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.