Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chapter 18 concluded

Around the backside of the “desert island” (which turned out to be bigger than it looked from afar), there was an enclosed area of water.  “It’s a lagoon within the Lagoon,” Johnny breathed.  Aidan gave him a sideways grin.

Roger pulled The Sylph into the inner lagoon and let it float aimlessly.  She rejoined them in the bow and shaded her eyes with her hand, looking towards the shoreline of the island proper.  “I think we’ll be able to pick up some water here, after.”

Johnny looked back at the island, surprised.  To him it still looked like a roughly circular pile of sand with a single tree growing in the middle of it, no bigger in circumference than he could walk in ten minutes or so.  Where could there possibly be water?  He opened his mouth to ask, but then realized that was a tangent that wasn’t likely to get him anywhere, not to mention that there were more interesting avenues to pursue.

“So ...” he ventured.  “Who exactly are we going to talk to?”

Roger just smiled enigmatically and cast her eyes toward Aidan.  Johnny turned to the Water Guide to repeat his question, but the young man had already turned his back on them and was holding his staff over his head in both hands, looking out over the water.  The mumbling was low this time, but still retained all its fluid qualities.  Suddenly he began to twirl the staff, parallel to the deck, hands nothing but a blur as they manipulated the hunk of wood so fast it almost resembled the rotor of a helicopter, the stroboscopic effect making it appear to spin in reverse.  Then, in a split-second move, the staff stopped, pointing straight out to the ocean-like lagoon, and Aidan brought it down sharply until it struck the railing.  A rippling wave of force seemed to shoot out of the end of it, and Johnny could see the wake it left in the water, and a shimmer in the air as it shot off into the distance.  Aidan turned and put the butt of the staff back on the deck, leaning heavily on it.  “That should get their attention,” he said.

Johnny reached out to help steady him.  “You okay?  You’re dong a lot of that ... whatever it is you do.”

Aidan gave him a quick smile to show he was fine.  “Not to worry, son.  That last one wasn’t as strenuous as it looked.  Just a quick hail to grab the attention of the locals.”

Indeed, the water below them suddenly seemed to be teeming with life.  A few of the flying fish that Johnny had last seen during the overground trip into the selvage shot up and did some fancy figure eights before dropping back into the water.  Here and there a large, red crab claw popped up and waved at them.  Several fins broke the surface and shot back and forth; some appeared to be fish, others dolphins or porpoises.  Even the little blue water snake around Larissa’s wrist had raised its head and was tasting the air with a flickering tongue.

Suddenly a bigger, darker fin rose up, way out in the open water, but speeding towards them so quickly it almost seemed mechanical.  By the time it reached the edge of the inner lagoon, all the local aquatic life had decided it had business elsewhere.  The little blue snake ducked its head into its coils and went back to doing its impression of a bracelet.  The fin shot straight at the ship; when it was within two feet of the hull, the head of the creature emerged from the water with a mighty splash.

Johnny wanted to call it a mermaid.  Certainly that was the first thing to spring to mind.  But, if it was a mermaid, it was some monstrous version.  The main part of the body wasn’t that of a fish: it was a shark’s body, gray with just a hint of blue, and white on the underbelly.  The large dorsal fin that had announced the coming of the creature looked perfectly at home on the thing’s back.  It had arms, though they were also covered in sharkskin, and they ended in long hands with obscenely long fingers that looked more like gnarled twigs.  The thing had human breasts, so Johnny supposed it must be a “she,” but those too were covered with the leathery skin—even the nipples were covered over in gray, although surrounded by white rings where areolae should be.  The rough skin covered the neck and lower jaw as well, then began tapering off, and most of the head and face appeared to be layered in human epidermis. The shape of the face was mostly human, although also somehow triangular and sharklike.  The eyes were beady black dots, exactly like a shark’s, and the hair was long and black and stringy, interwoven with seaweed and small seashells, but not in an attractive way—more like the creature just let any sort of garbage collect in it.  Johnny’s mind was reeling with trying to take it all in, and then the thing opened its mouth.  There were rows of ragged teeth: not the perfect arrowhead shapes that you might expect to find in a shark’s maw, but jagged little blades of ivory, pitted with age and set at crazy angles so that it seemed impossible the thing wouldn’t tear out its own gums when it closed its mouth.  The nightmarish vision hissed at them, a warning or perhaps a challenge, but Johnny was already backpedaling.  The teeth had been more disturbing than any sound it could make.

And now others were rising up, but they were not shark-mermaids; they were composed of other creatures.  One had the dark mottled brown hide of a moray eel, and brown fisheyes with blue rings around them; one had white-blotched black tentacles and the horizontal pupils of an octopus; one had the forehead protrusion, spikes, and luminous eyes of an angler fish; here was the blue-green shell and eyestalks of a lobster; there was the silver-blue scales and slightly ovoid pupils of a marlin, set into large, reflective cyan sclera.  And, on each one, the long, lank hair, always some dark and dingy shade; on each, the frightening fingers and teeth; and each carried a hint of its progenitor in its facial shape, from the bullet-like head of the moray to the heavy lower jaw of the angler, and the bulbous and vaguely squishy head of the octopus.

When the lead creature spoke, its voice was like rusty hinges and oozing sea muck.  Johnny could hear the howling ocean wind and the clacking together of bits of gravel and shells and old shark’s teeth rendered perfectly smooth by the sea.

“Why have you summoned us?” it said.

Aidan looked down at them gravely.  “Shallédanu lei shonta,” he said.

The lobster woman shook her body to make a sound like lobster claws snapping; the octopus woman thrashed the water with her tentacles.  The shark woman said: “Your benedictions hold no sway over us, priest!  Spare us the niceties and get to the point.”

Roger stepped forward.  “We need an opener.”

The moray woman just gnashed her teeth loudly, but the others made a tittering, screeching sound that Johnny eventually comprehended as laughter.  Roger waited calmly for them to finish.  “And why would we give you such a thing, landbound one?”

“Ye’ll give it me when I earn it, and I’ll thank you not to call me ‘landbound.’  I was born to the waves, same as you, and I live for them, same as you.  Not my fault the gods give me these things”—here Roger slapped a leg—“instead of proper fins like you ladies have.”  Apparently Roger saw the creatures as female, although that was still too much of a leap for Johnny’s brain to make.

“Born to the waves, you say?” shark-woman asked.

“Aye, same as you.  Straight from me mother’s womb into the water, and had to swim for me first breath.”

Shark-woman’s beady black eyes flashed.  “We have no need to breathe the air as you do.” It was obviously a point of pride.

“Six o’ one.  Ye had to swim to get somewhere when ye popped out ... or were ye hatched?”  Roger raised an eyebrow.

Shark-woman hissed again, but the others repeated their eerie laughter.  It was clear Roger was scoring points, somehow.

There was a pause while the creatures considered.  They looked at each other, but did not speak aloud.  Johnny wondered if they could communicate telepathically.  Finally shark-woman spoke again.  “You say you can swim, then?”

Roger snorted.  “Best swimmer with two legs.  At least as far as you’ll ever see.”

Shark-woman smiled, and Johnny shuddered.  “Then challenge us to a race.  Beat us, and we’ll give you your opener.  Lose, and we’ll pick our teeth with your bones.”  That screeching, grating excuse for laughter rang out again.

Roger appeared to examine her fingernails.  “Oh, sure, challenge you to a race.  What, all of ye then?”

Shark-woman shook her head.  “No!  Choose any one of us.”

Roger nodded.  “Still and all, I did say I was the best swimmer with two legs.  I’d say none of you gals has any legs to speak of at all.”

At this, all the monstrous mermaids dove and flashed their tails at the watchers to show that Roger was indeed correct: threshing shark tail, wavy eel tail, stubby angler tail, powerful marlin tail, curling lobster tail.  Only octopus-woman had anything approaching legs, but she bunched her tentacles together as if she too had a tail.  After much splashing, they righted themselves and were staring up at the humans on the deck again.

Roger spread her hands.  “See my ketch?  You all have me at an unfair advantage.  Wouldn’t matter which of you I chose.  It still wouldn’t be a fair fight.”

Marlin-woman pointed at Aidan.  “The guide,” she said softly.  Her voice was just as grating as shark-woman’s.  Now the others picked it up, and repeated it as if chanting: “the guide, the guide.”  The sound of their voices left a feeling on Johnny’s skin as if he’d touched a snail.

Roger looked at Aidan, as if considering this suggestion.  “Why, yes, I suppose me bucko here could put a charm on me that might even the odds.  I don’t know ...”  She rubbed at her chin, speculating.

Shark-woman threshed the water with her tail.  “Hasten, landbound!  Do you mean to challenge or not?”

Roger put up a hand.  “Hold yer line there missy!  I’m considerin’.  Ye did just say ye was going to eat me if I lost, did ye not?  I reckon that means I ought to be right careful what I say long about now, don’t it?”

Johnny took a look at his companions.  Aidan was staring at a spot on the deck just in front of his feet.  Larissa was gazing at Roger, her face unreadable.  Bones was bouncing up and down on top of the crates behind them, hyperactive as always, but in a small, contained space so as not to disturb anything.  And Roger was back to scratching at her chin, practically pulling on an invisible beard.  This was not a characteristic habit for her, so far as Johny knew.  And there was something in her eyes ...

“Very well,” she said finally, taking another step forward and putting a gloved hand on the deck railing.  “I’ll challenge one of you, but only if ye’ll grant me one boon.”

Shark-woman hissed yet again.  “No more conditions!  We’ve given you all that you asked for.”

Roger leaned down and fixed the creature with a steely gaze.  “I think ye’re mistaken, missy.  I’ve not asked for aught.  Ye offered all that’s been said so far.  I’ve got but a single request and ye’ve yet to hear it.”

The mermaid creatures grew suddenly stiller, to the point where Johnny couldn’t imagine how they kept their upper bodies above the surface of the lagoon.  Their different eyes all flashed, although they studiously avoided looking at each other this time.  Finally shark-woman spoke.  “You speak the truth.  You have not yet made a request of us, and we are bound to hear it.  If we agree, we will accept the challenge.  If we do not, we will leave here and you must continue your journey on your own.”

Roger smiled again.  “Oh, I think ye’ll agree to this request all right.  It’s right up your alley.  I call for a race with no rules.  Pick the start, pick the end, and first one across the finish line claims the prize.  Whatever happens in between is fair play.  Do we have an accord?”  Roger plucked off her right glove, reached over the railing and offered her hand to shark-woman.  The creature thrashed over and reached out those long fingers.  Quick as a flash, they scratched Roger across the palm, and several drops of blood fell into the water.  Roger did not seem at all surprised by this, and used the small knife which had somehow sprung into her hand to slice into shark-woman’s hand before she could retrieve it.  Some black, tar-like goo remained on the blade when Roger straightened up; she had to wipe it forcibly onto the deck railing.

“Very well then,” Roger said calmly, making the knife disappear again.  “I’ll take the lobster wench.  Pick yer endpoints and I’ll have Aidan slick me up. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a contest.”


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Amor Fati

I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.
        — Douglas Adams

Some people believe in destiny.  The idea that the threads of our lives are woven together in a tangled skein is an attractive one, and reappears throughout history: from the Moirai of the Greeks and the Norns of the Vikings to the Wheel of Time in Robert Jordan’s series of the same name, which gives us the quote “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and we are only the thread of the Pattern.”  The reason this concept is so tempting is that it accords with our experience of the world.  If you stop and think back on your life, you’ll see a hundred different coincidences, a hundred different times where, if one thing had gone only slightly differently, your whole life would be in a different course.  In fact, looking back on one’s life at all the little things that had to go just so to lead you to where you are now, it’s enough to make anyone ponder whether there might be something to this concept: call it fate, destiny, fortune, karma, kismet, call it random chance or divine providence, say que sera, sera, or say the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, or say the universe puts us in the places we need to be, but any way you slice it, it’s hard to pretend there’s nothing behind the curtain.

For instance, say I had not dropped out of college: then I wouldn’t have gotten my first job as a computer programmer.  I might have become one later in life, maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same.  Say I had not accepted the offer to leave that job to form a two-man company with one of my former co-workers, which only lasted a few months ... well, then, I might never have ended up going back to school to finish up my degree.  I know for a fact that if I had not accepted an invitation from a friend of mine attending college in the DC area to come spend a week with him that I never would have moved to our nation’s capital, where I spent 18 years of my life.  I know this because I had already applied (and been accepted) to another college; it just so happened that I had missed the deadline for fall admission at the college of my choice and I was going to have to wait until the following spring.  But this school my friend was attending still had spots open—not for freshmen, but, then, I was a transfer—and a surprisingly decent English program, and so it became my alma mater.

And that’s just the beginning.

Somewhere out there in the wide world is a woman whose name I can’t remember, born in Hawaii, with the dark skin and exotic beauty to prove it.  She went to high school in Los Angeles, and her sister (or her cousin, or her best friend—I forget) went out with one of the guys from Jane’s Addiction.  Somehow she ended up moving across the entire country, and wound up in Fairfax, in Northern Virginia, just outside DC, working at a cheesy little college pub.  And, if she had not come out of the back room that day, and had she not been so pretty, and had she not smiled just so, and had she not looked at me and my friend and said “two applications, then?” ... if all that confluence of chance had not come together at that exact moment in my life, when I was just giving my friend a ride around to various restaurants so he could find a job as a cook, since it just so happened that he didn’t have a car, and just after an exhausting two or three weeks wherein I learned that my experience was enough to get me any number of programming jobs, but there was apparently no such thing as a part-time programming job (at least not in that place at that time) ... if all that chaos theory had not converged on that exact moment in time, would have I cut off my friend’s “no, just one” with a resigned “what the hell, sure, two applications”?  Probably not.  And if I had never taken that job, I would have never engaged in the childish electronic prank that introduced me to the computer salesman who became my first business partner, which eventually led to my starting my first company, which eventually got me a consulting job at large corporation, where I eventually met the woman who is my partner to this day, and who is the mother of my children, who are essentially the entire point of my existence.

That’s a lot of “coincidences.”

When business for my company dried up, and my meager savings was running out, another friend of mine just happened to mention a job that he had interviewed for but had decided not to take, but mentioned I might like it there.  Turns out I did, and I spent three and half years there, meeting some folks who are still some of my favorite people of all time, and having a really great job where I got to learn a lot of stuff, and teach a few things, and have a great deal of freedom, which was important, because I was coming off of working for myself for 13 years, and I’d utterly lost the ability to wake up early (not that I’d ever really had it, for the most part), or wear shoes at work, and I had 13 years worth of ponytail between my shoulder blades.

The story of how I left that job and came to the great state of California is yet another of those sets of bizarre, interlocking coincidences.  Last week I told you what I thought of corporate managers telling you you must take PTO when you’re slightly sick and you want to work from home.  As Bill Cosby once said, I told you that story so I could tell you this one.  I’m not going use any names here: if you know me, you most likely know the person I’m talking about, and if you don’t know me, you most likely wouldn’t recognize the name anyway.

When I first started at this job I’m talking about, the first job after running my own company for 13 years, I had a boss who lived in Boston and showed up for a couple of days every other week.  Despite not being around very often, this person was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had.  I was given very clear directions, never micromanaged, trusted, encouraged ... the only criticism I ever got from this boss was to step up my game, to take more responsibility, to stop worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes and take the lead on things.  This company was a subsidiary of a larger, public corporation, but our boss kept us insulated from any politics and let us do our own thing.  There was only one layer between our boss and the corporate CEO, and that VP and our boss seemed to get along just fine.

Then the synchronicity dominoes started to fall.  The VP left, and was replaced by a real asshole of a human being, one of those corporate jackasses who believes that being a jerk is a substitute for leadership.  In less than a year, the replacement was gone as well, apparently unliked by everyone, including the CEO, but it was too late: my boss had also submitted a resignation, and I was destined to receive a new manager, who would end up being one of the worst bosses I’ve ever had.  And I once worked for a twitchy Vietnam vet with a bad coke habit.

This new boss was a micromanager, never trusted, didn’t understand how to encourage and pushed bullishly instead, had no respect for the culture of the company, and basically ticked off every mistake that a corporate middle manager can possibly make.  It was like this person had a manual to go by:  Sow distrust and dissension among employees? Check.  Freak out and yell at people in front of co-workers? Check.  React to problems by increasing the number of useless meetings? Check.  I swear, somewhere out there is a book that tells these people exactly how to act, because the number of them who all do the same stupid things over and over again can’t be explained any other way.

It was Memorial Day weekend of 2007.  I was feeling a bit under the weather, but there was a big project going on at work that I knew we’d all regret if I fell behind on.  This new boss wasn’t my favorite person, but I still loved the company, and I wanted to do my best to make the (completely artificial) deadline.  That Friday, I sent my email saying I wasn’t feeling well, but I was going to soldier on.  Then I got to coding.  When I checked again, on the holiday itself, I discovered a snarky email from my boss, advising me that if I was sick, I should take PTO and not work from home.

I promptly replied that I was deeply sorry that I had attempted to make progress on our big project, and I assured my boss that it wouldn’t happen again.

I then went to check my spam folder, because that’s where all the recruiter emails invariably end up.

If you’re a technogeek like me, you know that once that very first recruiter finds you, there will follow a never-ending stream of offers for jobs in your specialty, jobs not in your specialty, jobs nowhere near the vicinity of your specialty, and non-specific vague pretensions of maybe possibly having a job for you one day so they’d just like to stay in touch.  Mostly you just ignore them ... until you get ticked off with your current work.  Then you realize that you’re sitting on a gold mine, tucked away in your spam folder.

I had always lived on the East Coast: 22 years in Tidewater, on the VA-NC border; 1 year in Columbia, SC; and the aforementioned 13 years in the greater DC metro area (partly in Northern VA and partly in Southern MD).  But if anyone asked me where I really wanted to live, I always said California.  I later expanded to the West Coast in general: Oregon is lovely (although, as it turned out, practically impossible to find a tech job in), and Washington is not a bad choice either (lots of tech jobs, but perhaps a bit colder than I’d ideally like).  But really it was California that had caught my interest; two trips to Borland out in Scott’s Valley and a couple of visits to San Francisco to visit an architect-turned-tech-entrepreneur friend of mine had cemented Cali—and the San Fran-San Jose corridor in particular—as the place to be.  So when I went looking for recruiter spam, I figured I might as well find something that said “California” on it.

There were only 3 or 4 recruiter emails, as it turned out ... a light dusting compared to what I normally had.  One of them said “Santa Monica, CA.”

Now, I didn’t know where Santa Monica was.  And I was too much in a huff to look it up.  But I knew where Santa Clara was, and I knew where Santa Cruz was, and I figured ... how much farther away could it be?

Pretty far, as it turns out.  Santa Monica is in Los Angeles county, and is (along with Venice Beach and Marina del Rey) one of the beach cities of LA.  As it turns out, my partner used to live in (or just outside) Santa Monica.  All that I was to find out later, though.

It was Monday (Memorial Day) that I sent a random email back to a random recruiter that I plucked out of a spam folder; on Tuesday, I got a garbled message from someone with an unintelligible accent—on a hunch, I called back that same recruiter and it turned out to be him; on Wednesday, I was talking to the recruiter’s boss, who was telling me about a company which had very high standards and was willing to pay full relocation; on Thursday, I had a phone interview with the folks who would eventually end up being my new bosses—this was conducted on my cell phone, while I was driving through the middle of downtown DC, trying to avoid the hideous traffic on the Wilson Bridge; on Friday, I was talking to someone at eBay corporate about a plane ticket; the following Monday night I got on a plane; Tuesday, I had what was possibly the best job interview of my career (probably second only to the one at the corporation where I met my partner), and they made me an offer on the spot; on Wednesday, I received a signed offer letter in my email; and on Thursday, I handed my boss a brief resgination letter.  So, to wrap up the discussion from last week, that’s under two weeks from the time my corporate middle-manager boss pissed me off over something stupidly trivial until the time I had a better job for about 25% more money (although, admittedly, part of that was simply to cover the higher cost of living in LA), and my old company lost 3 and half years’ experience and half their tech department.  Something for you corporate folks to chew on.

But the real lesson is, as far as I’m concerned (and as far as my family is concerned), when something is meant to happen, it will happen, and often with blinding speed.  I could tell you the story of our new house, for instance, which includes passing on it when it was overpriced, it disappearing from the market and then, strangely, reappearing for a cheaper price, and even a prophetic dream ... but I’ve babbled on for quite a while already.  No need to beat a dead horse, I think.

I’ve long felt that whatever force runs the universe, be it divine, karmic, quantum, or ontological, be it moral, predestined, anthropomorphic, cyclical, or merely mechanical, has been quietly and efficiently doing His/Her/Its job for me, or on me, putting me where I am today and seemingly with the inexorable goal of geting me to where I will be tomorrow.  As you can see, I’m an epistemological conservative, but still I can’t help but believe: all that effort that whoever/whatever puts into seeing me to my assigned place ... that’s a lot of pointless expended energy, if there really is no purpose behind it.

Something to think about, anyway.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Taking a Sick Day

I’ve spoken before of my distaste for American corporate culture, and I’ve no doubt I will again.  Corporations have many unfortunate practices, the vast majority of which are just very creative ways to shoot themselves in the foot.  It always amuses me to hear free-market zealots explain how corporations always act in their own self interest ... I could spend hours telling you stories of companies doing stupid things that cost them vast quantities of money, just from my personal experience.  Sometimes this happens because, while an idealized corporate entity might always do what’s best for itself, a corporation in the real world is run by people, and people do silly things.  But often it just happens because of tradition, because of momentum, because it’s “common knowledge” that this is the way things are done and nobody bothers to question it or double check to see if it’s working or not.

Let’s talk about one such policy and why it’s dumb.  This particular one is close to my heart, because it played a very important role in my life (although that’s a story for another blog post).  I’m not sure what book on corporate management is hustling this hoax, but it must be a common one since I keep running into it.  Let’s say your company has no problem with you working from home under normal circumstances.  But what happens if you wake up feeling a little under the weather and decide it makes better sense to you to stay home and get some stuff done rather than go to work and spew your germs around?

Your manager has a fit, that’s what.

For some reason, most corporate middle managers seem to think that you must take PTO when you’re sick, even though they have no problem with you working from home at any other time.  I’ve yet to have anyone explain this to me in a way that actually makes any sense.  Generally it’s something about how you need to get your rest and so you should take the PTO.

Let’s examine all the reasons why that is utterly moronic.

In the first place, we corporate workers don’t want to work from home if we’re really sick.  If you wake up with a really bad flu or somesuch, you want to lay in bed and moan all day, in those rare intervals when you’re actually conscious.  But of course that’s not every day when you’re sick.  In fact, that isn’t even the majority of days when you’re sick.  Most days when you’re sick you don’t feel well enough to suffer through that vicious commute, you don’t want to stray too far from your medicine and your familiar bathroom facilities, and you figure it’s safer to be at home just in case you suddenly get worse, but, all in all, you’re still plenty alert enough to do most corporate work, which (let’s face it) doesn’t require a whole lot of brainpower anyway.  What am I gonna do at home all day?  Watch daytime TV?  Bleaaaghh.  I could be reading a nice book, perhaps, or playing mindless video games ... or I could be getting stuff accomplished for your company.  Which one really makes the most sense, from the point of view of the always self-interested corporation?

This, of course, exposes the real reason that corporate managers don’t want you working from home while you’re sick.  It’s because they think you’re going to do a half-assed job.  Basically, they’re telling you that you can’t be trusted to know when you’re alert enough to do a good job.  This is stupid for a lot of reasons.  First of all, if you really can’t trust the person, you should just fire them.  But obviously that’s not true: you trust them enough to let them work from home in the first place.  So now you’re saying that maybe they can do okay when they’re out of your sight sometimes, but they’re not really bright enough to know when they’re too sick to work.  And the problem with treating your employees like children is that it causes them to act like children.  If you deal with people with a lack of respect, giving them the message that they’re not mature enough, they will inevitably start doing petty things to live up to your expectations.  Enforce ridiculous rules about office supplies and they’ll start stealing paper clips; institute draconian time-off policies and they’ll start calling in sick to go out drinking with their friends; treat them like you expect they can’t keep track of their own time and they’ll start miscounting hours and being more “flexible” about what constitutes work time.  If you want people to act like adults, treat them like adults.  This works for your children, too, in case you didn’t know that already.  (And, if you did, why did you think it wouldn’t work for your grown-up employees?)

But perhaps the biggest problem with this silly policy is the dilemma it puts the employee in.  ‘Cause here’s my thinking on the matter:  If you tell me that I can’t work from home if I’m sick, I have two choices.  One, I could take the PTO and stay home and not work.  Or I could say, screw it, and just come in anyway.  I mean, I may not want to deal with the commute, and it might be more convenient for me to be near my own toilet, but when the alternative is to take PTO (which, due to other silly corporate policies, is a very precious resource), I might decide to forego the convenience and just bring my germ-laden ass in to the office.  After all, I’m not that sick (if I were, the question wouldn’t have come up at all).  And it’s no skin off my nose if I get a bunch of your other employees sick and they have to take PTO and all their work starts falling behind.  No, the only pocketbook that impacts is the company’s.

So look at what this policy is costing you.  It costs you forward progress on potentially important projects.  It costs you morale as employees are insulted by your lack of trust.  And it costs you countless lost work hours as you actively encourage your workers to spread their germs throughout the office and create a domino effect.  And what do you have to put on the other side of that corporate balance sheet?  The possibility that you saved a half-day’s time due to someone not doing a full day’s work?  Are you really coming out ahead?

What about the possibility that your silly policy inspires someone to just quit and go find another job?  You may say to yourself that the chances are good that their next corporation will have the same policy, so they won’t quit over something like that, but a) you don’t know that for sure, and b) people often aren’t that rational.  Don’t tell yourself it can’t happen.  I’m living proof that it can.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Poetry in the Raw

I do occasionally mention that I have children.  In the spirit of not putting personal information about one’s family out onto the Internet, I have refrained from mentioning their names.  However, their names are more than just handles for easy identification; they’re a sign of another parenting principle that I and my partner believe strongly in.

Now, typically when I write a post and tag it with “parenting” (such as this one), I’ll happily admit that I’m trying to convince you that my way is the right way.  (And, if you don’t like that, look up at the title of the blog again.)  So I feel compelled to point out that this one is different.  This time, I’m saying “look, this is the way I do it, but it may not be right for you.”  It’s okay to disagree sometimes, you know.  That’s what makes the world such a beautiful place.

So, these are the names of my children: the elder son is Random, the younger son is Perrin, and the daughter who is yet to be is Merrick.  The links will explain where the names come from, if you’re interested.  I’ve tried to find places to link to that are as spoiler-free as possible, but be careful where you click on those pages, and certainly don’t read the “Chronology” on the Perrin Aybara page if you’re worried about that sort of thing.

I’m sure you’ve cottoned on the what these names have in common.  Yes, they’re all fictional characters, and, more subtly, none of them are series protagonists, although they all rise to prominence in their stories.  Actually, that’s more of a coincidence—we picked the names mainly for their euphony, and of course their primary characteristic: they’re all pretty unusual names.  In fact, one might suspect that I had deliberately gone somewhere to check out the 1,000 most popular baby names for the past 12 years and made sure ours weren’t on them.  (And, of course, one would be right.)

But why?  I am certainly no celebrity: I am not Gwyneth Paltrow, nor Penn Jillette, nor Robert Rodriguez (though I quite like “Apple” and “Rocket” ... “Moxie CrimeFighter” may be a bit much though).  So I don’t even have the excuse of being rich and crazy.  Perhaps I should leave the unusual baby names to the stars; after all, as that link points out, “the richer the parents are, the less likely you are to be teased.”  My kids don’t have that protection.

In fact, the assumption that unusual names will be a burden to a child seems to be a common one.  Casual Internet comments and Saturday Night Live skits aside, there is serious research that tells us that unique names are bad for our kids.  Of course, the great thing about research like that is that it nearly always works both ways: for every article I can find telling me that “when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism” or that ”a 1960s study of psychiatric records found that those with unusual names were more likely to be diagnosed psychotic,” I can find another that tells me that “names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person”* or that “young adults today report that they feel buoyed by an unorthodox appellation.”

Should I try to draw some conclusion from the fact that the author quoted in the first article, as well as the author of the second, are both named Jean, while the auhor of the third is Carlin, and the fourth was penned by a man with a middle name of Marion?  Should I furthermore wonder why that second Jean (full name “Jean-Vincent”) now chooses to go by “JV”?  I can recall hearing some author speaking on NPR a few years ago, telling me that children needed stability and wanted to fit in, and that unusual names jeopardized that.  Spoken like a true “Bob,” I thought.

No, I should probably not engage in such speculation.  Like any debate that appears to be black and white, the truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle.  As one of those articles points out:

No one can predict whether a name will be consistent with a child’s or a teen’s view of herself. The name could be ethnic, unique or white-bread, but if it doesn’t reinforce her sense of self, she will probably be unhappy with it and may even feel alienated from parents or peers because of it. An Annika with iconoclastic taste will be happy with her name, but a Tallullah who longs for a seat at the cheerleader’s table may feel that her name is too weird.

In other words, we could be doing our kids a favor by giving them unique names, or screwing them up, and the exact same thing is true if we give them common names.  The way we look at it, they can always choose to be Randy, Perry, and Mary later in life if that suits them better.  At least this way they have a choice.

Plus, one can never predict future uniqueness.  I’m sure that if you were an expecting parent in 1984 who saw Splash, you probably thought that “Madison” was a pretty cool-sounding, unique name for your soon-to-be baby girl.  Little would you guess that it would suddenly enter the top 1,000 most popular names at #625 the very next year, and eventually reach the top ten in 1997, where it remains to this day.  (In fact, it was one of the top three girls’ names from 2000 to 2006.)  For that matter, we were just informed this past week that, not only is our elder son no longer our pediatrcian’s only “Random,” he’s actually now one of three (the oldest of the three, at least, so he can still claim to be the “original,” for whatever that’s worth).

So far it appears that my firstborn is happy with his name.  He’s just barely a teenager at this point, but he has resisted all efforts to be made into a “Randy,” and he always gently but firmly corrects the common mishearing of “Brandon.”  Whether other kids make fun of him for his name or not, I don’t know—I suspect not as much as they might have, since he’s never attended public school.  The schools where Random has gone are filled with names of kids that make his stand out less: Sasha’s and Connor’s and Thor’s and Skyler’s.  But, even in public schools, some of those articles suggest, a combination of increasing ethnic diversity and less social emphasis on conformity means that unusual names are not the rich fodder for teasging they once were:

“Kids today are used to a variety of names, so it is almost too simple for them to make fun of each other for that,” says Taffel. “Cruelty is more sophisticated now.”

Comforting words indeed.

But you know what the most telling quote from any of these articles is, and the one that I think sums up my own parental view on the matter is?

If parents give a child an offbeat name, speculates Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University, “they are probably outliers willing to buck convention, and that [parental trait] will have a greater effect on their child than does the name.”

That’s me in a nutshell.  I don’t want to give my children names that help them conform, because I don’t want them to conform.  I want them to stand out.  I want them to feel as if they have a built-in leg-up on being recognized for their unique qualities; we often tell Random that he’s the “best Random in the whole world,” and we can tell each of our children the same thing without any accusation of favoritism, and not even that big a chance of being incorrect.  We’ve always taught our kids to think for themselves, not to blindly follow instructions—even though we regret that sometimes.  But our children are intelligent, articulate, and forthright, capable of high-order reasoning, with impressive vocabularies for their ages.  And, so far at least, they like their names.

I’ve written before about treating my children like people, and I closed that blog post with a quote from Frank Zappa, a guy who named his children Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva.  Obviously I feel a kinship with the man, even if I don’t care for his music.  His quotes on parenthood are numerous and inspiring (at least to me), and I grace you with another one here.

The more boring a child is, the more the parents, when showing off the child, receive adulation for being good parents—because they have a tame child-creature in their house.

My children are anything but boring.  And it all starts with their names.

* “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes.  Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”

** The title of this week’s post is a quote from W.H. Auden.  The full quote is: “Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”