Travel Time

24 July 2014

Dear J-

So picture this: I’m flying (more accurately, I’m on flights) from Nashville to San Francisco via Dallas; the original schedule has a comfortable 100 minute layover in Dallas, where I expect to deplane, saunter over to the next gate, then find someplace to eat nearby, possibly sneaking food on board if appropriate. Instead, the flight from Nashville leaves late, sits on the tarmac at Dallas for almost an hour, and I end up running through the airport like OJ in a rental car commercial (are you too young for that? is all the OJ you remember the white Bronco? okay, how about this: like I’m on the Amazing Race), skipping down escalator stairs, dashing aboard the inter-Terminal tram just as the doors close, running up to the gate where they’re just about ready to shut the doors. Hero time. Sort of. Just a guy who was late to the flight and sat down in the wrong seat, flustered and exhausted and sat next to a dead-heading flight attendant who completely ignored me.

I appreciate coming home from sticky weather; I enjoyed having to put on a jacket once I was off the plane. I more enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching other people dig them out of their packs once they had sat, waiting for the bus, for a few minutes. Bay Area, son. Then I remembered something — this conference was like an old home week in a way, as I got to see and talk to a lot of the folks who were there at SONGS with us, including the one guy I worked with just about every day on the project. He was still bitter over the shabby treatment we got from SCE (I think it was shabby, but I’ve come to expect no better from them now) and I remember him saying with some venom the guy who became the steam generator program engineer after us had no significant experience and indeed was nothing better than a hopped-up designer — a drafter — and what did he care about the system anyway?

As I always say I like to think that I learn something valuable from every position I’ve held, and perhaps indeed from every day I spend breathing and upright. I don’t know the circumstances there but I remember thinking how much I’d like a job, any job when I applied for a cost engineer spot; from there, how much I wanted a permanent position, not just a contractor slot when I applied to be a procurement engineer; and then what it would mean to me to be a system engineer and all along the way it meant other people had to take chances on me and not judge me by what I had done but what I was capable of doing. So I know I’ve said a lot of the same unkind words in the past but hearing them from someone else’s mouth made me realize how unkind they are. If I can’t be a professional in manner and conduct then I’m not sure what I’m doing here instead of sweating away under the watchful gaze of budgets and cost control.

I have to remember how glad people were to see me, but more importantly why.


Triple Water

18 July 2014

Dear J-

The common knowledge is that if you don’t have some training in rescue swimming, trying to save a person in the process of drowning can be hazardous to both of you, as the panicky thrashing could overwhelm your ability to keep both afloat. Your altruism could potentially be your downfall, in other words. I think about this sometimes when we talk about lending a hand, whether literally or figuratively through money or other means. Do I do what’s safe? Or do I do what’s necessary? It’s not always a binary calculus, either; how much do I give up versus the chances of saving someone else? In the end it comes down to that sort of cold-blooded regard, of weighing consequence and conscience.

There are pivot points in our past, decisions made or not made that affect our todays. Lately it’s almost always been regrets of inaction than action: I should have … parked my bike and gone into Fenway. Taken advantage of living that close to the city. Spent more time off. Been more aggressive about … whatever. There is always something to regret in the past, though, and that’s an easy way to drown yourself in misery born of self-pity, how much wiser we are when judging our pasts, right? When I was traveling before I did not regret a single minute spent out of the hotel room, which I used to do more work (ugh, writing until late hours of the night) or sleep and shower. I need to remember that.

If we are the sum of our experiences, I need to tell you about the beach. Before Calcifer whenever figgy was sick I’d call in ill and take the day off work; more often than not I’d take her to the beach because no matter how miserable you feel or how gray the day was there’s something healing about the beach: I favored the sands of La Jolla Cove, but Coronado was nice, too. Something about walking on sidewalks with sand-encrusted feet screams vacation to your mind from past associations and if you get to track some into your car, well, there’s nothing more amazing than running your feet over that idly and knowing bare feet are free, attitudes are up, and the time you spend in the water is forever. Immersion and wading, not drowning and despair, conquer colds and grim attitudes.


Routine Future

17 July 2014

Dear J-

How much of the future can we control? A second from now, a minute from now: I’ll be breathing (I assume; see, can’t even control that) and still riding the train. Now that someone put their bike on top of mine, I know I’ll be juggling them in Mountain View, when I get off the train. I’m pretty sure I wore this shirt this week already. There’s a lot of things I can control, and so control them I must, right? You do the things you can and let the others be as much as you can stand it; this is the life of a control freak after all. One more day this week and we’re off to Nashville (we, being me; I’ve gotten used to thinking in terms of our family traveling as a group/mob over the past couple of weekends).

You watch people on transit because it’s only natural and the time you spend honing your observations pays off in learning more about yourself. Am I fidgeting again? How should you handle putting on/taking off extra clothes? What are other people doing, and can I do a credible job imitating that? This was my default mode of operation in Japan: do I feel like I’ve built up enough observation to understand what to do next? Ticket, token, the half-hurried rush upstairs to watch the right trains in the correct direction. I’m convinced the need for a paper map at times if you want to appear non-threatening and friendly, or perhaps that’s just my usual mien.

We move in our usual pace from day to day, from week to week and the disruptions that filter through barely have a chance to disturb the equilibrium of your thoughts and routines. There’s a rut in routine (there is also almost a poutine in routine, which would be undeniably delicious), a well-worn groove of simple ability and actions where we understand and expect certain things of the future and find we’re rewarded more often than not. Knowing what happens next is easy. It’s how you deal with the unknowns, and whether you have the grace to realize which are beyond your capacity to affect that your true aplomb lies. Stretching room for all and all a good night. Er, good day, as the sun is coming up. That’s a future I can believe in.


Day by Night

16 July 2014

Dear J-

figgy has been watching folks play Minecraft on YouTube (the current object of her obsession is a fellow who calls himself Stampy Longnose, which may be an obsession she shares with other kids in the school, as we parents come together and commiserate about how the computer is tied up) and having what I’d term an angry attitude about stopping. The sass infuriates me so yesterday instead of pushing her away from the computer I turned it completely off instead, which set off a long tantrum of shoving, pinching, slamming and crying. Yeah, she’s seven. She’s also my daughter, which bears some explanation, I suppose.

I might have remarked in the past on how she is me, wrapped up in a little girl suit, which makes a kind of strange sense if you think about it: same inflated sense of confidence (which persists to this day, so be wary!), good sense of direction (hey, you missed your turn), explosive, conspirative temperament (nothing will ever be the same, you don’t understand). It’s that last that I ended up having to conquer over long hours of self-imposed service: hey, if you don’t like kids to play with your stuff, you should encourage them to play with your stuff so that you can get over it; similarly, learn to be more patient and accepting already, wouldja? These are skills to be led by example, and demonstrated competence, which I didn’t show when I turned off that computer in frustration.

There is a difference between action and reaction, after all. There is a significant chasm; mind the gap, that’s what I’m saying. I know it can be hard, which is why I have to remember where I was thirty years ago and project that forward in turn, to extend the same patient courtesies that helped me develop into this now. She will learn to control her temper before it masters her, as I did before her, as my parents must have done before me. The ebb and flow of anger is not always rational, but we are smarter than it, and we can get by. It was after the storm had passed yesterday — the forced cheeriness — that I finally realized what mirrors we create, how our reflections in these small people writ large echo who we were. It’s another chance.


Petty Etiquette

15 July 2014

Dear J-

Here on the Caltrain there is a simple method for stacking your bikes: if you get off sooner, your bike migrates towards the top of the pile. Depending on the car, there are six to eight bike racks with a stated capacity of four bikes per stack (this is more when you put the bikes head-to-tail so that adjacent bikes’ handlebars don’t overlap, and I think can be made up to five per stack without serious space encroachment). Getting on is a little like solitaire; I like to look for the tallest stack that will accommodate me, but since I hop on and off at unpopular stations, usually the best I can do is be the second or third on the stack. The people heading up to 4th & King or down to Palo Alto usually have better luck finding a space.

I just wanted to point out today’s peeve, which is folks who hop on and put their bike on an empty rack without considering who might be going where — granted, I understand, especially if there’s several unmarked bikes occupying spaces and you have no idea where you’re supposed to go (there is a corollary peeve, which is simply stated: if you’re on top of another bike, pull your bike off the stack as soon as you’re leaving the penultimate stop, assuming the person underneath needs to get out too: I get this a lot when someone goes on top of my bike; they’ll be standing there smiling at me while I awkwardly smile back and fume inside). But if you’re on an empty stack then that’s fewer stacks to accommodate long-haul riders.

I dunno. For the most part I have no problems with it, and the system works pretty well. I’ve only been bumped off one train for capacity issues, and life is pretty good if I only have these petty things to complain about. I get to spend a lot of time in my own head thinking about these mysteries of bike traffic and etiquette so hey, maybe I should write a book or something. Or maybe not. What I like best about advice is not heeding it, since what worked for someone once at a specific time isn’t always going to work again (then again, these folks think they can sincerely help someone else, and isn’t that worth the struggle?) or even elsewhere. We have a good ways to go yet, and plenty of road ahead together.


monday Wrap

14 July 2014

Dear J-

We had a busy weekend, not that you could necessarily tell by looking at the kids now, but at one point yesterday both of them had spilled sno-cones on themselves (it really isn’t summer until you’ve had a sno-cone) and were pining for home. A bit later we were ready to regroup and head out for a meal and then tackle the long-ish drive back from Gilroy. When it’s hot I appreciate the wonders of an air-conditioned car, to say nothing of the breeze off the Bay in the evenings at home. Most of the activities didn’t get pulled off in a salutary fashion, as we kept thinking we could plan on the fly, so I understand how theVet must have felt when planning our weekends, between snacks and bathroom breaks, some structure does help.

I found there were only a relative handful of pictures this weekend — in total, less than two hundred, and for going to a major tourist attraction (the Monterey Bay Aquarium), very few inside the Aquarium itself, which may be indicative of the time we spent inside or the exhibits we saw (the ocean tank, three times; sea otters; the splashy bits, where a wave comes over the glass; the gift shop, where the polite clerks asked us if we needed help every single time of the four times we went in). Still, though: it’s dark inside and I just wasn’t up to the task of running after the kids and jostling with the crowds. Eventually we’ll get back to the wonder of seeing new things but for now the boy thinks everything is a playground, so we should probably just go there instead.

The kids are confident kids; they’re confident they won’t be left behind (this is a well-grounded sort of confidence, no matter how many times we threaten to the contrary) and that any consequences will be short-lived and fleeting. Discipline, right? I dunno. I wish I had a way to talk about the stress and anxiety of when I was a kid, too: they are genuinely eager to please like me but even the coldest, most disappointing tones doesn’t seem to elicit the slightest bit of remorse, only invigorating their renewed opposition. What is that? I’m not a firm believer in self-help books as I like to think we are all unique snowflakes, but I’m sure this isn’t unprecedented, either. We will find the right combination of words and techniques to help them and us.


Triple Play

11 July 2014

Dear J-

Snazzy, snappy words pattering over the speaker and a thousand other delights from joy to shivering dread as lights run by the window, each color just slightly off from the next in a kaleidoscopic riot. Our whistle blares its three-toned challenge to each intersection we pass through — we haven’t reached the elevated sections of Belmont and San Carlos yet — and every new mile brings a sort of drunken headlong rush: did you see that sign? What foot traffic can you spot? We focus in on the words and worlds inside our phones; where do the lights lead us on next?

When we were in San Diego I suspect our friends and neighbors thought we were hippies, choosing to walk around the neighborhood when possible. Our particular district wasn’t particularly suited for it, but we did have a few good choices for restaurants less than half an hour away. Here there’s at least two families who pick up their kids from daycare on bikes and it makes me itchy to pick up a family/cargo bike, despite the expense and probable low likelihood that they’re going to want to keep riding on it within a year or two. Peer pressure? There are other rewards for being green, but I’ve wanted one of those bikes since we were in San Diego, so I guess that’s not anything different.

We have a fair amount saved up but we need to sock away more of it, I think; the little drips and drabs that I throw regular money away on doesn’t seem to accumulate too much dust, but then I look at the menagerie of photo-optical glass that lines the shelves and I realize that there are larger problems at work here. If your entertainment consists of … shopping, then I’m not sure what you should be doing instead besides the obvious: evaluate if that’s what you really need to be doing, and whether or not it’s what you need, or just what you want. Breaker-breaker?


Currents of Future

10 July 2014

Dear J-

Let’s play if I can again, all right? If I can get through dinner without yelling, then I can get through bedtime. If I can get through bedtime without yelling, then I can get through an entire day. If the whole day, then the rest of the week, and so forth into infinity, because it doesn’t appear to do anything, honestly. They’re going to keep getting up from bed and running around as long as we let them numb down with screen time for hours just prior to bed. There are a lot of different other activities (hi, bikes) we could be participating in while the day stretches so long into the evenings and why we choose to not is strictly due to laziness. We have the whole day apart so why are we spending the evenings compartmented away from each other?

Let’s consider going to the park tonight, especially if theVet gets called out again. I’m glad she gets to help people out and I understand why the hours are so irregular and don’t overlap with the rest of our schedules (our family time is other people’s family time, which is when they would need housecalls). I just have to step up and say that this is far more important than keeping track of the various lenses for sale on eBay or grooming my virtual airline (latest project is to deliver passengers and cargo to a football final in Rio de Janiero; they do try to be fairly topical) and that much is undeniable. Tired kids are sleepy kids. TV and YouTube kids are hyper kids, and we pay for that convenience with hours into the night.

I should consider this in the context of penny wise and pound foolish; it’s something I used to point out in everyone else, but it’s always easy enough to complain and criticize when you’re not involved in making something yourself. What investments into the future have you made in sacrifice of the present? It’s hard to see the future clearly, but this is not like investing: past performance is a pretty good indicator of future returns. If I don’t know these kids by now then maybe I should reconsider what I do know in other areas of current practice.


Ed Wood City

9 July 2014

Dear J-

This weekend I realized how time spent is a vicious circle: I got to spend a lot of time with the kids and the usual nightly routine of them getting up and running around and asking for water and carrying on wasn’t as annoying as usual. That was only a small fraction of the day I spend with them. During a regular working day we’re together only a few hours at most (let’s see, officially from approximately 5 to 8, which includes whatever screen time they get after dinner) and so the carrying on is a disproportionately large amount of the time they do interact with us (they/us may not be the best relationship to describe here) and so it becomes incredibly frustrating to spend all that time yelling and being well, frustrated. Vicious.

It also doesn’t help to be sleepy, in dire need of a nap to get through the evenings quicker. There’s far too much time spent burning the candle at both ends: why not get more sleep instead of extending selfish leisure time ad infinitum? You spend the time together but alone, there’s not enough spent going through things with the family. The pendulum eventually corrects and swings back to a more normal pace, but meanwhile you’re left with guilt and thinking maybe tomorrow, it’ll be better, how lucky are you to be falling back into the same habits of yesteryear. But sleepy often means crabby, especially when the kids know you’re not paying attention.

Stops making sense, all of this, then. We spend long hours unraveling the knots when chaos is the natural state of things. That’s fine, we’re great, thanks. How much longer would we spend doing these things if we knew what the future costs would be? Yes but: if we could call the future and ask, would they care? And: wouldn’t we make the future different just by knowing it? I love that I’m trying to read a crystal ball for fifteen years from now while making intelligent assumptions about what’s possible and what’s probable. Flight time and be serious about it, driving us all crazy with the thousand glittering possible tomorrows.


Young Adult

8 July 2014

Dear J-

When I was in eighth grade(1), my friend and neighbor Jason pointed out one of the girls in our class and declared that for sure, if there was an apocalyptic-type situation (hey, even though it was 1987-88 it was the Cold War and the ever-present threat of nuclear attack was real in our fevered brains, given that we had a USAF base nearby), he was taking her against the wall to, er, take her, because he for sure wasn’t going to die a virgin(2). When your brain is basting in hormones there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground of what’s appropriate and what’s not, only your immediate sense of needs and values, and none of those seem to work, or at least your brains are not in your head at that age.

I watch the kids play together right now and it’s a fun time, no deeper meanings assigned to boys and girls and games or looks or actions or hugs. No ulterior motives, if you will. When you get going with the hormones, though, and as you start to notice them (that he or she in particular) you have to retrain your body in what’s appropriate and what’s not. It becomes far more important to say what’s on your mind, even though I know I’ve heard all the advice in the world on nonverbal communication and the games (look at her lips, eye contact, don’t call back too soon). No single rule applies except this: if you want to let someone know how you feel, the easiest (and surest) way is by talking about it, right?

Of course then you really have to concentrate on the mental filter, which is much slower to develop. Should I be saying that? Now? At around thirteen or fourteen I thought my tongue thickened enough that the words started to stumble out of my mouth, but it’s more a question of familiarity, I suppose. How do I know you’re not going to just laugh? Or worse yet, say no? There is always that risk, sure, but let’s consider the actual consequences of it. Hmm. Potential confusion averted. I know they call it a crush for obvious reasons but you will survive no. And that’s the chance you have to take in order to find yes.


(1) You realize that “when I was in eighth grade” is code for “the following story may be offensive” right? Because, you know, eighth grade boys.

(2) And no, obviously there were no bombs that fell in eighth grade, though I wonder if Jason was secretly praying for the end. He would have been better off with the obvious pick-up line “Hey, if the world was ending in five minutes, I’d choose to be with you. Wanna go out sometime when we’re not about to die?” Even that’s terrible, but much better than the forced consent of mutual mortal peril.


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