Thursday, December 30, 2004

Software and stuff

Back during the dot-com boom, when I was still working for ABC Software, I wrote this story about a thing I did for them one day...

"Yeah, it's not so great, but Bob's promised he'll do something about it." Larry looks at me with his watery eyes full of faith. In Bob We Trust.

What Bob had promised was to bring Larry's wages -- and everybody else's at Ancient Software, Inc -- into the twentieth century. And Larry was hanging in there, sure that any year now his dogged loyalty would be rewarded, and he would see the benefits of his years of work. It was a great time to be a computer programmer - all the papers said so. It was a seller's market for people with software skills. Industry was fighting viciously for qualified people, that's what the journals said, so it shouldn't be long now before they started seeing some real changes in their compensation.

It’s a product demo, but a kind of weird one: Bob and Larry and their friends at Ancient Software are actually our competitors. We’re showing them our stuff as part of an exploration of partnership possibilities.

I watch as my colleague Dan shows our software - software that makes their package look like a pile of dinosaur droppings. I'm embarrassed. I wish Larry would quit talking to me.

We're deep inside their old building, with its threadbare carpet and 70's décor. Orange and tan hallways leading to computer rooms full of big clunky machines and racks of 9-track tapes.

I look around me at a room full of people who were mid-career when the carpet was new. What's left at a left-behind company in a seller's market? Nice, earnest, loyal people whose skills are outdated, who haven't kept pace with the industry and can't find a better job somewhere else. Forty- and fifty-year-old coders who are still plugging away, doing the same thing they've done for years. People who believe Bob is somehow going to do something magic about the fact that they're marketing a 20-year-old product that no one is going to want much longer.

They are nice people, and it's my job to kill them.
Not literally, of course. I'm supposed to decide whether their company would be able to market and support our product. "Maybe this can be a win-win," my boss said. "They've got the contacts in their market; if they could learn to support it, they could create dozens of sales we might otherwise miss."

They watch attentively as Dan goes through his spiel. They ask eager questions, and earnestly compliment us on what a great job we've done. I don't want to make them feel bad -- I want to explain that our development staff is six times the size of theirs, with 25 times their budget. I want to say that it's nothing personal, that they've done a great job for the last 20 years. I want to tell them we can all work together.

But the fact is, no one I've talked to seems to have a clue about the techniques and tools we've used. Their approach to support is archaic, their response to user enhancement requests is glacially slow, and their knowledge of current programming languages and development platforms is almost non-existent. There is no way in the world they would ever be able to support our product, and I think they know it. And we're eating their lunch in the market they used to dominate, but I think maybe Bob's the only one who knows that.

I sit next to Larry and nod as he talks about how Bob is going to do right by them any year now. I listen as Dan wraps up the demo. I help him pack up the laptops and the projector.

Later, we drive to the airport and fly home.

Dream Job

Had a job once pumping out the lift station at the apartment complex I lived at. The owners of the complex hired me and my roommates to be on call for “poop duty”, pumping sewage when the complex’s pumps malfunctioned.

The lift station was a big concrete tank about 15 feet deep and maybe 10 feet across – the sewage from the complex would flow into it, and these big pumps would “lift” the stuff up so it could flow into the city sewage system. The pumps were always fritzing out, so we’d get a call (usually at 3am it seemed like) to go get the pump truck and suck the stuff out of the station into the truck. Then we’d look for a manhole with no one around and pump it back into the city system. It usually took several trips.

When it happened in the daytime, it was harder to find places to dump where there wasn’t any traffic – and when I did find a good spot it usually wasn’t long before the area residents or businesses started to complain about the honey wagon stopping in their street all the time.

One day I figured out the perfect spot – the owner of our apartment complex (ie, my boss) had just built a brand new office building fairly near by, and the parking lot had a sewer manhole. The tenants were just in the process of moving in, so I figured I might have several days before they got around to noticing.

So on my first day trying out the new spot, a few bits of “matter” fell from the hose onto the pristine black asphalt of the new parking lot. (What we pumped was mostly brown liquid, but we also had a fair amt of “crap, corn, and condoms”.) (I’m sure you were just dying to know that.)

Anyway, I shoved the hose down into the hole – it was about a 4- or 5-inch diameter flex hose – engaged the pump, and wandered off to find a shingle or a leaf or something to clean up the floaters I’d dropped on the parking lot. When I was about 30 feet away, I heard this horrible noise from behind me and turned around to see that the hose had backed out of the hole and was flailing wildly, pumping raw sewage everywhere.

I ran back as fast as I could. I should have just killed the PTO, but I panicked and chose to engage the writhing Anaconda of Sewage in a wrestling match instead – it took what felt like an eternity (probably 30 seconds) to get the thing back into the hole. I sat down in the hot sun and just let the smell steam up from my clothes. When the truck was finally empty, I spent the next hour cleaning up the parking lot. I got home with crap on my shirt, pants, gloves, hat, sunglasses, everywhere.

Shortly thereafter, the owner replaced all the pumps with larger 3-phase jobs that never went out again as long as I lived there.

I will forgo the impulse to make bad puns about how lousy that job was. ;-)

conversations with a teenager

I have two children. David is 12, and still a human being. I may have mentioned that Samantha, who's 14, is... challenging. She is extremely bright, moody (surprise), stubborn, and has pretty significant attention deficit issues. Plus she's a teenager, which means she's self-absorbed, insecure, inconsistent, and often stressed out.

Anyway, Samantha is packing for a trip to Disneyland with her school choir. The bus leaves early the next morning. I'm checking in to make sure she’s getting along okay...

Dad: You’re taking 3 pairs of flipflops?
Samantha: Yeah. I need these black ones because they match, and the pink ones in case the green ones blow out.
Dad: I know, why don’t you take the cat carrier, too, in case you meet a stray cat at Disneyland and want to adopt it? Also your bicycle. And the weight bench -- you'll want to stay in shape, right? -- and probably your loft bed …
Samantha (grinning): Okay, and I think I’ll take that rollaway file cabinet as well.

But she still took 3 prs of flipflops.

Dad: I can bring you a backpack for your carryon stuff – which one do you want to take?
Samantha: The one I got at the spelling bee.
Dad (after 10 minutes of searching): Can’t find that one, but you can use this one [I present her with a pack exactly equivalent in size, looks, and functionality to the one she wanted].
Samantha: Isn’t this David’s old one?
Dad: Yeah, that’s why it’s good -- it’s small, that’s what you wanted…
Samantha: But… but… it’s David’s kindergarten one -- it’s ICKY.

Dad: You should put your toiletries, inhaler, medications, etc in your carryon bag instead of in your checked luggage.
Samantha: Why?
[Insert 10-minute conversation here, in which a 39-yr-old seasoned business traveler is just barely able to convince an almost-14-yr-old that he might have a good travel idea once in a while…]
Dad: You should also put in an extra T-shirt, and a pair of underwear.
Dad: In case they lose your luggage, then you can survive one night without having to wear dirty clothes.
Samantha: I don’t want to pull open my backpack and have underwear fly out.
Dad: So wrap them in the T-shirt.
Samantha: No, give me some tape.

And we end up with the backup underwear scotch-taped into a tiny wad the size of a golf ball. No one will accuse her of being a blind follower...

When the kids were small, we used to make them lay out their clothes on the floor the night before a trip or other early-morning event. We called it “making a little girl/boy on the floor” because it's easy for kids to be sure you they've remembered everything if they lay the clothes out in the shape of a person. Anyway...

Dad: So where’s your girl on the floor?
Samantha: I KNOW how to dress myself in the morning.
Dad: I know you do, but that’s not the point. You just want to have everything ready so you don’t have to look for anything in the morning.
Samantha: I’m not three years old, you know.
Dad: Just make sure you have everything laid out, okay? Look, I made a list for you...
Samantha (reading): Shirt, jeans, bra… BRA? YOU’RE OBSESSED WITH BRAS!
Dad: What? What are you talking about? I don’t care about your bra. The point is that you want to have everything prepared.
Samantha: Yeah, way to change the subject to get out of that one...

More about teenage daughters:

[From 1990 until April 2004, it went like this]:

Dad: Don't forget to brush your hair.
Samantha: (choose one or more from the list below)
- My hair is fine
- Why?
- I don't feel like it
- Okay (but doesn't)
- I just DID
Dad [5 minutes later]: You still need to brush your hair. Brush your hair. Everyone's waiting. We’re leaving. Hurry up and brush your hair. Brush your hair. Brushyourhairbrushyourhairbrushyourhairbrushyourhairbrushyourhair
brushyourhairaaaaaaaaauuuuuggggghhhhhhhhhhhhh! BRUSH YOUR

[continue for 13.5 years, until April 12, 2004, when it suddenly becomes]:

Dad: Don't forget to brush your hair.
Samantha [with look of scornful incredulity]: Why would I forget to brush my hair?

Monday, December 27, 2004

More dogsitting blues

We looked after my brother-in-law's schnauzer Bandit while they were out of town. We didn't realize dogs will go after used tampons, so we didn't know enough to put the bathroom wastebaskets out of reach. I wrote this juvenile song to comemmorate the occasion:

(To the tune of “Frosty the Snowman”)

Bandit Johanssen
Was a very happy dog
He barked and played and one fine day
Ate tampons like a hog.

Bandit Johanssen
Well, he came to life that day,
When he saw how at the Torres’ house
The treats were put away.

He found them in the wastebasket
And quickly ate them up.
Long and striped in red and white
Like candy canes for pups!

Bandit Johanssen
should have learned to say "enough".
When the six he ate made his tummy ache,
he began to yakk them up.

He went into the living room
and hurled up one or two.
So Hannah took him to the vet
to see what they could do.

Poor little Bandit,
There he barfed up several more,
And he vowed he'd never eat those things
That made his tummy sore.

So now he does behave himself
But secretly he dreams
Of living just with girls and women
Older than thirteen...

Bandit Johanssen,
He’s a happy friendly pup
But just in case, when he’s in your house
Better lock your tampons up!

mickey mouse built a house...

My wife's aunt and uncle built a very nice house, which they lived in for some time. Eventually they sold it for a goodly amount, and moved to another town.

The new owners immediately had their family over to enjoy their new house -- as they sat downstairs in the fancy parlor, someone upstairs used the guest bath for the first time. Turns out there was a copper fitting that had never gotten soldered...

The water leaked into the wall and a large portion of the ceiling downstairs came down on the heads of the people in the parlor -- water and wet sheetrock everywhere.

My wife's uncle had it all fixed for them. I guess they were gracious about it. I know it's not funny, but... okay, its' funny. At least to me.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Twas the night before Xmas, and all through the house...

My wife made Xmas dinner yesterday -- turkey and trimmings, delicious.

During the process she mentioned that the oven had developed a nasty odor when she used it. It didn't come from INSIDE the oven, but whenever she baked anything, she could smell it.

Note: This oven design was clearly created by someone who didn't do much cooking, because the whole thing is full of little cracks and grooves and joints and crevices that collect food and are impossible to clean. Probably designed by some geek engineer who never cleaned a stovetop in his life, or perhaps an evil robot. I figured the smell was rancid grease or something that was un-cleanable from the top.

Anyway, after dinner I started taking the thing completely apart. When I got to the part where I took the control panel off the front, I reached behind the dials and got 115v thru the fingers of my right hand, at which point I turned off the breaker, because hey, I'm not stupid you know.

Eventually I discovered that some soup or something had boiled over and dripped down a crack into the control panel. That probably would have smelled bad enough, but it turns out that a mouse had made his home deep inside the oven, below the range and just on top of the actual oven. When we lost power for a few hours last week, he had crawled into the control panel and started eating the dried-up soup. When the power came back on, it zapped him. (There's one mouse who was not stirring this Xmas. Har.)

His little corpse sat there behind the panel, between the dials for Right Rear and Right Front. After I detached him from the metal and cleaned that up, I took off some more stuff and got down to where his nest was, cleaned everything as well as I could, put it all back together again.

The odor is no longer noticeable to the casual smeller, but if you know where to sniff, you can still faintly smell mouse pee. My male intuition says there's a new oven/range in our future.

And now we know why the cat had been hanging around in the kitchen staring at the stove for the last week...

Friday, December 24, 2004


Up early to get ready for checkout. Got all our bags packed, then headed out for a walk and breakfast. We did our best to find something Russian to eat, but (embarrassing, yes) we ended up at McDonalds where we got a Big Mac and a McChicken Sandwich. We were served by a pretty but surly young girl who obviously felt we were taking up valuable air she had been intending to breathe herself.

As we were walking, a scruffy, tough-looking young man began following us for several blocks and around a couple of turns. Eventually in an under-street tunnel we came to a fork – we walked toward the right tunnel, then switched to the left. I stopped and turned around and looked directly at him – not sure what I thought I was going to do if he had been a really bad sort, but at least I wanted him to know we knew he was following, and to force him to be very open and obvious about it if he was going to continue. He stopped, kind of shrugged, and wandered off to the right.

We walked around for a while looking for the famed Lubyanka prison. It was on the map, but we couldn’t find it – we got to thinking maybe it was an entirely different Lubyanka. We found where it *ought* to be, and took a picture of the building, but when I asked a man nearby what it was, he said it was the Agriculture Ministry or something, and professed to know nothing about any Lubyanka prison. When we got back home I looked it up, and it was definitely the right building. Not sure if he was ignorant, or just reinventing history.

Got one of the plastic carryall bags everyone seems to carry there. They are woven plastic (in plaid patterns), lightweight and very strong. They come in various sizes, must cost next to nothing to make and ship, and are tremendously useful -- a perfect example of the right product finding its market. We were very taken with them. One American friend in Ukraine calls them “Ukranian Samsonite.” Anyway, one of the street vendors gave us one, and wouldn’t take any money for it. I’d like to think he gave it to us because I asked “Where can I buy a bag like that?” in flawless Russian (;-), but I suspect it’s really because I had my good-looking sister with me. Oh well.

Went looking for GUM, the famous state department store. I asked a taxi driver to take us there, but he said “It’s just down that way, you can walk.” This was considerate of him, but my other experiences tell me he wasn’t just offering me information -- he didn’t think I should take a cab to GUM, and he probably wouldn’t have taken us even if I had insisted I wanted to ride. It’s not all that uncommon for a clerk in a store to refuse to sell you an item if in their opinion the item isn’t good enough, or you don’t need it. Sometimes you can wave the money at them all you want, they’ll just shake their heads and insist you don’t want the product.

Walked some more, past some of the most pathetic old beggars you ever saw – old men with amputated feet and no teeth; they appeared to be eating or about to eat something that looked like a raw dead pigeon, but I’m not sure. All I know is it (or they) had a revolting and very strong aroma. We gave them a little money, at Sis’s insistence as I recall.

Eventually we found GUM, which is no longer a big department store but a collection of high-priced little shops. We bought more rubles there from a bank teller who personally sniffed, tasted, and fondled each $20 bill I gave her, then held it under a special light of some kind to make sure it wasn’t fake. Eventually, she shoved some rubles at us with only a mild sneer and we went off in search of bargains. We didn’t find any, but Sis got some good pics of the famous store.

We only had an hour or so left, and we still hadn’t seen the inside of the Kremlin, so we hurried across Red Square and found one of the guides who hang about outside offering individual tours. Our guide’s name was Andrew; his English (3rd language for him, after Russian and Italian) was excellent – accented, but very fluent. The gate into the Kremlin gardens was blocked by a team of men doing asphalt repair -- we feared a half-mile walk around to the other entrance, but Andrew led us right through the middle of the construction site, stepping over safety cones, hot tar, piles of gravel, etc. A number of other people were doing the same, and we realized that’s just how it’s done – the entire country is an OSHA inspector’s nightmare. Sis said she half expected one of the men to hand her his shovel so she could take over while he had a smoke break.

Side note: Russian trucks are very utilitarian – most would say ugly – but by the end of our second day there, I had fallen in love with them. They are completely without frills – a perfect illustration of “form follows function.” After looking at Russian dumptrucks for a few days, our super-fancy trucks – waxed finish, molded side-panels and fenders, chrome bumpers, etc – seemed overdone, a wasteful extravagance, like sugar on cotton candy. [RUSSIAN TRUCK]

We enjoyed the Kremlin tour a lot – saw the famous cannon, and huge bell with the piece broken out of the bottom. “The world’s largest cannon, the world’s largest bell, the world’s largest government – and none of them work…” Saw captured French cannon as well – the war with Napoleon still looms large for the Russians, as does WW2. Saw the various churches built by different Tsars, what looked to be millions of dollars worth of gold, icons, ornamentation. Andrew gave us an amazing amount of history, most of which I was completely unable to retain.

After our Kremlin tour, we hurried back to the hotel and met Lorne, who helped us schlep our bags to the metro station. We had lunch at his apt, then flagged down a car on the road – huge numbers of private cars are unofficial taxis – and negotiated a ride to the airport. Lorne rode all the way to the airport with us, and even went inside to make sure everything went okay.

Had a bit of hassle with the violin – turns out we should have declared it when we got into the country – but eventually they let us through and on our way to Ukraine. There was a noticeable lack of instructions for travelers – you kind of had to know what you were doing or figure it out. Lorne stayed outside the ticket area until he saw us finally ushered through, then waved goodbye – it was nice to see his friendly face as our last glimpse of Moscow.

Our plane was a smallish Tupolev – seated about 50, I think – it was very nice, and the service was again very good.

When we landed in Kiev, we began the immigration rigamarole again – again, not much in the way of instructions. We filled out some forms, waited in line, were told to fill out some other forms, waited again, got through. Watched a young Russian-speaking African man get hassled – apparently something was not in order with his papers. From the way he acted (obviously frustrated, but at the same time resigned, calm, professional, and apparently experienced), we were inclined to put it down to racism on the part of the immigration official he was dealing with rather than a mistake on his part. Maybe that’s a slander on the Ukrainian official, but I haven’t found Eastern Europeans to be the most ardent champions of civil rights for all races. Anyway, we were finally ushered into another room to pick up our luggage, which all made it through on the first try. Certainly can’t say that about all the flights I’ve been on in the U.S.A.

Eventually we faced a row of stern-faced customs officials – Sis seemed to make it through without too much trouble. Once again, my violin was a bone of contention. I has been bought at a garage sale in the States, but my official – let’s call her Galina, since that’s what 99% of Ukrainian women are named – wouldn’t believe it had only cost $40. I did not attempt to explain “Garage Sale”. It didn’t help that she spoke to me exclusively in Ukrainian in spite of the fact that I obviously spoke only English and a little Russian.
[Note: Ukrainians seemed to find it difficult to imagine that a person who speaks Russian would be unable to speak any Ukrainian. The languages *are* quite similar, but when you’re just barely holding on in Russian – missing a lot of words, relying heavily on context, etc – that little extra difference when they shift to Ukrainian defeated me every time.]
She called her boss over, who also expressed his doubts about the violin’s purchase price – he gave me a little smile that said “Come on, now – you know you’re lying.” Galina also wanted to know about the medicines I was bringing for Mom & Dad – ignoring the really expensive prescription stuff, she concentrated on the Metamucil, perhaps because it was a powder, who knows. Periodically she’d come back to the violin issue, but when I wouldn’t change my story (and was too thick to realize what she probably wanted was $20) she eventually told me to get my stuff off the table and get out of there. Which I did.

Mom & Dad were there to greet us, along with some other American friends of theirs who live in Kiev. We took a mini-van back to their apartment, then went to the market and McDonalds for supper (at home, I never eat at Mickey D’s – I go to Eastern Europe, and eat there twice in one day! :-). Sat next to some folks in McDonalds who were speaking fluent Spanish – as I recall, Mom was compelled to talk to them, which they seemed happy about.

That evening, we caught the train to the town where my parents live. Each car of the train has a middle-aged “train lady” who’s in charge of the passengers in her car. I had the impression that what she said, goes – I know I didn’t feel like messing with her. She took our tickets, brought us tea and bedding, barged in a few times without knocking to check if we were all right or to tell us our stop was coming up. One time I had been wearing nothing not 30 seconds before – maybe that’s not a big deal to the Ukrainians, or maybe it was just her, I don’t know.

It’s a 12-hr ride to Lutsk, but I found the rocking of the train very relaxing, and slept well all the way.

not quite mr rogers

We're at a family-type Xmas party last night, it's getting late, adults are still talking/eating/whatever, some smaller kids getting tired and cranky...

One little girl about 7 yrs old -- daughter of a nice couple we've just met and are chatting with -- is crying, wants to go home. I bend down and softly ask if she'd like a lifesaver. She brightens up a little, and with a few sniffles and a little smile says Yes, please.

I give her a peppermint lifesaver and straighten up, quite satisfied with how I've handled that little situation. No doubt her parents are terribly impressed and pleased with the way I've stopped the tears and made their little daughter so happy and content.

Then I glance down just in time to see the little girl make a terrible face as she tastes the peppermint, open her mouth, spit the lifesaver on the floor, and begin to paw at her tongue. Her face crumples into a picture of misery once more as she turns her face into her mother's skirts and begins to wail. Howls of laughter from the adults at my expense.

Anyway, I just have a way with kids. If you need childcare tips, don't be afraid to ask...

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

goat rodeo...

I used to work for ABC Software, but I've been a consultant for about 5 yrs.

I still work with a lot of ABC's clients. And once in a while, ABC will hire me to do something for their clients. This week, they're paying me to connect remotely to client X and do some stuff.

Client X will only allow connection to their system from ABC's network. So I have to connect to ABC, and from there to client X.

First, my connection to ABC had expired.
So they re-opened it.
Then the machine I used to use at ABC to piggy-back to the outside world was gone.
So ABC gave me the address of a different machine to use.
But the new machine didn't accept interactive logons.
So ABC fixed that problem.
Then the machine that client X told me to connect to turned out to be non-existent.
And their tech staff were in a meeting.

In between each step above, imagine numerous Instant Messages, emails, and phone calls from the staff at client X who were waiting for my assistance.

Eventually client X's tech staff returned, got my messages, and gave me the address of another machine to log on to.
And I was successful in connecting to client X.
At which time it was after 5pm Eastern Standard Time, and the clients had all gone home.


Okay, you've convinced me. (I'm easy to convince, clearly.) Here's more Russia travelogue for the masochists or insomniacs...

Up early. Found a water bottle had burst in my backpack, soaking all my underwear. Laid them out – 8 pairs – on the heater vent to dry. Wondered if the maid would think I had serious incontinence problems.

Took another walk around Red Square in the early a.m., took some more pictures, went back to the hotel and met our contact – a minister of our church living in Moscow. He had traveled about 40 minutes across town on the metro to meet us at our hotel and take us back with him. None of the stops we passed were the really impressive Moscow Metro stations we’d seen and heard about, but I’d say they were still nicer than American subway stops I’ve seen.

I didn't see anyone give up their seat for the elderly or infirm, although there was enough rider turnover that the babushkas (grandmothers) usually got a seat fairly quickly as people stood to exit. Deodorant was evidently an optional item, but lest I sound too self-righteous about my cleanliness let me say that most people seemed to have more or less the same standards we did in this area. There were a few notable exceptions, but I imagine that’s true in any big city. The European nylons-over-hairy-legs thing was in effect, tho -- mostly with the middle-aged and older women.

At the end of the metro line, we got on a free bus that took us out to a special gated complex of townhouses where foreigners and very rich Russians lived. It was the week leading up to Orthodox Easter, and the roads on the way were absolutely jammed with cars as people headed out to the cemeteries in what is apparently an annual Easter ritual. Would have taken us forever, but the Militia waved us into a special bus lane, and we made decent time.

Had in informal Sunday morning service at the home of an American family who was living in Moscow, then lunch. (My father-in-law had promised me that every meal in Russia would include tomatoes and cucumbers; so far, he was right.) We spent the day with the family, met some young Russians Sunday afternoon. The complex was quite nice – houses were tiny, but it had a little western-style mini-mart, sports complex (tennis, basketball, weight machines, etc). Clean streets, manicured lawns, and security guards. Looked a lot like military housing in the USA, actually. By Moscow standards, it is high living – only the richest can afford it – I heard it was something like $9000/month to live there, but that seems outlandishly high to me, considering the strength of the dollar there.

There was a little girl about 9 yrs old in front of me in line at the mini-mart buying a couple of packs of Camels – hopefully they were for her dad, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it. I got some cookies and other cool Russian 7-11 type fare.

Jet lag hit pretty hard in the middle of the afternoon– full stomach, warm house, gentle voices – we made it through, but barely.

One of the young men we met had his own car, and gave us a ride back to the metro station. Our minister friend generously offered to guide us to the airport the next day, so we arranged to meet him at his apartment for lunch. He walked us to the metro station and offered to ride with us back to the hotel, but we managed fine without handholding.

On the way back we did a little souvenir shopping in the shops/stalls along the metro tunnels. I did my best to translate Sis’s (and my own) requests to view various items, but took a fair bit longer than necessary trying to find exactly the right words. They say that Russian grammar isn’t necessarily difficult – it’s just that there’s just so MUCH of it. :-) Whatever that means. I think it means it’s difficult.

My hesitation frustrated Sis, who (quite rightly) felt I was being absurd – what was this, a Russian language exam? Point and grunt, for pete’s sake! As I hemmed and hawed and muttered to myself, trying to put together the proper parts of speech, a couple of Russian women stepped in front of us, so we ended up waiting for an extra 15 minutes because I was too proud to speak pidgin Russian. Sis took this with good grace, but let me know it would be all right with her if we didn’t wait until we had our translations letter-perfect from then on. (The woman at one stall spoke German, but that didn’t help us much – my German doesn’t go very far beyond “Good day”, “Goodbye”, and “I am a jelly doughnut.”)

We stopped at a bakery stall to buy some Russian pastries, but were thwarted by the complete lack of anxiety about customer service we sometimes (okay, often) found: the girl running the stall was standing 10 feet away chatting with another vendor. When we glanced at her, she appraised us coolly and expressionlessly over the smoke of her cigarette, and went back to her conversation. I noticed that many vendors were just as motivated and friendly as their North American counterparts would be, but many others made it plain that they didn’t give a rat’s hiney whether we ever bought anything from them or not, and furthermore were annoyed that we had interrupted the reading/talking/smoking/musing they had been engaged in when we walked up.

One exchange between a well-dressed couple and a taxi driver illustrated the customer-is-seldom-right concept: the man (who sounded native Russian to me) asked the price to a certain area, and when given the answer, snorted in disbelief and repeated the amount (paraphrased: “Seven dollars to Arbat Street?!”) The driver, who was watching a chess game being played on the trunk of his cab, gave him the finger and said something that sounded like Russian for “Ride this, chump.”

At the hotel we changed clothes and retrieved our passports, then headed out for a walk around town.
Went by the Kremlin, found that it wasn’t open (to tourists) at that time. The sign listing the days/hours of operation appeared to say that it wouldn’t be open tomorrow either, but a nice guard told us to come back the next day. We did watch the changing of the guard – formerly done front of Lenin’s tomb, now done in front of the Tomb of the Unkowns. I was struck with how young the soldiers were -- they looked about 18 or maybe 20, max. Not sure if it would have been the same when Dad was here in the 1960’s, but it made me feel old anyway.

Found our way to Arbat Street, which is full of souvenir stalls, food vendors, street performers, etc. We ate some kind of meat and onions enclosed in some kind of bread – there were a dozen different meat-inside-bread type things and they all seemed remarkably similar but with different names.

Met a Russian vendor (we named him Tolya) from whom Sis bought a super-matryoshka doll (starts out only about 2” high, and has 10 pieces inside). Bought some souvenirs for the folks back home, and had a coke in a smoky western-style diner called Route 66 so that Sis could use the WC. Our waitress took our order with considerably more than the usual disdain, but we still tipped her – couldn’t seem to help it.

People-watched for a while. A threesome next to us seemed to be a father and grown son, and the son’s girlfriend. The father danced with the girlfriend for a while, but when he tried to kiss her she decided the dance was over. We finished our ice-cream-and-second-hand-smoke and went back out to the street.

Found a Soviet pilot’s G-suit and helmet for sale. A pretty young woman with a missing bicuspid was recruited to negotiate with us in English. She eventually came down from $130 to $70, but it just seemed like too much money, so we left. After a few minutes we decided it was too cool a present to pass up, so we went back and got it for my son back home.

Watched the street performers (musicians, singers, dancers, young men teaching each other to do Michael Jackson moves) and bought some flowers from a boy about 12 years old who had one leg amputated just below the hip. Or rather, we gave him some money, but he didn’t give us any flowers. Maybe he was just holding them, not selling them, I don’t know.

There was a huge crowd gathered around a couple performers, who were apparently hysterically funny, but my Russian wasn’t up to understanding the jokes, so it wasn’t very funny to us. Since the crowd was too thick to see what they were actually doing, and since we didn’t understand what they were saying, we felt we would move on at that point.

Eventually we found a taxi and rode back to Red Square. In a momentary lapse of concentration, I tried to pay the driver 20 rubles (about 70 cents) instead of the 200 rubles we had agreed on. I could see his consternation as he contemplated a big argument with me about it, but I dredged up enough money to square with him, and an international incident was averted.

Walked through Red Square one more time – saw my gypsy girlfriend again, but got away undetected – then through the under-street tunnel to the Rossiia and back to bed.

Mistakes R Us

One of the things I do as an IT geek is manage software projects. Other times I train people on new software. Sometimes it’s a little of both. (I actually do whatever computer-geeky thing people want and are willing to pay for and I actually know how to do. But the subject today is project management.)

Part of the process of changing software is parallel testing of the new system. That’s where you do everything on both the legacy (old) system, and the new system, and compare results. Everything should match exactly – any exceptions should be known, expected, documented.

I have one client where my role is a little blurry – I do mostly training, not as much project managing. But it turns out one of the people I’ve been working with really didn't understand parallel testing (apparently). And it never occurred to me to explain it to her in detail, since she appeared to be doing everything a person would do during parallel. Whenever I’d show up, she'd have a list of discrepancies to work on, and she said lots of things like "Other than that, it's looking really good" and “Everything seems to be matching very well.”

When I asked how X or Y or Z are going, she always had the right answers. Clearly, tho, I needed to be asking some more basic questions, like “Are all the people who were paid on the legacy system being correctly paid in the new system?”

Now, a project manager would have had a meeting months ago to go over the parallel process, establish the parallel schedule and procedure, and define acceptance criteria for the various modules and pieces of the project.

I didn’t do that, partly since I’m only there every couple of weeks, and there are others there every day who set my agenda/schedule (and I did give *them* checklists, etc, and *they* understand parallel perfectly), so I guess I just assumed that kind of communication had taken place. I’m doing the same software multiple times at the same site, and it wasn’t necessary for me to do this for any of the other people I worked with there.

No one in this client’s position has ever NOT understood parallel before. And it felt exactly like every other implementation I've ever done. I've never had anyone say they felt good about a payroll (for example) where the new system was missing paychecks, or entire employees, etc. How could you not check that? How could that be okay?

It’s kind of like being hired to come in and help someone learn the landscaping business. You show up every few days and teach them about some aspect of the business – designing flower beds one day, types of grass seed the next day, caring for your equipment the next. Then after 3 months, you discover that the person was just picking houses at random to take care of, instead of the ones they had contracts with. That *is* a part of the business, yes, and this person has never done this before, true, but still – it just never occurred to you to check something that basic.

But anyway, it makes me look really bad, like I’m not on top of things. And clearly, I’m not. Or at least, when they communicated their expectations of my role, I wasn’t listening very well. One of the reasons they fired their last person was that they didn’t take charge, so in hindsight I definitely should have taken a more active role in managing the implementation.

We’ll get it sorted out, and they’ll go live on schedule, but still. This is somewhat worse than being held scoreless last weekend. Crap.

Monday, December 20, 2004

joy in the morning

It is 6:55am. The schoolbus will be coming any minute.

Me: Did you brush your teeth?

Daughter: [pause]...Yes...

Me: [detecting statement that could be true in a some circumstances, but probably not in the current context] I mean, this morning.

Daughter: ...Yes?

Me: When was the last time you brushed your teeth?

Daughter: I dont' know.

Me: Go brush them now, please. In the future, when I ask you if you've brushed your teeth, the answer is only "Yes" if you've brushed them within the last five minutes.

Daughter: That's dumb, that would mean I'd have to brush my teeth every five minutes.

Me: !!! No it doesn't! I means if I ASK you, and... Just be quiet. Go brush your teeth now.

Daughter: WhatEVer. [rolls eyes and goes upstairs]

Me: Where can I buy heroin?


Since I sometimes have the attention span of a gnat, I've grown bored with transcribing the details of my Russia trip. And judging from the number of comments, so has everyone else, and quite a while ago. So, on to more important things...

Last night my hockey team was handed its first regular-season loss -- we are now 9 and 1, with about 15 games left in the season. And the reason we lost was mostly... me.

I played center last night, which means I'm supposed to cover almost the entire rink, plus I'm expected to score as much or more than everyone else. I had 3 breakaways (or semi-breakaways), and the goalie ate me up every time.
I deked him left the first time, and he stacked the pads and denied me.
The second time I went left, then right, and tried for the five-hole (that means between his pads and over his stick), and he shut me down again.
The third time I went right and he slid his stick out and poked the puck away before I got a decent shot off.

In between all that, I also missed a one-timer from about 6' out with 3/4 of the net open -- it was a hard pass, but on a chance like that I'm supposed to bury it.

They scored once in the first period, and an empty-netter with 3 seconds left.

Bottom line, we lost 2-0. Feh.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


Flight was a looong 10 and a half hrs. Back was sore. Sis and I slept on each other’s laps. To be honest, mostly I slept on her lap, for which reason she wins the Best Sister award. (Yeah, she’s my only sister, but still.)

Set down in Moscow about 7pm local time. Was an excellent landing for large equipment like that (Boeing 777); the passengers gave the pilot a round of applause.

Long line at Passport Control. Passport Control (ie, Immigration) is separate from Customs, as it is in most places I think. As Dad had mentioned, waiting your turn was a low-reward course of action here. You pretty much had to just push forward rudely whenever you saw an opening, or you ended up staying there all night.

Eventually we reached the front of the Passport Control line. Somehow I had left a 20-dollar bill in my passport, which the Passport Control Lady handed back to me with a smile*. It was an accident, but I still felt stupid -- I’m sure she thought I was trying to bribe her for some reason. At least she didn’t get insulted and give us problems.

After passport control, we retrieved our baggage, and chose the Green Line (nothing to declare). In two minutes we were out of Customs and there was a woman with a sign (in English!) waiting to take us to our hotel. The woman’s name was Ira (Irina); her daughter was the one who worked for the taxi company, but she was taking exams, so Ira was filling in for her. Apparently with some jobs if you can’t make it in, you can just send someone else. She was about 40, divorced or widowed, and was very nice and seemed kind of sad.

Our taxi was a minivan driven by Salty The Sailor. It had no seatbelts of any kind as far as I could see, but they turned out not to be needed. In fact, we didn’t wear seatbelts at all the entire trip, and it turned out just fine despite repeated attempts by our drivers to cause multiple-car accidents and/or to kill pedestrians.

Irina got us settled in the hotel, and wouldn’t accept any tip. Wasn’t sure if I should have insisted or what. The hotel kept our passports, which made me nervous until I remembered that we were required to register with the local Militia, and the hotel needed the passports to do it for us (I guess this is a common service that the hotels provide, and that holding passports is common also in other parts of Europe. Not being a world traveler, I just felt a little anxious handing my precious passport to a perfect stranger…)

Needed to make a phone call to arrange a meeting the next morning, but
a) using the phone required a deposit
b) the deposit had to be in rubles
c) I only had dollars
d) banks and hotel cashier were closed.
There were always three or four security guys in gray suits in the lobby, checking ID and hotel cards/keys. My Russian was adequate to negotiate buying rubles from one of them, but I had absolutely no idea what the exchange rate was supposed to be. That would have been something to check before we left, wouldn’t it? Finally I just asked Beefy Security Man #1 for $100 worth. My Stupid Tourist surcharge turned out to be just under 7% (I checked the next day), which wasn’t bad for cash you buy illegally out of a guy’s coat pocket at 11pm in a little hallway of a strange hotel. He could have charged me 700% and I wouldn’t have known the difference until the morning.

We figured out how to use the phone, and made arrangements to meet our contact in the morning.

Our room overlooked Red Square – we could see the Kremlin and the back of St Basil’s cathedral, as well as the Moscow River and a large part of the city. We couldn’t wait till morning to see it, so we changed clothes and walked out around Red Square for an hour or so, saw Lenin's Tomb, etc.

Standing there in Red Square was very moving. Familiarity with and interest in things Russian has always felt like a defining characteristic of our family – since we could remember, we were fascinated with Dad’s slides and his accounts of trips to a dark and mysterious place. Onion domes, fur hats, the Moscow River – and especially St. Basil’s, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, etc – bring back memories from earliest childhood. To actually stand in the place that had always been so mysterious and exotic had a much stronger emotional impact than I expected. I found myself staring at everything, enjoying everything.

We bought souvenirs from some vendors in Red Square who were deaf. Russian Sign Language is not the same as ASL, but they recognized our signs for “deaf,” “thank you,” etc.

A 300-yr-old Gypsy woman buttonholed us and began a long vodka-flavored disposition on many subjects, primarily centering on how I needed to give her some money. I gave her a dollar, but she said the bill was too old, and the bank would not change it for her. She was probably right – the banks and vendors were very touchy about our dollars. If they were wrinkled or old or had a corner missing, they were not accepted -- so I gave her 100 rubles (about $3). I noticed she didn’t give the dollar back, though. She did continue to expound, however, gesturing at the Kremlin and saying that the government was now run by the mafia and fascists and terrorists, and telling me that Putin wasn’t even a Russian. He was something else, but I didn’t understand the word, so I guess it will forever remain a mystery.

Eventually she wandered off back toward Red Square; we walked around a bit more, but the streets were starting to empty out, and we thought it best to head back. Asked a Militiaman for directions. He told us where to go without a hint of friendliness, but politely all the same – for a Russian, he was positively effusive. He had a Kalashnikov but he didn’t shoot us with it, which was also nice. Back to the hotel and went to sleep.

*A smile from a Russian (strangers, that is) is a rare occurrence. If you smile at them on the street, they assume their fly is open, or they have food on their shirt, or something – why else would someone smile at a perfect stranger, except to laugh at them?
When you KNOW them, Russians are generous and kind – but there’s a big difference between how one acts with friends (warm, affectionate), and how one acts with strangers (closed, unhelpful, brusque).

travelog FRIDAY

I went with my sister to Russia and Ukraine a little while ago to visit our parents, who were living there at the time.
I thot I would try to post a little about the trip...

Hannah dropped us at the airport. My son cried.
I was bringing a violin to deliver to a friend in Ukraine; I made the mistake of asking the girl at the Aeroflot desk if it was okay to carry it on. Sis was disgusted at my naivete in asking. “Never ask, just do it and make them tell you no!” she whispered. She was right -- I should have known better. As far as I can tell, in Russia the default answer to everything is “No.” Granting my request required the woman to stick her neck out, to make an independent decision, to take a risk. These are not habits that have been widely developed in the former USSR. The communists killed or exiled millions -- mostly the educated, the successful, the intellectuals -- and they spent 70 years punishing innovation and independent thought. Conformity to the lowest common denominator is the ticket. Blend in. Don’t make waves.
Turned into a big hassle, but in the end we were able to carry the violin onto the plane.

Chatted with some Russians while waiting for the flight (which was delayed). They were kind about my halting Russian, and laughed when I came up with a metaphor I’d heard (probably not even one people really use) for going to the bathroom (“I’m going where the Tsar goes walking.” - ie, the only place he doesn't ride his horse...)

Finally took off about two hrs late. I have to say that Aeroflot was great, except that there was no more than 7” between the front of my seat and the back of the row in front. My femur is longer than that, so I never was able to stretch my legs out straight. But the service was excellent.

Friday, December 17, 2004

more sappy stuff about tolerance

I’m on a business trip near San Francisco, and after work I stop at a mall. As I’m leaving, I notice a sweatshirt and fanny pack lying in the parking lot. I look around – no one visible, except for some teenagers doing tricks on BMX bikes a couple hundred yards away in another area of the parking lot.
I stop my car, pick up the bag – I figure I can turn it in to the police substation in the mall. I start looking in the bag for some ID, and the next thing I know, there’s a kid on a bike swearing at me through the window of the car -- he’s so stressed that he can’t even talk clearly. Obviously, the bag is his and he thinks I’m going to take it.
I open the door and say “If it’s your bag, go ahead and take it.” He reaches in, grabs the bag, and yanks it violently out the door – since it’s open, his ID and papers and money and whatever else fly into the air in a spectacular Personal Property Explosion, and patter to the ground around him. Still swearing, he starts picking it up – I say “You know, if I’d wanted to steal it, I’d have been gone already.”

Then I drive away, annoyed and frustrated. It’s difficult to accept an abrupt change in your status: a few seconds ago (in my own mind) I had been Noble and Honest Citizen, ready to graciously brush off the praise and tearful thanks of a person who had lost their stuff. In the space of two seconds, I was converted to Dirty Rotten Thief, or at best Lamester Messing With My Stuff. It was a bit of a come-down.

And I can’t really blame the kid for being excited – it would really honk to lose your purse-equivalent. And I’ve learned (okay, my dad pointed out to me) that for some people, their whole life is a struggle anyway – hard family situation, financial issues, past abuse, tragedy, whatever – and one of the ways they cope is to put on emotional armor first thing every morning. Conflict is normal for these people; battle is what they expect most situations to become. And of course, their all-hands-on-deck-prepare-to-repel-boarders attitude actually *creates* conflict, further reinforcing their need for a take-no-prisoners approach to life.

So as my dad said: On some level, most of us are walking wounded – be kind.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

How it is if you’re ugly...

I wonder how many people know how it is to be unpopular and socially clueless. Luckily, if you're not one of them, I’m here to help you understand.

“Normal” is a pretty narrow stripe on the spectrum of possible human behaviour. You don’t have to be very far outside that section to make people uncomfortable, and people don’t like to feel uncomfortable. All you have to do is be a little funny-looking, or height/weight disproportional, or dress badly. Or fail to make the right kind of eye-contact, or project an aura of cringing cluelessness, or miss a few social and conversational cues.
If you’re “abnormal” – especially if you also seem powerless – people don’t treat you with respect. Usually, their eyes kind of just slide over you – except when they’re having a joke at your expense.

For example: let’s say you’re in high school, and you’re an acknowledged dorkwad, and you go into the student store to buy a pen. The popular student behind the counter will ignore you. He will talk to his friends, or make a phone call, or help everyone else before you. If you screw up your courage to ask for what you want, he will look at you with a faintly amused sneer. It’s a little bit like what the guy described in Black Like Me – when you’re different, a certain number of people just dislike you automatically. I don’t remember very often getting what he described as The Hate Stare, but I got a lot of The Sneer.

And it’s even worse when it’s girls – at least, it was for me. I really didn’t care that much what Joe Jockstrap thought of me in high school – most of them seemed like morons, and they were definitely BO-ring. Even when they were being oafish – the fundamentals of which they excelled at – they had no imagination.
Jock1: Did you see the boobs on that new girl?
Jock 2: Yeah, man. I saw ‘em.
Jock 1: Man, I’d like to get ahold of *them*.
Jock 2: Dude, me too.
Jock 1: Dude.
Jock 2: Yeah.

I wanted to grab them by their thick jock necks and bang their heads together. You guys are such freaking idiots! You can’t even leer with any style! Girls’ bodies are the greatest thing on this entire planet, and all you can say about them is “Dude”?

Anyway, where was I? Right, it was worse to be ignored or mistreated by girls, because I couldn’t hate them or dismiss them like I could the guys. I desired them desperately, and wanted badly for them to like me. When they laughed at me, it was disheartening and demoralizing.

And I *was* definitely a dorkwad. I had glasses, and they weren’t the stylish kind. (Back then there were only about 4 kinds anyway, and none of them looked good – but I set some sort of Guinness Book record for Stupidest-Looking Glasses, I’m sure.)
I read constantly, I played chess, I scored a million on the SAT. I skipped first grade, so I was younger than everyone else. To make it worse, I didn’t start the puberty process until I was about 15, which meant that throughout high school I looked like a little boy surrounded by hairy, muscled young men. I had straight, fine hair, and it was cut short – by my dad – at a time when everyone else wore it long, parted in the middle, and blow-dried. And we had very little money, so I had no car, a second-hand bike, and weird clothes. (To be fair, I could have dressed better on the same amt of money, but I was utterly without clue when it came to clothes.) All in all, it wasn’t a picture to inspire much enthusiasm in a young woman, and I don’t really blame them for not being interested. Most chicks don’t dig the elegance of the Queen’s Pawn Opening, or Durkin’s Attack, and I understood that – but the ones who were mocking and mean about it – that kind of hurt.

Okay, so what is my point? I’m sure I had one at some stage of this ramble down memory lane. Oh yeah, here’s the deal:
If you’ve never been in the position in life where every interaction with people (clerks, cops, peers, waiters, salespeople, etc etc) is a challenge, it’s worth thinking about. When you’re good-looking and confident, people WANT to help you. They notice you. They greet you. They go out of their way to get you what you need. When you’re Strange (as The Doors said), people step in front of you, people ignore you, dismiss you, talk down to you, or just plain don’t care.

I am no longer in the Strange category, that I know of (shut up, Anya). I matured a lot in college, my looks improved, and I gained some self-confidence. I can afford a decent haircut and clothes, and looking young is now a bonus.
But I remember so well how it feels to be snickered at, to never be taken seriously, to be unnoticed or deliberately ignored. Twenty-five years later, I’m still slightly surprised when people remember me, or when strangers smile or women flirt. And I value that memory of what it was like when I was young. It gives me a connection with people who are still in that situation, the inclination to take them seriously, and a desire to see the person underneath the hesitant exterior.

So anyway, that’s how great I am. I have been forged by the fires of social ostracism into a person who is incredibly empathetic, yet at the same time amazingly handsome and confident. I dazzle myself with my splendidness. I don’t blame you if you want to be like me, or at least bask in my aura a little. I’m available for parties and bar mitzvahs. Weekends extra.

It's a long story...

My friend at work told me about spreading his uncle's ashes -- below is exactly what he told me. More or less. Kind of. Okay, I made a lot of it up, but the essentials are true...


Next time, they can just get somebody else. I mean, maybe they thought just because I’m the oldest nephew, I’m supposed to know all about this kind of thing. Well, I don’t. I mean, I liked Uncle Barney a lot, and I was glad to do it, but I don’t spend every weekend practicing a burial at sea, okay, so as far as I’m concerned, everybody can just lay off.

So Uncle B wanted his ashes spread out in the bay. Fine. He was a big fisherman and sailboat addict, and it’s only right that his last resting place would be out on the water, where he spent so many hours avoiding Aunt Sarah. But he didn’t leave any instructions about who was supposed to do it, or how, so when Auntie S asked me to arrange the whole thing, I was pretty much winging it from the start. I’m not saying it was a chore, or that I didn’t want to help; I’m just saying that there’s more to this ashes-spreading business than a person might see at first glance.

For example, if I were more experienced, I would have chosen a dry day with not much wind. I realize that on the San Francisco Bay there aren’t that many calm clear days, but I suggest that they’re worth waiting for.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. My point is that there are some guidelines that a person should follow in this kind of project, and I wish I’d known what they were beforehand. At this point, all I can do is offer a few tips that might help someone else.

The first insight that I would offer is if your instincts tell you sneak out one night, drive over the San Mateo bridge, and just heave your uncle or whatever over the rail, this is a good instinct to follow. It won’t make any difference to your uncle, and will be a lot less trouble all around.

The way we did it, of course, was not the easy way. Aunt Sarah told me to invite everyone who wanted to come, which meant about 20 people. Originally Auntie thought we would all fit on Uncle Harold’s sailboat, but I convinced her that with my cousin Edward captaining, the majority of the funeral party was sure to drown, and I was fairly sure Uncle Barney would have wanted the whole thing to proceed with a minimum of death and inconvenience. So Uncle Harold and I went down and rented a boat -- the non-sail kind -- that would hold everyone. Edward ended up as the captain anyway, but I figured it would be harder for him to sink a 40-footer, and at least no one would be lost at sea after being swept off the deck by the boom. When Edward sails, it's to a different drummer, so to speak. His decisions on when to change tack are based on some mysterious logic of his own, and all the cousins have at one time or another caught the boom in the back of the neck. I’m definitely no sailor myself, so I’m not sure, but I think sometimes the sail coming over is a complete surprise even to Edward. You stand there patiently holding onto one of the sheets or halyards or jibs or something, and the next thing you know, you’re under water. Cousin Albert managed to save Aunt Sadie one time by knocking her down the steps into the galley; she didn’t even thank him.

But I’m getting sidetracked again. The point is, in terms of water-based funerals, to keep it simple, or to get out of the job entirely if you can.

If you can’t get out of it, one thing you might consider is an advance scouting trip to select the spot for the burial to take place. This could avoid a potential 45-minute argument about (as my cousin Jennifer put it) a spot of “maximum symbolism and beauty” vs. a spot that allows the uncles to make it back to shore in time to catch the A’s-Mariners game on TV. While no one actually punched anybody else on our little outing, it was touch and go for a while between Uncle Ralph and Aunt Louise. It kind of started with Auntie L’s refusal to let the men watch the game on the TV in the boat. She insisted we were there “to pay our last respects to Uncle Barney, not to watch touchdowns, or goals, or whatever.” The uncles pointed out that Uncle Barney would understand as well as anyone the importance of fan support in a pennant race, but this point was ignored. When Aunt Louise threw the TV cable over the side, I could tell Uncle Ralph was weighing the consequences of doing the same to her, but in the end he just gritted his teeth and stalked below to get a drink. He came back a short time later, and asked why we couldn’t just have the memorial right where we were, about 200 feet from the docks. It was at this point that the Relatives for Symbolism and Beauty camp was formed, and the long argument began. We eventually compromised (Aunt Louise’s word for getting her way) on a spot near the Golden Gate. The uncles resigned themselves to reading about the game in the paper.

At this point, I feel I should briefly mention seasickness. There may not be much one can do about it, but if there are members of the funeral party who are prone to it, you might encourage them to remain on shore. A seasick person will add little to your event, other than to contribute to a general atmosphere of gloom. In our case, Aunt Martha was the only sufferer, but most of us felt she was plenty. As we headed for the mouth of the bay, the water got a little choppier. Before long, Aunt Martha took what turned out to be the first of several trips to the rail, where she urped daintily over the side. This was pretty much right above the portholes looking out of the galley; there were snacks down there, but nobody seemed too hungry after that.

Another item that warrants consideration is the issue of children. I am pretty well convinced that children should not be brought to funerals. In fact, I question whether they should be brought anywhere at all before they become human. When Uncle Ralph’s oldest kid Joey told his little brother Zachary that Uncle Barney was dead, Zack began to wail, thinking he meant Barney the Dinosaur. Joey immediately began to dance around singing
I love you, you love me,
I’m the deadest dinosaur on TV

until Uncle Ralph threatened to throw him over the side. Eventually Zack stopped crying, Joey shut up, and the uncles went back to watching Aunt Martha Throws Up, A Short Play In Several Acts.
Finally we arrived at a spot that satisfied the poetical souls of Jennifer and the Aunts. Cousin Edward “hove to” and did some other nautical things. We all gathered at the rail (on the non-vomit side), where Uncle Ralph read a psalm and said a short prayer. Then Aunt Sarah handed me a plastic box containing the ashes, and everyone waited expectantly.

This is another area where I was entirely unprepared. It was the first time I had seen the box that funeral home had given Aunt Sarah, and I had no idea how to open it. The box was gray plastic, about the size of a large brick. It seemed to have a snap enclosure on one end, but I bent two fingernails back trying to get it open, and finally asked my cousin Albert to go below and try to find a screwdriver. He brought me a phillips; I sent him back for a standard. Albert is nice, but he is not an intellectual giant. Anyway, when we finally got the box open, we found that the ashes were also encased in a thick plastic bag, which was closed with a twisty-tie, like a loaf of bread. Albert had the bag at this point, and he twisted the tie back and forth randomly until the ends of the wire broke off. Albert immediately punctured his thumb on sharp ends of the wire and began to bleed like a stuck pig. It might not be something that comes up a lot in these situations, but I’ll just mention that wire cutters could be a useful part of an amateur funeral director’s equipment. Since we had no wire cutters, we decided that cutting open the bag was our best option; we slid the bag out of the box and hacked at the top for a while with the screwdriver. When we finally got it open, Albert deftly dropped the bag, the box, and the screwdriver onto the deck. The screwdriver skittered across the deck and through one of those holes that let water out when a big wave comes onto the deck. Albert, apparently thinking that the little bag of ashes was going to be next, quickly put his foot down on top of it. I’m not really sure about all the spiritual ramifications about stomping on the deceased, but my guess is it’s not the usual practice, and is not recommended. Eventually, we got all of the ashes scraped up and back in the bag; then I stepped to the rail with the open bag and started to turn it over.

Let me just reiterate at this point, that a dry calm day is definitely your best bet for dispersing relatives who are in ash form. While the wind was mostly blowing out away from the boat, gusts are a fact of life, and must be taken into account. The main percentage of Uncle Barney’s remains were in a clump in the middle of the bag, compressed into an irregular brick, and full of chips and chunks which I did not examine too closely. But there was also a fair volume of loose ash, which was the first thing out when I tipped the bag. My bag tipping coincided exactly with the arrival of a fairly strong gust, which blew directly back into my face and across the deck, taking with it some of the dry ash. I guess to be honest, I should say pretty much all of it. I didn’t have the nerve to look around, but Albert said later that he’s sure most people took a fair amount of Uncle Barney home with them. If it hadn’t been so misty, I imagine most of it would have just brushed off, but as I say, there were a lot of things I didn’t know then. The bitter pill of experience was mine to swallow, and I did, along with some of Uncle Barney.

Anyway, with my relatives glaring and coughing around me, I let go of the main clump of ash, and it fell straight down toward the sea.

Now from a rowboat, I’m confident this technique would work. Or from a sailboat. From just about anything, I suspect, except a yacht like the one we were on. This type of boat has a little ledge that sticks out just above the water level; the large lump of ash landed directly on this ledge and sat there like… well, like a wet gob of ashes.

I’m not really sure what I should have done. My guess is that some type of tossing or flicking motion might be the traditional method for clearing a ledge like that, but I really don’t know. I’m pretty confident it’s not right to take the dear departed and wing him out over the water like a frisbee; even a gentle shot-put action seems a little irreverent. I’m guessing ministers and other professionals go with the flicking method in that situation. Whatever the technique, the optimum procedure would have been to practice the whole thing a time or two on people I didn’t know, so as to be ready when it counted. But that’s hindsight, as they say; if there’s a next time, I’ll know better.

Anyway, the ashes sat there on their little ledge. Albert, with a flash of intelligence entirely unlike him, positioned himself so Auntie Sarah wouldn’t see. Uncle Ralph gently turned her away from the rail, and everyone else stood and shifted uncomfortably and gazed off at the horizon.

I stared at the little glob, and willed it to slide off into the sea, but it did not cooperate.

I remember thinking that if Uncle Barney were there to see this situation, he would be roaring with laughter, but that didn’t help me much. The Aunts weren’t laughing, and the uncles either; if looks could kill, Aunt Martha would be on trial right now. I stood there and sweated, and tried to think.

Uncle Herman went below, and returned with a fishing pole; he began trying to flick the mess off the ledge with the tip, but without much success. He flailed at it for what seemed like 10 minutes, getting more and more frustrated, and more and more aggressive. When he finally leaned out too far and went over the rail, it seemed both unbelievable and inevitable.

Uncle Herman at least missed the ledge, which is more than Uncle Barney had done. I was feeling a little annoyed with old Uncle Barney at that moment, to tell the truth; I had a major disaster on my hands, and all he could do was sit up there laughing.

Albert and Uncle Harold threw a life preserver to spluttering Uncle Herman, and dragged him around to the stern, where there was a ladder that extended down to the water. At first they tried to get him to swim in next to the boat and swipe Uncle Barney into the water, but he just glared at them and held on to the ring. He eventually sloshed back onto the deck, and went below to change. The little brick of ashes clung stubbornly to the ledge.

Finally, Uncle Harold came up and whispered that he had found a hose, which must have been used for cleaning the boat. This was not a time to be fussy, was my thinking. We dragged the nozzle over to the rail, aimed it at the ledge, and shot Uncle Barney into the bay.

So that’s pretty much the story as it happened, along with a little advice from me, Uncle Barney’s sadder-but-wiser nephew. The business with the police boat and our lack of a permit, et cetera, just shows that bureaucracy is everywhere and it doesn’t hurt to listen to the advice of the funeral home. And I feel the issue of the ruined dock and subsequent explosion is not really relevant to the subject of funerals. It will be expunged from Edward’s record when he turns 21 anyway, so no big deal there, I say.

As far as Auntie Sarah is concerned, everything went fine, so I think it’s irresponsible of some to be bandying about words like “debacle” and “fiasco”. Like I said: I never asked for this job in the first place. Next time they can definitely get somebody else.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Mr Breakup

I’m a sophomore in college, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with Karli, a girl I work with. She's cute and fun -- at first it’s just hanging out, having a good time together, then it’s a kiss or two, then it’s a lot of kissing, then it’s spending a weekend at her parents’ house…

Being male (ie, relationship-retarded), and an innocent and immature one at that, I’m really not sure what our status is, exactly, but I don’t think about it too much either. And we have never talked about it – just kind of taking it as it came, I guess. I suspect a woman (Karli, say) would be asking herself “Do we have a relationship? Do we have a commitment?” But as I say, I am male, so I get as deep as “Karli’s a terrific kisser” and let it go at that.

Anyway, the semester ends, Karli goes back home for the summer. I go traveling around California, and in the process meet another girl, Hannah, who I go out with, and am quite taken with. She’s really nice, and she likes me a lot. We have a couple great dates, and laugh a lot, and I’m enthused. Hannah is also knockout – far and away the prettiest girl I’ve ever dated – maybe ever seen – but that is NOT my main issue. I promise.

Now, I may be male, but I had an old-fashioned idea that seeing two girls at once wasn’t cool. I decided I needed to tell Karli that whatever we had going wasn’t going to be the same next semester. Being a moron, I thought we’d just go back to hanging out and being friends (hah!), but at least I had the instincts to know I owed her an explanation and the respect not to string her along while I was more interested in someone else.

So when the semester started, I called her apartment. Left messages with her roommate. Couldn’t get ahold of her. She leaves me a message inviting me to some function – can’t remember what, now – the next day. She is anxious to see me. I feel worse and worse.

I get another message from her (“Looking forward to tomorrow!”). I am getting desperate. I can’t break up with her on a date she invited me on. And is it “breaking up” anyway, if we never acknowledged even to each other that we had a relationship?

But if I’m going to break off our whatever-it-is, I have to do it before we start picking up where we left off. I can't have a happy reunion and inevitable mack session, then break up with her the next day, right? Maybe I could spend the evening with her, and then just stiff-arm her when she wants to make out later... No, that doesn't seem right, either.

In desperation, I go to her apartment. She’s not there. I wait. She doesn’t show up. Eventually, I have one of the dumbest ideas of my romantic life: I write her a Dear Jane note. On a piece of paper bag (all I had), with a pencil. I believe I begin one sentence “I’m not sure what we had going last semester, but…” It is a masterpiece of clumsiness. It is The Anti-Suave. It is stuck in the knocker of her door when she gets home.

Her roommate informed me later that
a) “Karli says you two had nothing really going on anyway, so don’t get so full of yourself,” and
b) Karli was extremely upset and cried for a long time.
So that turned out all right, then. If you need any breakup tips, feel free to ask.

the clown prince

I’m 15 yrs old, and I spend a fair amt of time hanging out with my friend Patrick, who’s a freshman in college. He’s a real clown, always got a practical joke or a scheme or a crazy story to tell – he teases me a lot, but in a good-natured guy way that makes me feel included rather than put down, and he’s pretty cool about hanging with a HS sophomore with no car, no money, etc.

Patrick invites me and my brother to go a Halloween party and stay overnight at his folks’ place a couple hours away. Party is fun, everyone is cool and well-behaved, Patrick is clowning as usual.

The next morning I see Patrick’s dad in the kitchen before breakfast. I say – thinking of Patrick, “So, how’s the father of the biggest clown in the world this morning?” I know it’s kind of lame conversation, but at 15 (and also at 39) I am often compelled to blurt stupid things.

But his dad gives me a kind of puzzled, surprised look and doesn’t say anything. I pause – it wasn’t that lame, right? Then, with horror, I suddenly remember that Patrick’s sister Cheryl – who weighs in on the strong side of 200 lbs – had come to the party last night, dressed (you guessed it) as a clown.

And there is nothing to say. It’s impossible to confront the misunderstanding head-on, since to do so would suggest that the words “Biggest Clown in the World” and “Cheryl” could conceivably be used in the same sentence.

I babble frantically for a few seconds, “You know, Patrick, he’s like… always, um, joking. And, like, making… well, jokes. And stuff… Like… You know…”

But it’s too late. It can’t be unsaid, and it can’t be explained away. It’s like the elephant in the room (sorry), and we both have to just pretend it didn’t happen.

Patrick’s dad has been unfailingly warm and polite to me in the 20+ years since then, and I harbor a faint hope that he’s long forgotten about it. But I haven’t. And each time I see him I feel... well... pretty clownish.

Today sent me a Seasons Greetings spam, wishing me happy holidays, and oh by the way, buy our card and call people with it.
Since I'm currently in Philadephia again, and it's cold as a witch's nose, and I had to stay at work until almost 8pm tonight and am feeling grumpy and spiteful, I sent them this (which is all true):

You guys are the worst! I wouldn't buy a nobelcom card if I was starving and they were made of steak.
I bought one for calling Ukraine a couple years ago -- it never worked, tho I tried many times. And each time it failed to connect, it deducted minutes from the card.
Whenever I called Cust Service, I either
a) couldn't get through, or
b) got someone who said basically "You must not be doing it right -- try it again now."
Eventually, the answer was "Well, we're not doing business with that company/carrier/whatever any more, because of problems like yours. Sorry we can't help you."

I tell everyone I know not to do business with

But Happy Holidays anyway.

Friday, December 10, 2004

i am suave and sophisiticated

My brother and I were exchanging stories of our late teenage years and early twenties, focusing on the ones that illustrated our social ineptitude, stupidity, and general uselessness with girls.
It was kind of horrifying-yet-compelling – like a car crash – to think about some of the things that even 20 yrs later have the power to make us blush, squirm, and break into a sweat of retroactive embarrassment.

So, naturally, I’ll have to blog one. We’ll be merciful and pick a not-very-embarrassing one, but we’ll still pretend it was one of my brother’s…

Marie had been in my grade thru Jr High and High School, and had kind of liked me once upon a time. Since I was shy, dorky, broke as a joke, stupidly dressed, and socially clueless, I had never considered more than saying Hi to her in the hall.

Marie had been kind of gawky herself (skinny, braces, freckles, etc) – but since HS had blossomed in a big way. She now looked terrific – very pretty, great figure, even “doing a little modeling”, meaning a pic of her under a waterfall in a pink bikini appeared in swimwear illustrated.

But to the point:
We’re 2-3 yrs out of high school, and I’m hanging with her older brother Mike. Mike says to me, “You know, Marie just isn’t meeting any nice guys – they’re all losers -- she needs a good guy. You should ask her out, you guys were friends, right?”

So I did. And we went to a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. I wore tight white 501’s, boots, and a pastel shirt (it was the eighties, back off).

It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a disaster -- Marie wasn’t in the market for a nice guy at all. She was having a great time meeting older, faster, slicker, richer guys than she’d ever been with before – she didn’t need some loser from HS to pick her up in his gigantic hand-me-down station wagon and go see a small-town musical production. It was just her *big brother* who thought she ought to be with someone square and tame and safe – she had a completely different program going.

At intermission she asked if I was wanting to stay for the whole thing, or what, because she had remembered she had a lot of things to do at home. Since I really like FotR, and since I knew the date was doomed anyway, I said I did want to stay (what a bozo). Anyway, as soon as the thing was over, I drove her home – she said bye, scooted out of the car, and I never saw her again.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

humility's never fun

So I'm watching TV, and I see a woman being interviewed by comic D J Hughely. She reminds me of someone... oh, yeah, it's Fantasia, the recent American Idol winner. The thought crosses my mind that maybe it is her. She looks older, and much prettier than I had remembered, but her skin tone and hairstyle look very similar...

Now I'm having trouble remembering what Fantasia looked like -- in my entire life, I've seen her (on The Tonight Show) for a grand total of about 1 minute before I changed channels -- maybe she got a professional make-over, like Courtney Love did?

And how many young, attractive black women with that haircut are being interviewed on TV this month? She really looks different, but I wonder who else would it be?

Then I tune in to the interview, and the woman is talking about funny things that come with being in entertainment. The next thing she says (with a grimace) is "...and white people all think I'm Fantasia!"

Aaagghh!!! Turns out the woman is comedian Sommore, and I am the stupid white people I have always made fun of. You know, the person who only knows (or knows of) about 6 black people, and think every black person they meet looks like one of them.

I guess if you live in a white world, and have few black friends, you never need to distinguish any kind of features other than white ones -- when you see a non-white face, the recognition center of your brain gets to skin color and calls it a day -- so you end up mistaking Chris Tucker for Chris Rock, or [random asian actress] for Lucy Liu. Or maybe, Sommore for Fantasia.

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, you can just shoot me right now. And you may as well bury me in a white sheet.

Monday, December 06, 2004

That wasn't me, I wasn't even there

We are what we do. I don’t buy the idea that sometimes our choices are made by something other than our true selves.

It's always the poor choices we disown. We never say:
Yes, I *did* give a lot of money to build that hospital, but that's not really me -- usually I'm a selfish so-and-so.

We say things like:
I don’t know why I [hit my wife, slept with my best friend’s husband, robbed the 7-11] -- that’s just not LIKE me.

I say crap. That is *exactly* like you -- in fact, it *was* you -- at least in that case at that time.

You can say “I hold as valuable standards and goals that I don’t always live up to.”
You can say “I have lots of other good traits and qualities.”
You can say “I’ve learned a lesson, and will never do X again.”

But trying to draw a distinction between what we are “really” like and what we do is mostly hypocrisy or self-delusion.

Now you know.

How we feel

I'm not trained in psychology, but I never let a little thing like that stop me from pontificating.

I think this is true: how we feel about something is FAR more about us and what we bring to a situation than we realize. When event X happens, and we subsequently feel Y, we think: event X made me feel Y.

We don't realize how much the following is true:
a) Our entire lives before this -- all our experiences, habits, learned thought patterns, etc, and how we were feeling just before X happened -- affected how we perceived X.
If every dog we'd ever met bit us (or a dog bit us 5 minutes ago), a dog barking at us will make us feel threatened out of proportion to the actual danger.

b) Our history affects not only our perception of X, but our reaction to it. We are pre-disposed to feel Y because of who we are. Our long-term history, plus genetic chemical/hormonal factors, plus whatever happened right before X did, give us lot of "Y-making" chemicals already bouncing around in our brain.
If we suffer from depression (or just had a rough day at work), we snap at our family.

c) It is emotionally rewarding to externalize upset/unhappiness. If the “bad feeling” thing is caused by someone/something else, it seems less threatening, and our bad feeling more avoidable, more fixable. As well, externalizing our discontent lessens our obligation to take responsibility for our own feelings.
If so-and-so would just do such-and-such (or stop doing such-and-such), I wouldn’t feel so angry.
If my situation were different, I would be happy.

So there you have it -- one aspect of human psychology nutshell-ized for your enjoyment. Or perhaps I'm full of baloney. How do you feel about it?

Friday, December 03, 2004

O Tannenbaum, electric Tannenbaum

They did the Lighting Of The Whitehouse Christmas Tree today.

What in the world is the big deal with this? When I was small and I heard about the "lighting of the tree", I thought they were lighting it on fire. Imagine my disappointment when I found out it's just some dweeb (ie, the president) flipping a switch. He flips a stupid switch! I do that every day in my house!

And then all the lights go on on the tree. Hurrah! The crowd cheers wildly, as if someone had just invented penicillin.

There's gotta be something I'm missing here. Is the audience made up exclusively of Kalahari Bushmen, getting their first glimpse of electricity? Do all the people there get a complimentary bag of crack? What's up?

Thursday, December 02, 2004

i am stupid

I left my laptop bag in one client's office, and she locked up and went home for the night while I was working with someone else, so I'm wandering around their building looking for the maintenance staff.

I tell my problem to a couple of women in the break room -- they promise to keep an eye out for the custodian. I keep wandering, until finally I see his cleaning cart outside the women's restroom.

I crack the door and call "Knock, knock!"

But instead of the custodian, I hear one of the women I had just talked to sing out "Uh oh, girls in here!"

Then since she apparently recognized my voice, she says "Hey there's a guy waiting for you at the elevator!"
Terrific, I think. She's found the custodian and sent him to find me. So I go wandering around the elevator area, taking it up/down/up for a few minutes, checking each floor.

Eventually it comes to me that I'm looking for myself. When I talked to her outside the restroom, she hadn't recognized my voice at all -- she had assumed I was the custodian, and was informing me that some bozo needed an office opened.

Feeling sheepish, I decide I might as well just leave and get my bag in the morning. I went back to the office I had been working in to retrieve my jacket and papers.

There I find my laptop bag under the desk, where I'd forgotten I put it earlier.

my toe hurts

You know how when you're standing there in your hotel room in your bare feet and you try to hang the iron up in the little rack in the closet, and the electrical cord whips down and the metal progs of the plug smack you right on the base of your big toenail and it hurts so bad you want to hurl the iron thru the mirrored closet door, resulting in arrest and/or expulsion from the hotel, followed by loss of contract when you arrive the next morning at the client site unshaven and unshowered, and your wife leaves you and takes the kids when the bank repossesses your house, and you end up sleeping on picnic tables and eating bugs and drinking Red Thunder for breakfast?
I hate that.

Coward of the County

Around 1979, a song came out, sung by Kenny Rogers (for the fetuses in the audience, 20 or 30 years ago KR was a big noise in country music -- mostly because the competition was so weak, I think.) Anyway, the lyrics (approximately) are below. My insightful commentary follows…


Everyone considered him the coward of the county
He’d never stood one single time to prove the county wrong
His Momma named him Tommy, but folks just called him “yellow”
But somethin’ always told me they were readin’ Tommy wrong.

He was only 10 yrs old when his daddy died in prison
I looked after Tommy cause he was my brother’s son
I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy
He said, Son my life is over, but yours is just begun.

Promise me son, not to do the things I’ve done
Walk away from trouble if you can
It don’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek
I hope you’re old enough to understand
Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.

There’s someone for everyone, and Tommy’s love was Becky
In her arms he didn’t have to prove he was a man
But one day while he was workin’, the Gatlin boys came callin’
They took turns at Becky (and there was three o’ them).

Tommy opened up the door and saw his Becky cryin’
The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand.
He reached above the fireplace and took down his daddy’s picture
As his tears fell on his daddy’s face, he heard these words again:

Promise me son, not to do the things I’ve done
Walk away from trouble if you can
It don’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek
I hope you’re old enough to understand
Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.

The Gatlin boys just laughed at him when he walked into the barroom
One of them got up and met him halfway across the floor.
When Tommy turned around they said, “Hey look, Old Yeller’s leavin.”
But you coulda heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door.

Twenty years of crawlin’ was bottled up inside him
He wasn’t holdin’ nothin’ back, he let ‘em have it all.
When Tommy left the barroom not a Gatlin boy was standin’
He said, “This one’s for Becky” as he watched the last one fall.

(And I heard him say:)
I promised you, Dad, not to do the things you done
I walk away from trouble when I can
Please don’t think I’m weak, I didn’t turn the other cheek
And Papa, I sure hope you understand:
Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.

And everyone considered him the coward of the county...


This song honked on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. I will forgo the temptation to mock phrases like “not a Gatlin boy was standing”. I will assume this took place long ago, presumably in the wild west, so he had to take matters into his own hands (I will refrain from asking how one locks batwing doors.)

I will content myself with enumerating the various messages sent by the lyrics. As far as I can see they are:
  1. Everyone can find a girl, even peacenik losers.
  2. If your wife is gang-raped, rather than comfort her, get her medical attention, or call the sheriff, you should have a little introspective moment with your dad’s picture. Then you should go beat the crap out of the people who did it.
  3. Because when someone brutalizes your wife, it’s mostly about you. The people who did this need to be shown that you won’t stand to be dissed like that.
  4. But rather than deterring them, or punishing them, it’s mainly about humiliating them as you were humiliated, so rather than actually hurting them a simple beating should be adequate to show them who’s top dog.
  5. You may choose to concede that your wife – as the actual victim – has some small stake in this issue, by saying “This one’s for Becky” as the last one falls.
  6. Taking a pacifist stance requires “crawling”.
  7. Pacifism necessarily creates bottled-up rage.
  8. If you have bottled-up rage, you should unload it all in the one situation that pushes you over the edge.
  9. When you’re a man, you may need to fight. But not to protect someone, or to avoid worse trouble, but as payback – basically for revenge and to soothe your wounded pride.
  10. When you’ve taken care of your reputation and had a little chat with your dead father, then you may want to head on back to the ranch and see how the little lady’s making out. She’s had a rough morning, and probably needs some male attention. Maybe you can tell her of your manly exploits at the bar – no doubt that will heal the physical and psychological damage. Heck, sore coochie or not, she’ll probably want to make love right now to a big tough non-cowardly guy like you.

All in all, a total loser of a song. But the melody was nice. And naturally, it was a big hit.

Moral: People are really stupid, except for me.


I'm sitting at my workstation at a client site in Pennsylvania, and I pull out my PDA. I turn it on, and the message blinking at me says "Touch Stylus To Screen To Begin".

This is the message that you get when you first buy the PDA, the one that means you haven't entered any information into it yet. This is the message of death. My PDA has somehow re-initialized itself. Like an aging relative with Alzheimer's, it no longer knows me. My contacts are no longer in the machine. My to-do list has vanished. My personal calendar, including my travel schedule, upcoming meetings, conference calls, etc, is gone. I am suddenly adrift in a sea of uncertainty.

Ordinarily, this information would be backed up. But the HD on my home PC had died, and I was having trouble getting the PDA synched with my new desktop -- bottom line, there was no backup.

I sat there with my stomach lurching for a few minutes, then decided that since I couldn't do anything about it, I would henceforth cease worrying about it. I wrote down what I could remember about my schedule and my to-do list. I sent a few emails to people who confirmed some travel dates. I went about my life.

No one died, or got cancer, or divorced, or lost their job. Well, actually they did, but not because of my PDA. Stuff that I was supposed to do either showed up on my radar screen eventually, or disappeared forever.

My PDA is still empty -- I've returned to a paper calendar and to-do list, and so far it's working. Maybe I'll go back to electronic eventually, but for the moment it's kind of relaxing not to be a slave to the Personal Dictatorship Assistant.

This story may have a moral, or possibly a point, but I don't know what it is. Anyway, who needs a point if it's dull?