Wednesday, April 15, 2015

You Will Recognize Yourself

You told me twice during our phone conversation last night, "I don't want to break your heart."

When you decided to change course in the journey of your life last year, I questioned not the decision, which I agreed with you was necessary, but the timing.  I felt that you needed more of a nest egg.  I respected and accepted your choice, despite it taking you far away from me.

Recognize that the thought of backtracking came from hurt and anger.  Now that you're past the heat of that moment, you're choosing to stay the course.  I have no disappointment at that; in fact, I admire it.

It's not making a choice that it hard.  It's realizing the implications and living with the consequences, good or bad, that is.

You're not making a bad choice here.  You're remaining true to who you have decided to be, which is a person recovering from earlier choices in your life that were, let us say, less than optimum.  This makes me quite proud.

And in the truth of that, you simply cannot break my heart.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Go Go, Scurry Scurry

I work in an IT shop that has always been a bit chaotic in its approach to creating software.  This is slowly changing, but I deal in an environment of legacy applications, written over the last three decades. Applications written for mainframes.  For PCs.  For the Internet.  Written using a dozen different programming languages and even more philosophies, in dozens of semi-independent locations worldwide. Data is stored in several different kinds of databases, from a half-dozen vendors, and often, it's variations on the same data.  Which version is the master data, the version that the company can count on to always be right, to always be representative of its relationships to its suppliers and customers, linking manufacturing and logistics?  There are always gaps between what data one application needs and what another one can provide.  Every programmer has his or her own style of writing program code.

Did I say chaotic?  Schizophrenic might be a better, if colloquial, description.

In truth, this is not unusual.  Companies merge, form strategic alliances, break apart.  People come and go, change jobs, learn to work differently.  New technologies catch on, then fall out of fashion. And always, artifacts remain, encoded knowledge of the ways things used to work, resistant to change but evolving nonetheless, while cutthroat politics wax and wane.

Contractors are another kind of artifact.  They are often highly experienced, and their encoded knowledge tends to be arcane and specialized.  You would not be terribly off base to think of them as grizzled survivors of the IT wars, quirky veterans who have found their lucrative niches.

Arthur was such a contractor when my company brought him in to work with the maintenance group in 2005.  He looked distinguished and patriarchal with his dark horn-rim glasses, salt-and-pepper hair, and black eyebrows.  He had around 25-30 years of IT experience behind him.  He fit the quirky image:  he used Outlook to organize not only his time and email, but his notes about everything, the way people now use OneNote or EverNote.

And his niche?  The ETL tool in Sql Server 2000.

Don't let my use of a three letter acronym throw you.  ETL means Extract, Transform, and Load. Such tools are typically used in what used to be called Decision Support and is now usually called Business Intelligence.  The Sql Server ETL tool was called Data Transformation Services, DTS for short.

A typical use for DTS is to read data from a database, summarize it, and write it to a spreadsheet. And how do we do this?
  • Sign on to Sql Server Enterprise Manager.  
  • Find the database you're working with, select it, and right click to open a context menu, then click on Data Transformation Services.  
  • In the window that opens in response to this request, you have a blank work area to the right, a column of icons to the left, and a menu bar at the top.  The icons are divided into two sections: Connections and Tasks.  
  • Find the Database Connection icon and drag it to the work space; when you drop it, a properties window opens. 
  • Enter the database details, server, name, login id and password.  Click Ok.
  • Find the Excel -- this is, of course, the usual suspect -- Connection icon and drag it to the work space.
  • Enter the path to the spreadsheet, including file name, into the properties window that opens when you drop the icon in the work space, then click Ok.  Be aware that the blank spreadsheet must exist before you do this.
  • Select the Database connection (data source), then the Excel connection (data target), and click Workflow in the menu bar.  This opens a dropdown menu; click on Completion.  This adds an arrow between the connection icons, pointing from the database to the spreadsheet to show the direction of data flow.
  • Right click on the arrow and select Properties from the context menu.
  • The resulting pop-up window presents a radio button list of options.  Select Copy from database.
  • The next window has five tabs; we are concerned with the first three -- Source, Destination, and Transformations.
  • On the Source tab, select the database table to read and specify the desired data columns.
  • On the Destination tab, select the spreadsheet columns to write to.
  • On the Transformations tab, select each pair of corresponding source and destination columns, one at a time.  There is a dropdown that gives a list of choices in how to process the data, ranging from a simple copy to a custom program; this time, select Copy.
  • Once all the desired data has been specified, click Package on the menu bar, then Save As from the dropdown menu.  Give the package a meaningful name and save it in the database.
  • Run the package by once again clicking Package on the menu bar, then Execute.
  • Debug if necessary.  
  • Repeat the previous two steps until there are no runtime errors.
  • Confirm that the data in the spreadsheet is correct.  If it is, we're done!  If it isn't...
  • This is a simple usage of DTS.

Arcane and specialized knowledge, indeed.

During the first half of 2005, Arthur and I were part of a team upgrading a corporate product costing website.  We were adding a new company location, which was significant because data for our different brands was segregated by location.  Along with adding the new location, we were redefining our database keys; this required changes to almost every query in every one of the roughly thirty pages in the site, which was my role, and equivalent changes to the each of the seven DTS packages, which was Arthur's role.  

I was also charged with keeping Arthur on task, which was a challenge on more than one level.  I was not a supervisor, and I had no experience, at that time, with the technology Arthur was using.   

It wasn't long before Arthur started asking to add data to each spreadsheet and database extracted with DTS.  That was not his task, as I understood it, so I told him not to.  He went around me, to the software architect who designed the costing web site and got him to okay the changes.  Certainly not the smoothest example of teamwork, no?

We kept working like this until the project reached fruition:  Implementation Day!  I did my documentation, I moved my program changes from the testing environment to production, and I coordinated the database changes with the database administrators.  Just before 5:00, Arthur dropped by my cubicle and leaned against the wall with one of those grins on his face, a grin that makes you suspect that the person wearing it isn't quite all there mentally.  

I realized then that there was probably a gap between what was and what should be, so I asked, "Arthur, have you coordinated moving your changes to production with the DBAs?"  "No."

You expect certain things from the professionals you work with:  competence, punctuality, responsibility.  And if those expectations aren't met...

After telling me that he had not fulfilled his responsibility as a project team member on this day, Arthur kept standing there, leaning against my cubicle wall, grinning that stupid grin.  I looked at him and said, "Go go, scurry scurry." 

He did go, he did scurry, and better late than never, he completed his part of the project.  

This was not the first time that Arthur had been rather cavalier in his duties, and his contract was terminated a couple of days later.  He asked me if I would be a reference for him in his job search, and I told him I would.  It is fortunate for us both that no one ever inquired into my experience working with him, as I would have told the unvarnished truth.

It's amusing, what I said to Arthur that day, but I'm not proud of it.  I wouldn't have spoken to a child in such condescending tones.  I've learned to handle both myself and other people better, as I've gone gone, scurried scurried.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Her Bright Shining Star

I lost a friend a couple of weeks ago.  Her name was Rhonda, and she took her own life.

Rhonda Sellers Elkins and I were high school classmates, and while I certainly remember her name from those days, I cannot say I really remember her.  That's a shame, because when we connected through Facebook, I found her to be a truly engaging person with whom I shared a curiosity in a few esoteric subjects.  We had several conversations on Facebook that I thoroughly enjoyed, and then it seemed that she simply drifted offline, as people will do when their lives become busy.

She reappeared on Facebook on April 13, 2013, and told the world that her brilliant medical student daughter Kaitlyn had committed suicide two days before.  I cannot say with any surety how the rest of her family handled Kaitlyn's death, but Rhonda grieved long and hard and publicly.  And in that grief, she told those of us who cared to listen of not only her daughter's long hidden and severe depression, but her own as well.

Rhonda actively used her grief, becoming a prolific blogger and an author to not only deal with her loss but to raise awareness about depression, especially among gifted young people.

Rhonda's agony touched me in a way I don't quite know how to explain.  I have been aware , in my own deepest moments of grief, of the edges of a vast pit of unrelenting darkness, a place that it seemed there could be no return from if I fell in.  No light.  No hope.

And I wondered, momentarily, about simply not being.

And I wonder now, how was I able to turn away from that siren call, when so many like Rhonda and Kaitlyn cannot?

We lionize those who sacrifice themselves that others may live, saying that they gave their lives.

We sympathize with those suffering from cancer and like diseases, whose physical pain is seen, is witnessed, and we do not begrudge them the choice to end their suffering.

We demonize the suicidal, whose anguish is not understood, is not witnessed, saying that they took their lives.  We accuse them of being weak, of having a defect of the will, yet how do we know what we would do in their places?

Rhonda called her book what she called her daughter, My Bright Shining Star.  Perhaps it should've been My Bright Shining Sun, for it seems that Rhonda was left with only that unrelenting darkness, until she could no longer bear it.

To her husband Allyn and daughter Stephanie, you have my profoundest sympathies.  I wish that in the times I talked to Rhonda, I had been able to be of more help.

I miss my friend.  I hope that she found her surcease from pain.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


No day that begins with a pet...a companion...dying in your arms is going to be a good day.

He was 17 years old, and his name was Blazer.  Don't laugh, he was named by a six year-old boy.

Blazer belonged to my children from the time they got him and his sister Stripes in the summer of 1997 until they moved to Indiana with their mother in 2003.  They asked me if I'd keep him when their landlord said the dogs would be okay but the cat would have to be declawed.

Blazer moved in with me that July.

Lisa and I were still dating long distance then.  She fell in love with Blazer very quickly, and he returned her devotion.  We were already a family before Lisa and I married; we even had a catchphrase -- "Oops, he fell."  Ask me privately about this, and I may even tell you the truth.

Blazer once made his name literal.  Lisa and I had been married about 6 months, and I was sent off for a week's training for work.  I was on my way home, from Boston if memory serves, and Lisa was going through our mail.  She had one of those huge three wick candles lit on the once-upon-a-time dining room table that we used as my computer desk, and Blazer kept jumping up on the table, sticking his head between her and the pile of mail.  Lisa put him down on the floor, and Blazer jumped back up.  After several repetitions, Lisa smelled something.  Blazer's tail was smack dab in one of the candle flames, on fire. Apparently cats, or at least this one, have no feeling in their tails, because he just kept sitting there.  Lisa shrieked, which panicked Blazer, and he took off down the hall.  Lisa was able to douse Blazer's tail quickly, but we did smell singed cat fur for several days.

As Blazer got older, we worried about him being alone so much when we were both at work.  That lead to Tempe joining our family.  Tempe wasn't completely as we were told, but Blazer soon established himself as top cat.

This held true, even with the addition of Ollie and her kittens -- Sheldon, Leonard, and Penny; we're fans of The Big Bang Theory -- to the family.

As happens to us all, Blazer slowed down in the following four years.  He spent more time lying in the sun and less cuffing impudent youngsters testing the pecking order.  He no longer jumped as high, but he yowled louder than ever when he'd come downstairs from raiding the laundry hamper, trailing a sock for us to play with.

I won't go into detail concerning Blazer's decline over the last month.  I'll just celebrate the memory of the connection he gave me to my children over the last 11 years, and of the deep affection he and Lisa shared.  I'll imagine that he is now somewhere lazing in a warm patch of sunlight, saving his energy for a hunt.  And I'll feel a small cat-shaped hole in my soul for a while.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Georgia, On My Mind

Yesterday, for the second time in eleven years, you left your home in North Carolina for a new one in the Midwest.

It was harder the first time, because you were still a kid.  Through your high school and college years, Chesterton, Indiana shaped you into the wonderful young woman you are.  It did not, however, give you your professional start.  The Guilford County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school systems did.

This time...teaching taught you that education isn't the career for you.  There's certainly no shame in trying something, finding it doesn't work, and then starting over.  Going back to school is the right choice for you.  I just wish Northern Illinois University wasn't so far away.

So, my daughter, my Georgia Gigi...I'm going to take a fatherly prerogative and offer you some unsolicited advice:

  • Always try to be kinder today than you were yesterday.
  • Borrowing a line from a song I particularly like, only the curious have something to find, so be curious.
  • Love deeply and have faith in other people.  You won't, unfortunately, always get faith back, but you're more likely to if you offer it.
  • A sane worldview has room for both rationality and spirituality.
  • Sing some, dance some, and laugh a lot every day.

I could keep going, but brevity seems a wise choice.

I am going to miss having you nearby, I am proud of you, and I love you.  Be happy, be focused, and be here when you can.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My Left Knee

The second time I went to South Bend, it ended much better than it began, but not before it got worse.  You should know, here at the beginning, that the entirety of this story is not mine to tell, but what you're getting is true.  I promise.

Let's do a thought experiment. Each of us has a clock; I'm going to stand right here, and you're going to accelerate until you're moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Now, let's look at each other's clocks...what's this, less time has passed on yours? And, both clocks are right? Welcome to special relativity.

Let's do another one. We still have the clocks, but this time, I'm in a place where local gravity is greater than where you are. This time, my clock is slower than yours, but yours has accurately measured the passage of time. Welcome to general relativity.

Both of these are examples of time dilation.

I have a theory that there is an emotional gravity to events, far more malleable than physical gravity and infinitely responsive to the intensity of events. This is why time seems to slow down when something raw happens, only to whip back to its normal passage afterward, leaving you dazed, disoriented, and discomfited.

It was this past February 4th, a Monday morning. I was in Indiana because my son had an emergency and needed me. It was my fourth day there, and with other family coming in from Mississippi later in the day, I needed cash. I looked up the location of the nearest Wells Fargo branch and got in my car.

Keep February and Indiana in mind for the next few minutes.

I'd never in my life experienced quite as much snow as in the previous three days, but on that Monday, it was no hindrance to driving. I got to the Wells Fargo branch around 10:00 am, and within five minutes, I had the cash I wanted and left the building. I was on the sidewalk in between the bank and the street, ready to cross the parking lot to my car.

I fell as confidently as I had been walking. I can only figure that there must have been ice under the snow I stepped on. My left food slid forward, and I couldn't stop it. I expected only to be a bit embarrassed, but just before I hit the ground, I felt a *pop* in my left knee...

Déjà vu is a French phrase which translates literally as "already seen". It's a complex psychological phenomenon where one is extremely familiar with a situation never encountered before. It has been associated with temporal-lobe epilepsy, but there is hardly a 100% correlation.

George Carlin described the obverse, which he called vu jàdé, as "the feeling that you've never, ever been there before".

Your mileage may vary.

It was August, 2003. I don't recall the exact date. Lisa and I had been dating for 18 months, and we were taking our first vacation together, in Wilmington. We stayed at a KOA, in a cabin instead of a campsite, planning to do a bunch of touristy things over a couple of days. Then, I was going to take her to meet my parents for the first time.

On the day we traveled from Greensboro, we took in the battleship USS North Carolina museum and ate dinner at Flaming Amy's Burrito Barn. On our second day of the trip, we wanted to take in the sea turtle sanctuary at Topsail Island, after going for a swim in the pool.

We never made it to Topsail Island.

Sometimes, things seem familiar because they are.

We finished our swim, and as we climbed out of the pool, I stepped on a small puddle on the decking. My weight was going to the right, I was twisting my left leg to the left, and I slipped. I recall neither falling nor landing; I was overwhelmed by the pain. I do vividly recall two details from the next few minutes: my screaming, and the sight of my knee pointing 90 degrees sideways.

The knee popped back into place on its own. My pain lingered.

Is it unusual to feel estranged from a part of your own body?

...a *pop* in my left knee. I knew this pain, intimately. I was again away from home, but not on vacation. No, I had responsibilities, people counting on me. By God, I was going to ignore the pain, just will it away.

There was no willing away the fact that my knee had dislocated about 45 degrees and stayed. A couple of guys who saw me fall helped me up and held me up as I hopped across the parking lot to my car. That's when I found out I could not put any weight on my leg and I could not bend it. Not the best signs, given all on my plate that day.

One of the guys who helped me went inside the bank and brought the manager, who offered to call an ambulance for me. At first, I said no, because I wanted my will to overcome my injury. Once I really understood the damage, I capitulated.

The EMTs seemed to think I was handling things pretty well. So did the folks in the ER, although I ended up pretty out of sorts when the doctor popped my knee back into place. I was more outraged when, even though I was fitted with a "knee" brace that went from just above my ankle to halfway up my thigh, the doctor refused me a pair of crutches. I was given a prescription for pain medication, taken to the ER entrance in a wheelchair, comped the cost of a taxi ride back to my car, managed to lurch from the wheelchair -- remember the "knee" brace -- to the taxi when it arrived, and finally got to my car, a bit more than a couple of hours after arriving at the bank.

I called Lisa and several other family members to let them know why I'd been out of touch most of the morning. Then, I drove back to my son's apartment complex. I was terrified of finding more ice under the snow, but I successfully lurched across the sidewalk and up the stairs to the apartment. Once the Mississippi family arrived, we went to CVS to get my pain meds. We also bought me a cane. Stupid ER doctor.

Once my son's emergency was under control, I drove the nearly 800 miles from South Bend back to High Point in one day. From a pain management perspective, I would have been better off taking two days to make the drive, but after an unexpected and unplanned eight days away, I wanted to be home. I was hurt, and I knew Lisa would take care of me.

Almost seven months have passed. I have been through physical therapy and have started going to the employee gym, but I don't have quite the full range of motion back. I sometimes have to take the stairs one step at a time, and when I mow the steep slope in my front yard, I always fully plant my left foot before shifting my weight.

In spite of the care I take and the effort I put into strengthening the muscles around my knee, I still feel a small pop or two in it every week. It is often swollen and sore. I know that the best thing I can do, not only for my knee but for my general health, is to continue losing weight. I am down 13 pounds from my first check up with my doctor in Greensboro after the injury.

I know beyond any doubt I can handle this.

It was October 13, 2003, a Monday evening. Lisa and I had just been seated in a private alcove at our favorite restaurant, the much-missed Bianca's. It was Lisa's birthday.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the diamond ring; we had discussed getting engaged, but I had set expectations so that Lisa had no idea this was the day. I stood up and knelt to pop the question.

On my left knee.

Originally Published September 2, 2013

For Rhonda, On Kaitlyn's Passing

I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed last Saturday, and I saw the picture of you and Kaitlyn you posted. It was the first time in quite a while I'd seen you show up, and since I thought it was a very nice picture of the two of you, I clicked the Like button. Then, I scrolled down a little bit farther, and I saw the post you put up just prior to that picture.

It was the one where you told the world that your daughter had taken her own life.

It was a gutpunch, and for a moment I felt I'd done something a little off by "Liking" that picture. But, that was only for a moment; then, I went back and re-read your words more carefully. As I did, I was struck by two things. The first was my respect for your act of putting your grief out in public. The second was the anguish you showed in asking "How could I not have known?"

I have a brief story for you. It does have relevance, I think, to your here-and-now, but I'm really offering it for the long run.

In mid-1995, I was, though I didn't yet know it, approaching the end of my first marriage. I had a house, a good job that was one of the solid stops in my career, kids...and a very unhappy wife. She started her journey towards the life she wanted to, and now does, lead. How did she do that? By coming out.
After 15 years as a couple, 12 years of marriage, and three children, she not only no longer wanted me, she no longer wanted my gender.

My world imploded in grief and confusion. "How could I not have known?"

As I began to deal with my new reality, I made some hard decisions. I believed that my children's day-to-day care was best left with their mother, and I believed that I needed to do everything in my power to keep them out of the middle of any nastiness between their mother and me. Those decisions still resonate in my life today, and they always will.

It was one other decision I made in those days that I want to share with you. You see, while of course I told my parents when my ex-wife and I split, I didn't tell them why. I didn't believe that I was strong enough to deal with demands they would make on me in light of the reason my marriage ended.

As their son, I deprived them of the chance to more deeply help me through the worst time of my life.
Rhonda, how could you not have known what your daughter was going through? Kaitlyn chose not to tell you. It's just that simple.

I don't know that I was depressed when I made my choices back in the 90s. I don't know that I wasn't. I do know that the stress I was under kept me from making my best decisions, at the time.
I really can't imagine what Kaitlyn went through, nor what you're going through now.
I can tell you, cliched though it may be, that Life Is A Gamble, and that you and I took the biggest gamble of all. We chose to have children.

It's our job as parents to feed, shelter, and love our children. It's also our tasks, if we're doing it right, to recognize our limits and let go, bit by bit, so that our children can test theirs.

You did it right, Rhonda. You did it right.

Originally published April 18, 2013

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fall Susurrus

It's a very mundane task that sends me outside before the sun comes up, but the cats must be cleaned up after. I am facing south as I come off the porch. To my left, I can see the barest hint of dawn. Above me and to my right, the black of night remains, as do the stars.

To my left, just past the two fences that mark the end of my yard, there is an interstate highway. To my right, as well as in front of me and behind, are the homes and yards of my neighbors, and the street I live on. Above me, Orion the Hunter, Betelgeuse and Rigel on opposite corners.

To my left, the noise of man and his machines. To my right, the calls of birds and the hums and clicks of insects. Above me, silence, at least until the next plane takes off from the airport 10 miles away.

The early morning air has both the nip of colder air and softness of sun-warmed afternoon. It's a feeling that says Autumn.This moment has more to say. Summer has been here, winter is coming, but now we are poised...

And isn't that much of life, poised? For a choice, for an action? Transcendence, perhaps? It's a rather beautiful thought.

In the meantime, I have cat waste to dispose of, and cat food to give them that will be turned to waste in its turn. I have coffee to make, a wife to wake, a job to go to, and a memory of a poised moment to treasure.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Help

There are movies that entertain you, there are movies that move you, and there are movies that make you think. The Help is that rare movie that does all three.

Here are the bare bones of the story: It's 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has recently graduated from Ole Miss, she wants to become a journalist/writer, and she would like to work for a publishing house in New York. She finds her vehicle to do so in interviewing the African-American maids of Jackson, getting them to tell her their true stories of what their lives are like. Such candor can easily lead to broken lives.

This was the tail-end of the Jim Crow era in the American South, the last gasp of legal, institutionalized racial segregation. It was the atmosphere I was born into. I once, in my teens, met an elderly black woman who told me that she babysat my father when he was a young boy. She then proceeded to tell me that she'd call him Huston in private but Mr. White in public, because she "knew her place."

That story lead in the movie, and I assume in the original novel, to the publication, credited to "Anonymous", of a book entitled The Help. How very meta.

I took away a few concrete notions from the movie: 1) Courage is defiant. 2) We come to know each other only through sharing our true stories, and truth is the most necessary story of all. 3) Love is subversive.

I'm ashamed that I don't remember my father's babysitter's name, but I hope she'd find that the truth and subversion in The Help would make "her place" a bit wider.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My World Shook Today

Twice, in fact.

At 1:51 pm, the shaking was quite literal:

I once toured a century old Cone Mills fabric plant. The heart of the factory was the huge room that held around 100 automated looms, all sitting on the second floor of the building. That floor was made of solid oak beams, and when all the looms ran, the floor vibrated, so loudly that I could not think.

My desk started vibrating like that at 1:51; in fact, the entire building thrummed, a deep bass rumble, like it was on top of a huge diesel engine. This only lasted a few seconds, but the questions -- Did you feel that? Was that an earthquake? -- lasted significantly longer.

This is my daughter Gigi. Today, she joined a proud and profound tradition in our family, second generation on her mother's side, third generation on mine. She became a teacher.

Gigi, it's been a hard wait these past 15 months, trying to find that first job in your degree field. You didn't give in to the despair I know you had to sometimes feel; it's frustrating and beyond frustrating to train yourself for four years, to know without doubt that you can do the job, if only someone will take a chance on you.

That is not only admirable, it is the root of all human success. You've kept the faith with yourself; now, you get to pass it on.

I am quite proud of you.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mountain Man

Fifty-one years ago, Herman James, a North Carolina mountain man, was drafted by the Army. On his first day in basic training, the Army issued him a comb. That afternoon the Army barber sheared off all his hair. On his second day, the Army issued Herman a toothbrush. That afternoon the Army dentist yanked seven of his teeth. On the third day, the Army issued him a jock strap. The Army has been looking for Herman for 51 years.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July

It's been a busy day at the White manor. First thing, there was reading that simply had to be done, and then it was time to mow the back pasture yard. I have an electric mower that runs not off a battery but a long heavy-duty extension cord, which has to be yanked out of the path I'm mowing repeatedly. And that, of course, makes the mowing take longer than being untethered would.

It's cheaper than gas.

Lisa and I put together a couple of new patio chairs we got from Big Lots. The instructions were detailed and complete, but several of the bolt holes didn't seem so well aligned. Once the "some assembly required" was finished, we did have some very comfortable chairs. Two down, two to go, plus a table.

It doesn't really seem like lot, but it's been a day well spent. We going to watch the High Point fireworks in a little bit, from our upstairs. Should be very good seats.

So, to my fellow Americans, here's to the 235th anniversary of the world's oldest political and social revolution. Long may Old Glory wave!

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Milestone, with Melancholy

My ex-wife Suzanne and I separated on September 7, 1996.  It was a Saturday.  I remember the date and day vividly, because it was the day after our son Andy's sixth birthday, and it was the day after the end of the work week.  A friend was not able to come from Raleigh to help me move into my new apartment because he was cleaning up damage from hurricane Fran, which had passed through the Thursday before.  I ended up getting help from Suzanne's partner Ellen.
Almost fifteen years have passed.  My youngest son David turns 18 in 32 days.  That marks the end of my obligation to pay my ex-wife child support.  I sent her the July payment this morning, and I included the pro-rated August amount.
Fifteen years.  It's been a long journey through grief at a failed marriage to anger at being alone to white-hot and long-lasting rage at her for taking the children 800 miles away to build her career (and at myself for not formalizing my legal protections) to joy at finding and loving Lisa to forgiving the deep old wounds. 
Seven years of monthly checks and seeing the kids twice a week, then eight years of monthly Paypal transactions and seeing the kids two or three times each year.
There's no great lesson or revelation here, just the sense of realizing how much has been missed.  And a few other things -- the realizations that I still know and love my children, as they do me; that my home is soon to be my daughter's again, as she moves back to North Carolina at the end of this month; that I am fortunate to have remained in the same workplace since 1998, as the economy cycles up and down; that I have my wife and my parents and my health.
It's enough.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Old News, Part One

Lisa and I have been to Harrisonburg twice this year. The first time was January 8th, for the Shifflett holiday gathering. We used to do this on Christmas Eve, but it's gotten too difficult to get people together from four states and have the celebration the occasion demands. So, we aim for the weekend closest to Christmas. This past holiday season, Christmas and New Year's Day were on Saturdays, so we opted for the following Saturday.

We spent the 3.5 hour drive listening to a book on CD, something suspenseful, probably one of the Ludlums Meki gave Lisa for her birthday. Between that, one serious snowfall just south of Roanoke, and a snow-covered Shenandoah Valley that just begged for Lisa to break out the camera, we never cut on the radio.

Once we got to Harrisonburg, we were busy with last minute preparations for the party. And once the family got in, we were happily engaged in catching up on the last year, eating, and exchanging presents. And after that, once the cleaning up was done, we all collapsed.

Meki likes to take in Headline News first thing in the morning, which always means a bit before daylight when we're there. Actually, I think it means the same thing when we're not there, just not as early as during her Queen of Trash days.

On January 9th, we learned about the Tucson shootings the day before. You've likely heard the hullabaloo. Jared Lee Loughner and his Glock 9mm pistol. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords wounded while holding one of her "Congress on your Corner" events.

Federal judge John Roll visiting his friend Giffords; congressional aide Gabriel Zimmerman; Dorothy J. Morris, Phyllis C. Schneck, and Dorwan C. Stoddard all attending the event; they died.

As did 9 year old Christina Green, who was born on September 11, 2001, recently elected to her school's student council and was at the event to learn more about how our government works.

Before the next week was out, the political scavengers were circling. Now, for the record, I do not believe that the ads Sarah Palin ran in the past that had Gaby Giffords name targeted with the crosshairs of a rifle scope were the reason Loughner attacked. Neither do I believe Ms. Palin's rhetoric that this was an isolated event completely uninfluenced by the nasty partisan politics of the last few years.

Scratch the surface of any decently competent historian, professional or amateur -- I'm very much an amateur in this arena -- and you're going to find a centrist. We know that history is messy, and that the simplistic cause-and-effect explanations that those on the political extremes love are never sufficient to explain what really happened.

That said, shame on those who tried to exploit this tragedy for their own ends. Shame on them; they worked to diminish us all.

Gabrielle Giffords' survival and recovery after being shot in the head seems miraculous. I sincerely hope so.

As I write this, I've heard the news that Jared Lee Loughner has been declared incompetent to stand trial, being able to neither assist in his own defense nor to comprehend the charges against him. He will be further evaluated to see if he becomes competent to stand trial. I do not know, being neither a mental health nor legal professional, what is involved in this process.

I do know this. Loughner was competent to choose to go to Congresswoman Giffords' event, carry a handgun, select targets, and pull the trigger. There is no doubt that he was the perpetrator. If there is to be any justice here, Loughner should never walk the streets a free man again. Never. Never.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Congratulations Sandy and Brian!

Today, my friend and coworker Sandy Chase becomes Sandy Chase-Wassinger. In fact, unless I have miscalculated (always a possibility), she and her Brian are now married. Congratulations, guys, and may you have as much happiness together as Lisa and I have.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Overheard In Post-Operative Recovery

I'm not going to tell you who said this after having surgery, nor am I going to tell you who overheard it. It's important to respect their privacy, but this is too good not to share:

Oops. What?! My head fell off!

This Is The Face Of Inspiration

Meet Anthony Robles, one of the 2011 NCAA wrestling champions:

I had a lot of butterflies going out there. This year I think that was the biggest difference in my wrestling, was my mental game. Going into every match I was real relaxed, real calm. But before that, before this match, it was nothing but butterflies. I felt like I was going throw up, I was so scared I almost started crying. But it's just the atmosphere. It's the true athletes that are able to just overcome that.

He also said he's likely done as a competitive wrestler but would like to remain involved with the sport.

The original story is here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Weekend To Savor

This has been a singularly enjoyable weekend. It didn't have the usual start for one of my weekends; I worked late Friday evening. This was the culmination of a week's worth of intensive co-ordination of the efforts of several IT groups in the US and Europe in fixing a major application outage. We got the installation of a home grown message queuing system -- think of it as active email, passing messages in a store-and-forward manner between two programs, instead of two people -- up and running, which let my application send supplier evaluation data to a global purchasing app.

It really is cool when efforts pay off that way.

For the rest of Friday evening and early Saturday morning, Lisa and I were straightening the house. Mom and Dad came for a visit on Saturday. They brought us one of the bird houses Dad modeled after the house he grew up in, and a free-standing full length mirror they don't have room for any more. We spent a good while just chatting, catching up on what's going on in our daily lives; then, we took them to Carter Brothers BBQ for lunch. We went back to the house for a bit more conversation and ended up watching the last half of Sweet Home Alabama on Starz. I had forgotten how cute a movie that is, but not how appealing Reese Witherspoon is. By then, Dad and Mom had to head on back home, and we scooted over to Greensboro to attend a Relay For Life fund raiser at Carvel Ice Cream. Such torture.

This morning, we slept in and got to spend time just reading. I watched the championship of the ACC tournament between my UNC Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils. Carolina came out very flat. In between Duke's big men dominating to start the game and the Heels having no movement away from the ball on offense, it's no wonder Duke opened by scoring the eight points of the game, leading at the half by 14, if I recall correctly. The Heels finally came to life with about 10 minutes left in the game, which was how they played their first two games of the tournament, but they never got any closer than 8 points. Today, the Blue Devils were simply the better team. Despite the Heels losing today, I've enjoyed college basketball more the last 10 days than I have in the last couple of years.

After the game, I spent a while doing some research on a new utility I'm going to be using at work over the next couple of months in conjunction with some database upgrades. We still use a fair number of SQL Server 2000 databases, and Microsoft is ending support soon. So, we're upgrading to SQL Server 2005. The SQL Server batch utility has changed significantly between the two releases -- it's the difference between Visual Basic 6 and Visual Basic.Net -- and I get to do the application upgrades.

I read a couple of tutorials on the new (well, newer) version, called SQL Server Integration Services, and I actually created my first executable package. This is going to make the database upgrade project go much more smoothly. Just before I finished my SSIS project for the evening, I heard some familiar music from the living room. Lisa had found Up on one of the movie channels, and so I hustled to finish up my work to catch as much as I could of one of my favorite movies.

It's added up to a pretty sweet couple of days.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Test

If you'd like to find out whether you really understand American culture, here's a suggestion. Take an Asian work colleague who is in the United States for the first time to a Wal-Mart in a town you don't really know. If you navigate the colleague's shopping list correctly, you're a winner!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Shippensburg Sunset

I'm in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, in the middle of a two week training assignment. One of the companies under the same corporate umbrella as the IT company I work for has a manufacturing facility here. The manufacturing company had a bill of material and engineering change notice application developed by a third party several years ago, and now that they have decided to "bring it in house", I get to take over primary support and maintenance.

I got here last Sunday, in time to wander around town, find the plant, and have a nice late lunch at the Before And After Café ("...for before and after whatever you're doing...", as the menu put it). I spent the rest of the afternoon lazing around my hotel room. Once I got hungry for dinner, I decided to check with the front desk on what would be a good place to eat on a Sunday evening. I wasn't surprised, this being a town of 7500, when I was told that most places were closed and that my best bet was to head the 15 miles down Interstate 81 to Chambersburg.

It was overcast when I left the hotel, and I simply forgot to grab the camera, which is something I'm always going to regret. Since there is no picture of this, I hope my words do the scene some small justice: As I headed south on the blacktop, the quiet, sleepy fields to my right were covered with a thin blanket of snow. The sun slipped under the dark clouds toward the western horizon, and its red light transformed the closest ones, so that they were not on fire, they were fire. The ones dead in front of me and just to my left became glowing embers, while the ones to the east were gray ash.

As the song says, it's only for a moment, then the moment's gone. But the memory...the memory endures.

Friday, January 21, 2011

It's A Thriller...No, It's A Commercial...No...

This is almost as clever as the disassembled Honda Accord from several years ago. Enjoy!

Monday, January 17, 2011

My New Year's Goals

Resolution - A solution. A firmness of purpose. A wrapping up. In other words, an ending.

It's easy to make resolutions and very difficult to keep them. Not everyone has the iron will and determination to say, "There is something in my life that I don't like, and I'm going to completely change it, right now," then follow through on it. I admire those who can, like my father.

In a rare point of fact, I have kept the last New Year's Resolution I made, several years ago. I decided I wouldn't make any more New Year's Resolutions. Things have been just a little bit simpler for me ever since.

I am setting a few goals for 2011. I am going to first give myself a tool to help me measure how I'm doing. I believe this could lead to some big improvements I've been wanting to make. So, without further ado:

  1. Begin each day with a short task list to get done today, and check each one off as I complete it.

  2. Move more and eat less. Keep a record; if it isn't written down, it didn't happen.

  3. Try to write daily.

  4. I have a cell phone and people with whom I wish to maintain contact. Connect the two.

  5. Be very deliberate in what I buy to read. As Lisa and I put our library together, I am finding more and more books I have yet to read. There are a few authors -- Jim Butcher, Lee Child, and Dean Koontz among them -- whose releases we will purchase in hardcover as soon as possible after their release dates; everyone else should wait while I work on the backlog we already own.

I think I can do this.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

RIP Gerry Rafferty

Gerry Rafferty passed away yesterday. Many people remember him as part of 1970s soft rock group Stealer's Wheel, from their song Stuck In The Middle With You. I recall him especially for his solo hit Baker Street, which was the soundtrack of my summer of transition from high school to college. It fits a bittersweet time in my life, and I'm grateful for the memories. Enjoy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Special Ring

An older, white haired man walked into a jewelry store one Friday evening with a beautiful young gal at his side. He told the jeweler he was looking for a special ring for his girlfriend. The jeweler looked through his stock and brought out a $5,000 ring and showed it to him. The old man said, "I don't think you understand, I want something very special."

At that statement, the jeweler went to his special stock and brought another ring over. "Here's a stunning ring at only $40,000," the jeweler said.

The young lady's eyes sparkled and her whole body trembled with excitement. The old man seeing this said, "We'll take it."

The jeweler asked how payment would be made and the old man stated, by check. "I know you need to make sure my check is good, so I'll write it now and you can call the bank Monday to verify the funds and I'll pick the ring up Monday afternoon," he said.

Monday morning, a very teed-off jeweler phoned the old man. "There's no money in that account."

"I know," said the old man, "but can you imagine the weekend I had?"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

RIP Elizabeth Edwards

You were the essence of grace under fire, and I have no better words than your own:

The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


It's rather earlier on Thanksgiving morning than I intended to be up. The cats are fed, the coffee is started, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are playing, and I have the time before the bustling of the day -- yes, there will be bustling today, preparing the traditional Thanksgiving dinner and packing to travel -- begins to set down these musings.

I've spent a lot of time over the past year reading the thoughts of Internet sages on privilege, the unearned accumulation of advantage. This is nothing I set out to do. These various essays and rants were simply posted where I read anyway. No doubt this confession will affirm in some minds exactly the points about privilege. You see, I'm a 50 year old white male from the American South.

I've never had to remind anyone I was talking to that my eyes are on my face, not my chest. I've never seen employees anywhere I've shopped spending more time watching me to be sure I wasn't slipping merchandise into my pockets than waiting on the customers in front of them. I've never been turned away from voting. And what's more, I've never had to even think about these things.


If you're reading this and your primary assumption amounts to, "Well, it's about time he realized how lucky he is," may I suggest that you learn to recognize the blinders your high horse is wearing. You can learn from me as surely as I can from you.

I am incredibly grateful for the life I have, and even more, for the help I've had getting here. Yes, I have seized the opportunities that have come my way. Yes, I'd be stupid to pass up the advantages that life has afforded me, both for myself and my family.

And yet...

I am striving to live a life of of honesty and integrity. I can give up things so that others can have them and still get far more than I sacrificed. After all, life is hardly a zero-sum game.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I don't want to be treated the same as everyone else. I want everyone else to be treated the same as me.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Difference Between Legal And Fair

In my last post, I embedded a video from YouTube about a middle school football team using a particularly clever play to score a touchdown. And, in the limited context of the video, it is hilarious.

Frank Deford is one of the most insightful sportswriters ever, and he has some sobering thoughts on this play, put into a larger context: is perfectly legal to act in a game. But the players who do that in the pros are not embarrassing the opposition. They're just trying to con the umpire. It's a benign bit of hustle that would've made for some good Aesop's Fables if old Aesop were around writing a sports blog nowadays.

But the Driscoll team didn't act instinctively to try to put one over on a ref. The middle schoolers didn't even come up with the ruse. Their coach dreamed up the play, and even participated in it, hollering from the sideline. The referees weren't victimized. In fact, they had to play along.

No, it was only the other team's kids who were embarrassed and belittled by a children's coach being a wise guy, a bully of sorts. It wasn't genius at all. Sure, it was legal, but it wasn't fair. Laugh at kids being outslicked by a grown-up, and you're cruel. That isn't sport.

You can read his full commentary here.

My children are all young adults, well past the age to participate in youth sports, but I still find it worthwhile to ask myself, how would they have felt to be on the other side of this legal play? How would I have felt for them? I suspect I would have tended towards Mr. Deford's position, and that gives me an uncomfortable feeling about myself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I saw this on Good Morning America yesterday, and I laughed until the tears were rolling down my face and my belly hurt. It was worth it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Hereafter is the story of three people touched by death.

Marie Lelay is an investigative journalist on vacation in Indonesia with her producer/lover. It is their last morning before returning to Paris, and she realizes her companion has not gotten any souvenirs for his kids. She tells him she is going shopping for them and asks him to come along, but he just wants to sleep as long as he can. As she is running her self-appointed errand, a tsunami strikes. She drowns, and then we're...somewhere else...with her. Back in our world, a couple of strangers try, and fail, to revive her, but she comes back on her own. Changed.

Marcus is a young boy, ten, maybe eleven. He seems a little ethereal to begin with, sweet, slight. His twin Jason, always wearing a cap, decisive, is Marcus' anchor in this world. In fact, Jason is the anchor of his family. We first see them getting their picture struck, paying the photographer with change scraped together dearly. Then, at home, they put the framed picture and a cupcake topped with a single candle out on the kitchen table, a birthday surprise for their Mum. She never shows up before they go to bed. The first thing we see the next morning is the photo and the cupcake, with the candle melted down all over it. The first thing we here is a loud knock on the door, followed by shouts demanding entrance. It's child protective services. Mum, you see, is a heroine addict. The twins, with Marcus following Jason's lead, work around the social workers, cleaning up the apartment, finding Mum and bringing her in the door just after the social worker, with bags of groceries. See, all is right with our world!

Once the social workers are gone, Mum sees the picture her boys made for her. Even as she's still coming down off her latest high, we see that she does love her sons and is trying. She says something about a drug that may help her kick the addiction. Jason -- strong, decisive Jason -- calls the chemist (we're in London), determines that he has the medicine, instructs Marcus to stay with Mum, and runs off to get help for Mum.

After he has gotten the medicine and is on his way home, Jason is accosted by some neighborhood toughs. "What's with the cap? What's in the bag? It's the basic we're bigger, we're bored, and you're our toy attitude. Only this time, Jason runs! But Jason can't outrun the lorry on the street. Unlike after Marie's drowning, no one tries to revive Jason. Marcus knows with a twin's certainty that something wrong has befallen his other half. When he arrives on the scene, he finds Jasosn' unbloodied cap, picks it up, dons it. He, too, is changed.

Those who sacrifice for others, it seems, are sacrificed along the way.

George Lonegan is a very rare thing, a genuine psychic. He can actually see that somewhere else Marie went while she was dead, and he can tell people the Truth. His brother Billy considers this a gift, something that is a license to print money. George considers it a curse, because the Truth sets him apart. And that being set apart is why he works as a longshoreman and takes a cooking class. His love of Charles Dickens is simply his own.

Every other "psychic" we see in the movie, and we see quite a few, is a charlatan. They each put on a show with scientific gadgets or candles and shadows or limited seating seminars when they're doing a reading or contacting the other side; it's all smoke and mirrors. George simply asks whomever he is reluctantly reaching beyond the veil for to let him hold their hands for a moment. "It makes a connection, and that helps", he tells them.

From this set up, we see how Marie moves from a hard-hitting journalist after her next expose to a seeker, asking "What happens to us when we die?"; how Marcus, wearer of his twin's cap and resident of the foster care system, persists in trying to reach Jason to tell him that he can't do this life alone and needs him back; how George is seeking connections. And we see how their stories eventually intertwine. This is where George is changed, not by death, but by life.

Of the actors, it's worth noting that Jay Mohr as Billy Lonegan plays an excellent sleaze. And Matt Damon...the man is a chameleon. I believe in him as totally as George Lonegan as I do in him as Jason Bourne.

The movie is paced slowly, deliberately, in a way that reminds me of Gattaca. Other than the tsunami and the car accident, there is no action, which is hard to believe of a Clint Eastwood directed movie. And, in the tsunami, where it awkwardly overruns those trying to flee it, we see that Eastwood is not at all at ease with CGI special effects.

The movie is all exposition and character study. As Lisa put it when we were talking about it, "I was expecting some great revelation."

You see, despite the advertising, Hereafter has next to nothing to do with the supernatural. That's a head fake, in the spirit of Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. This movie has to do with curiosity, persistence, integrity and connections. It's about how to live.