Sunday, September 30, 2012

Perl blog post #10

This week I’ve been catching up on a lot of Perl & CPAN stuff that I’ve been neglecting because of work.  The resulting work was very interesting, and inspired a technical post on my other blog.  Hop on over if you’re a Perl geek.  If not, you’ll just have to wait until next week for something interesting to come around.

If you’re lucky.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I'm too old for this shit ...

I believe in self-reflection and self-analysis.  (Of course, I also believe that such things are necessarily flawed, but perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.)  I think it’s important to know what your faults are, what your limitations are.  Of course, I think that sometimes people want to identify their faults so they can correct them.  I have a slightly different approach:  If I can’t identify all my faults, I’m a blind moron, bumbling through life not even knowing the damage I’m doing.  Contrariwise, if I can identify all my faults, and if I could somehow correct them all, then I would be perfect.  I know that I cannot ever be perfect.  Therefore, either I’m never going to be able to see all my faults, or I’m going to be able to see them all but never fix them all.  I choose the latter.

That is, there are some faults that I have that I’ve just learned to live with.  They’re bad, sure, but they’re not so bad, and, if one has to have faults anyway (and, lacking perfection, one does), you may as well have some that aren’t so bad, right?  For instance, I’m too loud.  I have a naturally loud voice, and it carries, and the more excited I get about a topic, the louder I get.  Especially in an office environment, I’ve been asked many times throughout my life to keep it down.  Another problem I have is that I get pissed off at little things.  Not things that people do, so much: more like inanimate objects.  Like if I drop a cup and spill water all over the place, I am pissed at that cup.  This is moronic.  I know this.  But I still do it, and mostly I can live with that.

Now here’s the fault that I wanted to talk about today: I try to be too helpful.  Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds like one of those bullshit “flaws” that you dredge up during an interview.  (“Mr. Jones, what would you say is your biggest failing as an employee?”  “Well, sir, I’ve often been told that I just work too gosh-darned hard.”)  But note that I’m not claiming that I actually am too helpful, only that I try to be.  And, really, it isn’t correct to say that I try to be to helpful ... the truth is that I try too hard to be helpful, which is subtly different.

If you ask me a question, I want to give you the right answer.  If I can’t give you an answer, I feel bad.  Like, unreasonably bad.  Much worse than I would if I were to screw you out of a parking spot—worse even than if I were to screw you out of a job (unless perhaps I knew you personally).  That’s messed up.  But that’s the way I am.  If I give you an answer and it later turns out I was wrong, that’s even worse: then I feel hideously awful.  I have friends that think I have a burning need to be right.  I don’t think that’s true.  My father, for instance, has a burning need to be right.  He doesn’t ever admit that he was wrong.  I, on the other hand, have absolutely no problem admitting I was wrong: I just feel really crappy about it, if I think that someone was misled somehow (and that’s nearly always true, unless you were talking to yourself or something).  It’s sort of like a savior complex, but on a smaller scale.  I don’t feel the need to save people, only help them out a bit.

And, at first blush, this doesn’t seem so bad.  So I go out of my way to help people; what’s wrong with that?  Someone with a savior complex often has the problem of taking care of others so much that they forget to take care of themselves, but I don’t have that issue.  So where are the downsides, and how is this a fault?  Well, there are two main areas that I’ve identified, one smaller, and one larger.

The smaller issue is that I’m so constantly afraid of giving people the wrong information that I often over-qualify all my statements.  Now, I’ve talked before about my fear of absolute statements.  So, in one sense, this is just another facet of that.  But it goes further, I think: if I qualify everything I say to a large enough extent, I can never be giving you misleading information, right?  Many of my friends think I’m wishy-washy.  I don’t think that about myself, but I certainly understand why they do, and this is at the heart of it.

But here’s the bigger problem.  When I think someone is wrong, I have a desperate desire to “help” them by correcting their misconceptions.  Which can be okay, sometimes, if the person is receptive to that sort of thing, but often people aren’t.  And that just makes me try harder.  Which is code for “I’m a jerk about it.”  And, of course, it’s one thing if it’s a fact we’re discussing.  If I can tell you that you’re wrong, and we can look it up on Wikipedia or somesuch, then the question will be settled.  You may not appreciate my correcting you (especially if I did it in public), but at least there’s no more arguing about it.

But suppose it’s more of a matter of opinion.  Now, I’m okay if you have your own opinion about something.  If you have an intelligent, informed opinion, and I just happen to disagree with you, then fine.  I don’t have a need to “correct” you then, because you’re not really wrong.  But, let’s face it: most poeple’s opinions are not intelligent, informed opinions, and that includes mine.  I try (really!) to have the good grace to back down when it’s obvious that you know more about something than I do, but I find that I’m in a minority there, and sometimes I can’t resist either.

Here’s the situation that brought this to the forefront of my mind and inspired this post:  Just two days ago, I was in a meeting with several other technogeeks that I work with.  There were five of us, and were talking about architectural decisions.  For some reason, the topic of TDD came up.  Now, I’ve actually talked about this exact situation before, and I even specifically mentioned TDD in that post.  I also mentioned my good friend and co-worker, and he happened to be in that meeting.  Perhaps I didn’t mention it, but he’s also my boss (everyone in the room’s boss, for that matter).  We don’t usually treat him any differently for all that, but it’s a fact that should not be ignored.

So, suddenly we find ourselves debating the merits of TDD (again).  What those merits are is not important to the story.  Suffice it to say that my friend, and one other co-worker, took the con side, and the remaining three of us took the pro side.  And the discussion got heated.  I found myself geting more and more frustrated as I tried to “help” them understand why TDD was so cool.

On the one hand, it made perfect sense that it should upset me so much.  Neither of the fellows on the con side had ever actually tried TDD.  And it was obvious from the statements they made that they didn’t have a very thorough understanding of it.  Them saying it was a bad technique was basically the same as my six-year-old claiming that he’s never tried a food but he’s sure he doesn’t like it.  It’s just silly, and therefore somewhat maddening.

But, on the other hand, I have to be careful, because I know how I get, because of my fault.  Here are people making a mistake: they’re espousing an opinion based on incomplete information and zero experience.  And, trust me: even if your opinion happens to be accidentally right, that’s still a mistake.  So, I see people making a mistake and I want to help them.  And I know that’s going to blind me to common sense.  (Well, I know it now ... seeing that at the time was pretty much a lost cause.)

And, here’s the thing: the other two people on the pro side didn’t get into the argument.  Why not?  Is it because they were scared to get into it with the guy who’s technically their boss?  No, not at all: we’ve all had technical discussions where we’ve been on the other side from our boss, and we don’t back down when we think it’s important.  So maybe they didn’t think it was important, then?  Maybe.  But I think I see a better explanation.

When your own kid tells you he’s not eating the fish because he doesn’t like it, even though you know perfectly well he’s never tried it before, you can get into it with him.  As the parent, it’s your job to teach your children to try new things, not to be close-minded.  If you don’t, who will?  Because, when it’s someone else’s kid telling you he’s not eating the fish, you just nod and go “okay, sure, kid, whatever you say.”  Because, and here’s the crux of the matter: why the hell do you care?

These other two guys are both younger than me, but they’re apparently much smarter.  The fact that our two colleagues are radically misinformed about TDD and think it’s bad even though they don’t understand it isn’t hurting them one whit.  It’s not stopping them from using TDD: the boss has said he doesn’t believe in it, but he certainly hasn’t banned it or anything.  In fact, he’s been supportive of other people using it.  So why bother to get into it?  Let the unbelievers unbelieve, if that’s their thing.

At the end of the day, who really gives a fuck?

Apparently I do.  Apparently I have this burning desire to convert all the non-believers and help them see the light.  And here’s where we fetch up against today’s blog post title: I just don’t have energy for that shit any more.  I’m looking at myself doing it and thinking, “why oh why am I even bothering?”  It’s not like these guys are thanking me for my “help.”  No, they’re just irked at my stubborn insistence.  And who can blame them?  ‘Cause, as I mentioned above, the longer this goes on, the more of a jerk I am about it.  So, here I am, pissing off people that I care about, over something that really doesn’t make that much difference in my life, just so I can say to myself afterwards that I corrected a misperception.  Seriously: what the hell am I doing?

I really am too old for this shit.  I need to learn to let go.  Today, when I logged into my work computer, it presented a pithy saying to me, as it always does.  I mentioned previously that I’ve customized these quotes, so mostly they’re familiar, but every once in a while it surprises me and hits with something I’ve forgotten, or something that’s just eerily appropriate.  Today it was both.

The aim of an argument or discussion should be progress, not victory.

    — Joseph Joubert

Yeah, good advice.  I think I’d forgotten it, somehow.  I need to try to remember that, next time I have this burning desire to “fix” somebody else’s “wrong” notions.  I’m going about it all wrong, I think.  And my family has a history of high blood pressure, so I need to chill the fuck out.

Ommmmmmmm ...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Guides: Bernice Pierce

[This is one post in a series about people who have had a great impact on my life.  You may wish to read the introduction to the series.]

Back when I wrote about my views on political correctness, I mentioned that I have a fair number of friends who were black, including one of my best friends of all time.  You may not find this unusual at all, being that, if you have (despite my repeated warnings to the contrary) read all my blog posts, you will surely have noticed that I’m a California liberal.

But, the truth is, it is unusual.  It’s downright unlikely.  You see, I’m from Virginia, which is part of the South.  I know some of you Northerners think it’s not, but where do you think the capitol of the Confederacy was?  I was also born over forty years ago.  Forty years ago in a small town in the South ... where I grew up, there literally was a set of railroad tracks running through the town, and all the white people lived on one side, and all the black people lived on the other.  Literally.

But, even more importantly, I am descended from 4 white Southerners: my paternal grandparents were born in North Carolina, my maternal grandfather in Kentucky, and my maternal grandmother in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, all between 1900 and 1925.  Now, I’m not saying that every single white person born in the South during that time period was racist.  Really I’m not.  But I am pointing out that the odds swung pretty damn hard in that direction.  And my grandparents didn’t beat them.  Every single one of them was racist, to one degree or another.  And at least two of them (one on each side) were very racist.  My mother used to tell me that her father would get up and change the channel if a black person appeared on the television.  I could go on, but it’s just too depressing.

Now, when people are raised by racists, it’s very difficult for them not to be racist themselves.  So let’s look at the mathematics of this: four racist grandparents raised my two parents.  Logically, they should both be racist themselves, and, since they raised me, I should therefore be racist.  And, you know what?  If I were, I wouldn’t be me.  When I look back on my life and think about all the experiences I’ve had, if I were to eliminate all the black people from them, I just couldn’t possibly be the person I am today.  Too many lives have touched mine and changed me, for the better.

So what happened?  Well, my parents were born in a 14-month span from 1945 to 1946.  They were, as most children were back in those days, raised primarily by their mothers.  My father grew up in a working-class household: both his parents worked at a factory.  His mother was every bit as prejudiced as my mother’s father, and he’s still prejudiced to this day, although I suspect he’s less open about it these days.

My mother, however, grew up in an upper-middle-class household; in fact, in my small town (I grew up in the same small town where my parents did), my mother’s family were considered wealthy, although I’m sure they wouldn’t have been in a bigger city.  But my grandfather had his own construction business, and it was very successful, and they lived in a big house.  And they had a maid.

Now, you’ve no doubt seen movies like The Help.  That movie is set in the ‘60s, but you can be sure it was similar in the ‘50s, when my mother was growing up.  Wealthy Southern families had black servants, and, if they had children, those black housekeepers often raised the children more than the mothers did.  My mother’s mother was even less interested in children than most women of her time and status, I suspect.  I do not know for sure, but I have many reasons to believe that my mother was raised almost entirely by their maid: Bernice Pierce.

Now, Bernice was still my grandparents’ maid when I was a boy.  I remember her dimly but warmly: I remember her making my lunch for me when I was visiting them, I remember talking to her and her responding and treating me like a regular person and not a pesky child that was in her way.  But her influence on my life was not so much direct.  Her influence on my life is that she broke generations of Southern racism and gave my mother the gift of an open mind.  And my mother in turn gave that gift to me.

Without Bernice, my life would be very different.  The first house I ever lived in that wasn’t owned by a family member, I rented along with my friend and coworker from Burger King: a black man.  The lawyer who got the charges dropped when I was stupidly caught shoplifting (or perhaps I should say “caught stupidly shoplifting”) was a black man.  My first (and only) one-night stand was a black woman.  The manager at the pizza joint who encouraged me to fiddle around with the office computer on which I performed a crude electronic prank which ended up introducing me to the man who was my first business partner which eventually led me the job where I met the mother of my children ... that manager was a black man.  I’m certainly not suggesting Bernice herself would have been proud of me for having all those experiences—I’m sure there are a least a few she wouldn’t have approved of.  I’m just pointing out that, without her, my mother is not my mother and therefore I am not me.  Without all those formative experiences, I am a whole different person.  And I could never have had those experiences, been able to have those interactions, if my mother had not taught me to be far more tolerant and accepting than my ancestors were.

And it’s not just a matter of black and white.  My gay and lesbian friends, my Chinese and Mexican friends, my Jewish and Hindu and Muslim friends ... how many of these people would I have gotten to know without my mother teaching me that all people are the same on some fundamental level?  Some of them, perhaps ... but then again, perhaps not.  Right now, the two people that I spend the vast majority of my time with, outside my family, are a Cuban and a French-Lebanese Armenian.  Would I have been able to forge such strong relationships with people so culturally different without the example that my mother set for me?

Now, I’ve never discussed this in detail with my mother.  I don’t know if Bernice ever talked specifically with her about racial matters; I suspect it was more just a question of being exemplary.  That the racist rhetoric that my mother was faced with from her own parents paled in comparison to the kind and nurturing example that was set for her by the person she looked to most for love and attention.  I suspect this to be so from what my mother has told me of her childhood, and from my own remembrances of Bernice: as I say, I honestly can’t remember much, but I remember a woman with a large heart and a calm disposition, a woman who always knew the right thing to say and the right way to say it.  I suspect that she was a woman who knew perfectly well that she worked for people who held hateful beliefs, and never held that against the children she was employed to care for.  I can’t imagine doing it, myself.  I would never have had the patience or the self-control.  I have an over-developed sense of injustice sometimes.  But that just goes to show you that Bernice was a better person than I, in many ways.

Bernice died a few years ago.  I never had a chance to discuss these sorts of things with her, let her know the impact she had on my life, even if indirectly.  But, then, I’m not sure I could have articulated it so well as a younger man.  Sometimes it takes a certain amount of perspective to understand the impact that the past has had on you.  From where I am now in my life, I can look back and see how much I owe to this woman.  Who, in many ways, was more of a grandmother to me than the woman who bore my mother.

I know my mother always maintained a special place in her heart for Bernice, and I don’t think she ever thought of her as “the maid.”  This was the woman who really raised her.  And, for that, I will ever be grateful.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Guides: Those I Owe

This week I’m out of town, celebrating my eldest child’s birthday, so I don’t have time for a full post.  However, here’s an intro post for a new series I’ve been contemplating.

I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to do a series of posts on people who have influenced my life.  Partially as a thank you, and partially just as a way to preserve the stories of these folks for posterity.  I know I tell you not to read this blog, but my children are another matter.  Them I can assign it to as schoolwork or something.

But I’ve also been thinking that I’d like to expand the common definition of “influence.”  Generally when we think of people like this, we think of the people who inspired us, who taught us, who mentored us.  Our parents and grandparents are often at the top of this list.  And I don’t mean to discount those people: those people are of course the prime influencers.  But there are others as well, perhaps others that we don’t think of at first blush, and perhaps don’t ascribe enough credit to for our lives turning out the way they have.

For instance, say there’s a person you don’t know all that well—just an acquaintance, really—but this person just happens to be the one who introduced you to your spouse.  How different your life would be without that person!  Can you honestly say that this person has not influenced your life?  It may not be influence in the way we normally think of it: this person didn’t teach you any philosophy that you adopted to live your life, they didn’t pass on any virtues that you later took as your own, and they didn’t teach you any skill that you later used to earn a living.  But, still, they did something, without which you would not be who you are today.

Or how about the person who inspired your parent to choose a certain career path: all your life, perhaps, your parent has been that thing—doctor, lawyer, teacher, grocery store manager, motorcycle repairman, social worker, police officer—and that’s always who they’ll be to you.  Perhaps that career is how they met your other parent ... without that inspiring teacher or parental figure or helpful coach, you may never have been born.  Can’t say that person didn’t have a profound influence on you.

This is all tied up with the idea of fate that I talked about before.  The idea that the thousand unlikely coincidences that have come together to weave the tapestry of your life are not so random.  Only, this is a slight twist on that, because now we’re adding a hint of human agency to the “coincidences.”  Sometimes these people meant to change your life (or at least they were influencing you on purpose); sometimes it’s entirely accidental.  But my point is ... does it really matter?  The people are important either way.

So all these people are ... somethings.  I’ve been trying to think of a good word, but so far I’ve come up blank.  The closest I’ve come is “psychopomp”.  Now, technically, a psychopomp doesn’t have to be a guide specifically into the land of the dead, but that’s the usual imagery associated with it.  The word literally means “guide of souls,” which is a nice image, and fits this category of person.  Imagine that your life is a bit like wandering through a maze.  Sometimes when you choose the correct path it’s because you’re smart; sometimes it’s just dumb luck.  And then, sometimes, someone else just happened to be there, showing you the path, and you never could have found your way without them.  That’s the image I’m looking for.  Openers of the way, like Papa Legba or Wepwawet.  Or Door, even.

But “psychopomp,” besides having the close (and undesired) association with death, also sounds a bit psychopompous, if you know what I mean.  I’m looking for a nice, simple term: something to put at the beginning of a series of blog posts, that might be a bit more concise than “People Who Made Me Who I Am Today” (which would naturally be abbreviated “PWMMWIAT,” which I suppose would be pronounced “pwim-wyatt,” which is just silly).  I think I’m just going to go with “Guides,” although I’m still open to suggestions.

But the point is, these are the people who were my guideposts, my compasses, whether from exerting a strong magnetic force on me, or just from jerking a thumb over their shoulder and indicating a better road.  Both are important.  Both have had significant impacts on my life.  Both make interesting stories, and that’s what it’s really all about.

Well, that, and saying “thank you.”  Whether they put a huge amount of effort into their actions, or whether it was an offhand gesture, whether they did what they did out of a sense of duty or whether it never even crossed their mind that their actions would have such significance, whether they’ll appreciate being thought of or not, or whether they’re even still alive to be appreciative, they all still deserve my gratitude and my kind remembrances.  They made me who I am today; it’s the least I can do.

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IMPORTANT NOTE: This list is no particular order, and most especially not in any order of importance.  In most cases, the posts were just written as something came up in my life that reminded me of that person.  If you’re a friend or relative of mine and you don’t appear on this list, it’s probably just because I haven’t gotten around to you yet, that’s all.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Three + One

The first, phantom peach fuzz lipped, too tall now, cocky and self-absorbed, yet somehow still vulnerable, searching for a place, staking out opinions, trying on tastes, eager for independence—unless, of course, that were to mean doing his own dishes, or laundry—morning grumpy, easily elated, quick bright smile, not too old for a kiss on the forehead, in passing, even if he must duck his head to receive it, but, still, for all of that, a wonder of existence: mine.

The second, cherubic cheeks backlit by charming smile, industrious, finicky, miniature Monk, obsessed with closing cabinet doors but not with picking toys off floors, ever in search of the next scam, anxious to prove the lesson is learned even when unable to remember what specific lesson it may be, quick wih a hug but disdainful of kisses, water obsessed—no need to ask how the pool is: it’s perfect, it’s always perfect—not too old to snuggle up in a lap of an evening, but, still, for all of that, a miracle of survival: mine.

The third, protuberant ears unfortunately inherited, determined, confident, ever smiling with broad joy—capable of smiling with every part of her face, even her tongue—ready to experience new things, affectionate, fraternally appreciative, capable of transforming tresses into reins, surprisingly communicative, delicate, drooling, penetrating eyes, not to young to reach, to clasp arm around neck, even in sleep, but, still, for all of that, a marvel of determination: mine.

The three, giggling, squabbling, full of love and idolization and frustration and tenderness for each other, united front to the world, willing to sell each other out, ready to protect each other to the death, rowdy, cautious, roiling mass of unbounded enthusiasm, eager to teach, anxious to learn, an object lesson on the importance of life, an unlikely confluence of genes and circumstance and adorable body parts, too stubborn for their own good, but, still, for all of that, a melody of delight: ours.

For I have nothing without you: small bits embedded in them, a nose, a curve, a temper’s flare, a sneaky smile, time, patience, tears, dogged persistence in the face of overwhelming resistance, a kind word, a firm hand, steady, sacrifice—body and years and income and opportunity and more—being there, educating, guiding, shaping, not too tired to plan all the outings, not too serious to tolerate all the foolishness, not too impatient to give all the requisite embraces, but, still, for all of that, a phenomenon of unlikelihood, more than deserved, never less than desired, exactly as much as demanded: thanks.

Dedicated to The Mother, who is celebrating another birthday and perhaps not feeling as appreciated as she fully deserves to be.