship, we create community at a certain cost to the individual: we change our behavior to fit communal norms, we perform tasks we'd rather not, we spend time with some people we don't enjoy so much.

Sometimes, close communities kill people, engage in public shaming or shunning, or force people to renounce their families and friends. I'm not being dramatic. These are real things that did and do happen. Let's have a concrete example.

One of my Chilean teacher colleagues grew up evangelical Christian. She has since relaxed quite a bit while maintaining a strong faith, but her entire family and community are still rigid and fundamentalist. Her husband completely broke her heart, his womanizing particularly hurtful even for a Chilean man, so they're separated--remember no one gets divorced in Chile. They share the two kids half-time, which is normal enough...but the community barely tolerates their separation. Every Sunday she has to go sit next to her husband in church as though everything's fine. If they got divorced, she would lose her family and all the people she's known through the church, and depended on, in her life. She would probably lose her kids.

She needs her community enough to spend Sunday mornings sitting next to the one person in the world who has hurt her most, pretending like nothing's wrong. Constant emotional slaps in the face, because that's the price the community exacts for membership.

This happens so often to gay kids that there's a foundation to help them.

Human community expresses much of the best of what we can be. We help and care and love and protect each other. We're social creatures, and we should work on building community. We just have to be aware of what community can cost individuals, and make conscious choices about how much we're willing to squash the members who don't fit the allowed forms.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

brought to you by the Internet

I heard this song years ago on KFOG, and once or twice a year I've been googling the lyrics, with no luck. For some reason it came to mind again, and lo and behold, the band has a proper website with the lyrics and everything. "Take Our Turn," by The J Band:

It's not deep, but it is catchy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

the growth of wisdom

Yesterday on chat:
James: I have a friend that used to get drunk and then combative. He was a black-belt in shotokan karate. We cautiously went drinking with him again, but my girlfriend and I brought fuzzy handcuffs, in case he went crazy again.

James: Generically, I stopped drinking with that group. Fighty McDrunkerson is supposedly okay if he doesn't get whiskey.

James: Several nights with that guy, he'd get in a fight at a bar, get us thrown out. One time he playfully kicked me in the solar plexus.

Chris: wow. you couldn't pay me to go drinking with a karate black belt who gets violent.

Chris: my black belt in aikido tells me that is a fucking stupid thing to do. =)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

signs of life

Another aikido class! I did the basics class tonight and didn't feel like a zombie afterward. As with the weapons class on Sunday, I can feel that I shouldn't push myself much past what I'm doing, but wow, what a difference. Tonight I had enough energy left over to make some chicken curry for the week. From scratch. Chicken curry is really heavy and bad for us, but the point is really that I had a work day and an aikido class and still managed to cook something which I'm not exactly happy with, but it tastes fine, and it's sort of a pain to make.

I had a better day at work, too, with various puttering and accomplishing of things. My friend Matt works with me now, and he said about our boss, "I love talking to him. It always changes my week." I told the boss that when I go to lots of meetings, I hate my job.
"So don't go."
"But some of those meetings are my job."
"What do you think your job is?"
"To help my teams work efficiently and happily, and to represent them to the rest of the company."
"You can stop at the first one. Helping your teams do work is your only job. You can scrap anything that doesn't directly contribute to that. All meetings are optional, except interviews."
He and I have had this conversation before, in various forms. It's hard when people are saying they really need you there to participate or offer information. That happened with two meetings on Monday that it turned out I could have skipped. I think what happens is that other people, Product Managers in this case, get OMG REALLY EXCITED about the giant new project that's happening. Of course they're excited. They're Product Managers, and signing a huge customer means they have opportunities to Manage Products. In their excitement, they lose what was already a minimal sense of perspective on whether engineers are or should be anywhere near as excited as they are about the product development coming down the pike. The answers, generally, are:
  1. No, we're not.
  2. No, we shouldn't be. (We can be, if we want to.)
  3. Why are you still here? Get out of my office and leave me alone.
Everybody has lots of reasons to talk to us, and for non-engineers, it's natural to do this sort of thing in meetings. Engineers are really left out in the cold as the only people who don't want to have a meeting. It feels sort of churlish to not accomodate people at least a little bit. But it's the right thing to do.

We humans are funny this way: we always need to be reminded of how much decision-making power we really have. At work, as a team lead, I have vast, nearly unlimited discretion, so long as my decisions get my teams pushing the company in the right direction. How I go about that, what tools we use, what projects we take on, are largely up to me. I often forget exactly how far that goes, and some of my fellow team leads have never yet flexed those muscles.

We do this with our selves, too. We don't realize how many choices we make every day, or how those choices and responses and reactions shape us in turn.
Irrigators guide the water.
Fletchers shape the arrow shaft.
Carpenters shape the wood.
Those of good practices control themselves. [link]
The choices we make are like a carpenter working a piece of wood. We create ourselves, and through that, the quality of our experience. We have all that power. In the hustle and noise of everyday life, we just forget.

Monday, April 30, 2012

sometimes it's not fun

I went to aikido yesterday! Just the early weapons class, but it was nice to train again. I'm predictably sore, but not exhausted, though I was definitely using as much energy as I had available. I'm pretty sure that means I'm feeling better.

I had a really crabby, unenjoyable day today. Nothing bad really happened, as such. My team has encountered weeks of problems implementing the architecture design, and wasted a couple weeks on some stupid stuff imposed from outside, but those are the kinds of things that happen. No, I had a bunch of meetings, which people insisted I needed to be at, and I could easily have skipped. Those same people tell me I need to draw boundaries and go to fewer meetings. Which I do, until they harass me about the supposed need for my presence.

There's a lot to pick apart in that experience, though ultimately I think it's not very interesting. The thing that sticks with me is this: When I go to a lot of meetings, I hate my job. I love working with my teams, and going to meetings robs me of that. The product and strategic stuff just doesn't interest me. I'm completely consumed with the engineering work and people work that I do care about.

That's an excellent thing to know, as well as to know that it goes in phases and overall I like it. I wonder what, if anything, I should change.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Talk[tm]

J is 7 now, and developing a level of maturity where it's time he knows that he has Asperger's syndrome, and how that makes various things easier (math, reading) and harder (everything else) for him. He's known for a long time now that he's different, so hopefully it comes as a relief. Anna found this really great book that I recommend for pretty much everyone. It was amazing to read it and keep nodding and picturing J's version of that behavior or difficulty. Like, all his flapping and dancing and twirling? That's full-on bona fide stimming, which is immediately clear if you watch videos of other kids doing it.

It should be a good conversation, though I don't know if I'll be there for it: being Mama, she handles most of these things, and for whatever reason, J is usually more comfortable discussing challenging things with her, when I'm not around. (Otherwise we risk having him clap his hands over his ears and repeatedly say, "Please stop talking about that, it's making me sad," sometimes escalating to dramatic moaning and collapsing in a puddle on the floor.)

It's a tricky thing to talk about. One the one hand: "Here's this condition that describes your gifts and challenges really well, and explains why some things are hard for you."

On the other hand: "Lots of things are harder for you than for other kids, but you know, you have to do them anyway."

And J is unusual for Aspies, too, with his awareness of other people's emotions, so you have discuss what's specially different just about him. He doesn't have an obsessive special interest, either, nor does he monologue drastically more than other 7-year olds.

Speaking of things that are harder, he swam today! Actual self-buoyant, laying-flat-on-the-water, not-dog-paddling swimming! A classic thing for kids on the autism spectrum is lack of coordination between their left and right sides, so this is is a pretty huge thing and the result of a few years of work.

I promised to take him sailing when he could swim; guess I should find some weekends for the sailing certification, so I can rent us a boat.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

why you don't know more about Buddhism, part 1

The founding texts of Buddhism make up what's called the Pali Canon. Pali is closely related to Sanskrit, so on the scale of "how weird is it for English speakers," it's harder than Spanish but easier than Chinese. The texts--they don't have the sort of divine authority you'd associate with "scripture"--were transmitted orally for a few hundred years before being written down. There's been a lot of textual scholarship in the past few decades and it appears that oral transmission, at least in this case, is a lot more accurate that we tend to think.

Teacher and author Stephen Batchelor typically estimates that if you were to print the Pali Canon in English, it would come to about 6,000 pages. He further guesses that if you eliminated the repetition, you'd still have 3,000 pages. My RSV Bible is a mere 1087 pages. This is the Pali Canon:

The Pali Canon is divided into three pitakas, or "baskets": the Vinaya, or monastic rules, the Abhidhamma, a post-Buddha systematized psychology, and the part most of us would be concerned with, the Suttas, a vast collection of discourses by the Buddha.

The great challenge for those interested in reconstructing a historical perspective is the way the Sutta Pitaka is organized, without any kind of narrative. Chronological order? Nay nay, shar-pei. There are 5 groupings, or nikayas. In an innovative monastic order in ancient India, this is how we roll when we have reams of material to memorize:
  1. Digha Nikaya - The long discourses.
  2. Majjhima Nikaya - The middle-length discourses. (I'm not making this up.)
  3. Samyutta Nikaya - The "connected" discourses, using various criteria for "connected," including one group organized by who appears in the sutta.
  4. Anguttara Nikaya - The "numerical" discourses, organized by the number of topics they cover. (I'm serious. Click on the link.)
  5. Khuddaka Nikaya - Khuddaka means "random little things that wouldn't fit anywhere else," including collections of sayings like the Dhammapada.
So yeah. Where do you start, exactly?

Monday, April 16, 2012

pause, and return

Our Zen sangha had our fall retreat (sesshin in Japanese, which means "gathering the mind") this past weekend: 2 days of sitting, with short walking breaks. Anna couldn't come, sadly: the scheduling forced it to be on a Kid Weekend.

I have mixed feelings about sesshin, as I think most people do, and rightly so. It's acutely uncomfortable, but navigating our internal experience of that discomfort is part of what sesshin gives us. We come together to do, as a group, something which almost none of us are able to do separately. Your body gets sore, your mind gets twitchy. It's never been a huge deal for me. When the end comes, I recognize that I actually need a longer retreat, but I'm not at all sad that it's over.

That said, I did jump a bit too fast back into everyday life after this one. That's okay, too. Nothing is ever wasted.

Last week I agreed to lead a second team. It was a team of two people, and the lead left the company, leaving the one guy and a partly-done roadmap. Anna thinks I'm insane, given my energy level and my ongoing ambivalence about how much I enjoy managing. She may be right. Today I found out that on Wednesday, along with every other team lead, I'll be presenting my two teams' design, testing, and deployment strategies to a group of very senior engineers from a very large Japanese customer with whom we have a very strained relationship: one hour, with translation. Of course I don't know a whole lot about Team #2 yet: I can't even draw the system on the whiteboard. That will change by 5pm Wednesday. This is why I'm useful.

Team #1 is cruising merrily along. Phase 1 of our system rebuild is almost done, and as predicted we got a more than 100x improvement in the thing we were trying to improve. That broke a bunch of other stuff, as is the way of things, so the team is fixing that. Oh, and now there's a hurry to build some content encryption, which has been waiting in the wings to rise up and interrupt our work. So Phase 2 of the rebuild has to wait a couple of weeks.

J was overjoyed to see me, which is always gratifying. Besides the neurotypical giant grin (which isn't super common), he has his weird, J-specific ways of showing it: taking my hands and moving around with something intended as dancing, and then just walking over and leaning on me. He's weird, but truly marvelous in ways other kids aren't: smart and sensitive, and when he's not freaking out about nothing in particular, he has an acute intuition about what's going on in the world, about how other people think and feel and react. When he remembers not to be pre-emptively judgemental, he's patient and kind and open.

It's hard to describe his differences to someone who hasn't met him. I've found people trying to dissuade me from the idea that he's somewhere on the autism spectrum: "Kids are like that" is a common response. Maybe they're concerned that I'm some sort of over-worried parent, going out of my way to find something wrong. Usually they settle down when I point out that actual medical professionals made an actual diagnosis. No, trust me. I was a weird, weird kid (did I mention weird?). J is in a whole other league.

Sometimes we spend sesshin letting our minds run their course. My teacher says she once spent an entire 7-day sesshin remodeling her house in her head. Usually by the end of the two days, I've just started to settle. I don't mind at all spending two days on a cushion watching thoughts go by about my life. It's all pretty awesome.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

being in charge

I've been trying to work on some Buddhism-related posts, so of course they're sitting there in my Drafts folder for months, because even if I can't get them perfect, I need them to be clear and to say what I mean to say. This is not helped by my lack of sitting, or my general tiredness.

But! Work is interesting, as always. At the Engineering offsite on Tuesday, we ran a multi-hour simulation where people were assigned to simulated versions of our real teams, usually outside their normal areas: I was on Analytics instead of Transcoding, for example. The Team Leads for the simulation were generally the youngest engineers. One of my team's two youngest engineers was acting as team lead for the simulation, where we had a backlog of work to do, every half hour counted as a month, and teams had to made trade-offs among recruiting and Operations resources, vs. how much work they had to do and how much technical debt they incurred.

I wandered over to the simulated Transcoding team periodically, usually to find people looking at me a little wide-eyed and saying something like, "Wow, this is...really hard."

Yes. Yes, it is.

The best was probably the simulation team lead, who on Monday got a little cranky and told me I need to start handling more "on-call" stuff (basically interrupt-driven production problems and stakeholder requests) because I hadn't yet and it's grinding on the people who are doing it. I've tried, in the past, but any time I've arranged to try, there's been a production meltdown or someone forgot they were going to work with me. Supposedly the solution is to just take on the full responsibility for a week; given that from last Friday-Friday I had about 9 working hours overall, we'll see how that goes.

His comment on the simulation was, "It's really stressful."

Yes. Yes, it is. It's difficult to explain why, exactly, or what takes up so much time. Some of it, sometimes a lot, is meetings, but mostly it's the constant interruptions of people needing small decisions or opinions or bits of direction. It completely chops up the day, so there's no stretches of time to be settled and concentrate enough to produce something.

One of the goals of the simulation was to give everyone visibility into the kinds of resource and technical trade-offs that the company is constantly making, but which are typically hidden from the people who do what I call "real work." This is by design: if you involve everyone in the decision-making, you'll accomplish neither the decision-making (too many deciders) nor the engineering work you're trying to decide on (everyone shares the team lead's fate of constant interruption). It's been gratifying to have people understand better what I'm doing and why it's hard. It's always good to feel more heard.

But! The more awesome thing is the work my team has been doing. We're winding down Phase One of the giant re-architecture project, appears to work exactly like I thought it would. It's a huge step for me as a senior engineer, and for my team as a group of people buried under a Gordian knot of crappy software they inherited. Even better, as they see what the system is now capable of, they're better understanding the plans for the next 3 months and 3 months after that, and a general trajectory of making things go from "suck" to "not suck" to "genuinely awesome." I get judged on what my team accomplishes, and they are, so far as I can tell, kicking ass. They themselves are amazing people, but particularly given the disorder and uncertainty when I took over, this past quarter says promising things about my leadership ability.

I have a reputation at work now, though I'm not entirely sure what it is. I think it has to do with speaking very directly and with little patience for wasting time. My friend Matt (who now works with me) might say that I smile while I very politely tell people to fuck off; someone else sees me as "that crotchety guy who will always tell you exactly what he thinks." A friend who's on my team can't picture me as "crotchety." I'm not sure what anybody else thinks.

I like to think that while my diplomatic language is not consistent, that I do make sure that people's concerns are heard and acknowledged, and if I don't turn their requests down immediately, that it either gets scheduled, or added to our backlog with a promise that it gets done someday sooner than "never." I tell people why I'm responding the way I am, what the team's concerns are that might be more important (and most likely how they benefit from our prioritizing other things first), and what other work we want to do that their request can piggyback on. I suppose I tell them all the things that I would want to hear in their position: a response from my own sensitivities to not being told things I should know.

I'm not always sold on the job. It's really incredibly difficult, in ways that are stressful yet hard to articulate. But it's pretty gratifying to carefully make a big plan and then watch it happen, even if I don't get to do much of the actual work.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

pulp classics

I finished a couple more classic books.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars. One source for the recent movie John Carter. It's a really good book. There are elements of the colonialist white-hero thing (torn to shreds in lovely short essays here and here), but while Carter does come in and save Martian society #1--a more advanced society than Earth)--he does it by helping them make peace with Martian society #2, and the allied natives win their war against Martian society #3. Deliciously absent is the arrogance of the white hero not only marrying the native princess, but defending the nature-loving natives from the other white men.

H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines. Apparently the first of the Lost World literary genre, it's a rollicking adventure read, but HOLY CRAP, so racist. It's set in South Africa, future home of apartheid, in the 1870s or so, and...yeah.
"I do perceive that now as ever thy words are wise and full of reason, Macumazahn [Allan Quatermain, the narrator]; that which flies in the air loves not to run along the ground; the white man loves not to live on the level of the black or to house among his kraals [villages]."
I just finished re-reading Huckleberry Finn, finally, but Twain is clearly anti-racist. Haggard...not so much.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Ladies and gentlemen: The Ira Glass Sex Tape!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

night music: Pachelbel's Canon in D

You know the one. The boring one. Here's a less loathsome version of the original--usually it's played in a kind of deathmarch lockstep. Bonus points if it's an out-of-tune high school orchestra.

Maybe you can get all the way through that. I couldn't.

People have tried to spice it up over the years. For example, the University of Michigan a cappella group Amazin' Blue added lyrics, which I sang with my groups in high school and college:

That one got the groupies going, let me tell you.

My brother came home from college having discovered the music of George Winston, who actually made it interesting. Here you also get to see his freakish piano technique: I saw him perform in college with my concert-pianist girlfriend, and she twitched the entire time.

That's the version I grew up with, so I never quite understood the hate.

One guy was sort of traumatized by the experience of playing the monotonous cello line in high school, and he grew up to be a standup comedian, and he starts to illustrate why it's so popular:

And then. THEN. The Australians show up.

Yep. All our songs sound the same. But who cares?

Or, as King of the Hill put it: "It's okay if you only know three chords, as long as you play 'em in the right order."