Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

In for life

Given the prevalance and popularity of crime dramas in the popular culture these days, I'm sure I'm not the only one who has morbid fantasies about prison. C'mon . . . you know you've done it. You can't watch Law and Order too many times, hearing again and again about lengthy prison sentences, and not ask yourself: what would I do if I was in prison? How would I survive? What would I do? The Shawshank Redemption is considered in some polls to be the most popular movie of all time, and I'm sure it's because it taps into this dark prison fantasy lurking inside us.

One thing I could never understand was the dread surrounding "protective custody" or "solitary confinement", in which inmates are alone most of the time. Having seen and read about prison life, it seems to me that there is not a lot to recommend the social life one would have in prison. Why would you be fighting for your right to associate with such people? I would sooner do my time in Limbo than in Hell. But I think that says a lot about people these days . . . very few people can keep their own company these days.

I was listening to Eckhart Tolle this morning while I was working outside in the yard, and he quoted Nietzsche as saying, "The smallest things make the best happiness." Usually, the more obsessed we are with the forms of the world, the more unhappy we are . . . and only the diminishment of our involvement with the world of form can make enough space within us for real happiness. I have sometimes wondered with the isolated prisoner sometimes experiences the same peace that some cloistered monks deliberately seek, where the content of their existence has become so minimal that they have room enough to experience their own consciousness.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Kids these days

So, last night's Alumni Forum went about as it always does. The kids are much the same as we were -- smart, naive, cute, shambling. It was a little more obvious this time that I was graduating high school before these kids were even born. I am even starting to be among the eldest of the alumni who come. The alumni all marvel at the thought of being at this school with cell phones, laptops, and gymnasiums (none of which existed when I attended).

A few surprises this time:
  • The section I was in was labelled "Environmental / Science". Unfortunately, ever time it was mentioned it sounded like "Environmental Science", and so we had one person show up who was interested. (Eventually some others took pity on us and joined us, so it was still productive.) In all things, marketing counts.
  • A huge crowd of kids went to the Health Professions section. The Science panel seriously discussed crashing the session with screams of "Don't go to medical school! They will press you flat like a butterfly!" But then again, that's kids for you. Nobody starts out in high school thinking, "I'm going to be a actuary!" or "I'm going to be a middle manager!" They have the usual dreams of professions: doctor, lawyer, firefighter, teacher. Huge stretches of business professions are invisible to kids because, frankly, they are abstract and boring and difficult to explain. Even with adults, it usually takes me several minutes to explain even vaguely what I do, much less convince people that it's fun.
  • It was very gratifying to have some of the students ask questions of the panelists that had nothing to do with their careers, but rather with the subject matter of their profession. One policy wonk from the EPA was asked, "What do you think about pollution credits?" What still stands out about the S&M kids is how genuinely interested they are in the world. It only served to remind me how rare it was in the business world in which I move. I can't remember the last time someone asked me a really intelligent question about what I do.
  • Every time I see these students it revives my desire to teach. There is something quickening about people so young, so alive, so full of potential and so empty of experience.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

When I was your age, hrrmff, hrrmff

Tonight is the annual Alumni Forum at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, my alma mater. Every year they invite the S&M alumni to come out and talk to the graduating seniors . . . ostensible to give career advice and encouragement, but also to try to tie them into the involved-alumni community and (ultimately) donators to the school.

This is my favorite alumni event of the year. It's even more fun than the reunions, because you get to talk directly to the students. We swap stories with the students, learn the gossip, retell our misadventures and the disciplinary action that followed . . . and that's all in the hallways before we actually get to the panel discussions.

It's not that often that you get asked the completely open-ended question: "So, what advice do you have for me?" It's a really flattering question, because the stakes of the outcome are high. You just might be able to push a student in the right direction as they head out into the world. Unfortunately, it also leads to toxic levels of self-involvement in the panelists (and I am no exception). Everybody, no matter how good or bad they're lives have turned out to be, thinks they have something to say about how others should live their lives.

So, trying to keep my ego in check, I tell them the things that I think nobody else will tell them:
  1. Some people know exactly what they are going to do with their lives and careers when they get out of high school. Those people, the ones with really exceptional talents and passionate interests, have a vocation and should pursue it. The other 98% of people need to take time to find out what they want to do, and they should use college as an opportunity to explore that question, rather than charging through it with the notion of win-win-win job-job-job.
  2. Everyone who gives you career advice will almost always tell you to do what they did. So when someone tells you what to do, be sure to ask what they did, and let that factor into your decision.
  3. Before you commit yourself to a graduate program, try to find a low-risk way to work in that environment for a while. You learn a tremendous amount about the good and the bad of a program by hanging around it for a while . . . you best see what the culture is like before you sign on the dotted line.
  4. Don't be afraid to commit yourself to your family. It's a valid vocation. We need smart moms.
  5. For that matter, don't be afraid to define yourself by things other than your career. Some vocations do not lend themselves to careers, and vice-versa.
  6. You can have it all . . . just not all at the same time. Accept the fact that you will have to make some hard decisions about what's important to you.
  7. Your relationships with other people are the most important thing in life. Your success in business, family, and spiritual life are directly tied to those relationships. Cultivate the right relationships. Don't neglect them.
  8. Don't worry about finding a job right away. There are lots of jobs out there for smart people.
  9. Almost nobody I know is doing the same thing they started out doing. Be prepared to make several career changes.
  10. Your grades will get your first job, or your graduate degree. That's it. They are not nearly as important as you think they are.
  11. When you're in college, run something. Find a leadership position somewhere, be it a club, an association, a business, a political movement, something. You will learn more useful stuff that way (both hard and soft skills) than from all your classwork.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Parsing out Zimbabwe

Today I heard on NPR a report of inflation topping 1000% in Zimbabwe. The NPR story was mostly a human interest, let's-count-our-blessings-with-5%-inflation story. What struck me as remarkable was only about one sentence of the interview was devoted to the cause of the inflation: fallout from the land reform in Zimbabwe, in which President Robert Mugabe forcibly seized land from white landowners and gave it to unlanded black peasants. It seems that, while the farms were profitable and productive under the white farmers, they have been running at huge deficits in the hands of the new owners. The government keeps heavily subsidized the new farmers to keep them on the land, but of course the only way they can do that is to keep printing money. The result is less and less food to go around (the word "famine" was mentioned a few times, which just feels weird when you don't have a war or natural disaster to blame for it) and more and more currency getting pumped into circulation.

On the surface, the story seemed to be easily construed in racist terms: "black farmers can't run the farms as well as whites." This just seemed too inflammatory to let lie . . . I smelled a story beneath it. And, as it turns out, the truth is more complicated. I googled around for a while, and found scathingly partisan websites on both sides of the issue, all of them so deep into the argument I couldn't even tell exactly what they were arguing about. The Wikipedia article on the land reform in Zimbabwe proved to be good background reading.

Most credible sources seem to agree that the Mugabe's land grab really screwed things up. But there was a legitable, well-precedented attempt to redistribute land in a fair fashion for many years . . . it was just that Mugabe wanted to rush things along. Perhaps he just wanted to muscle out the powerful opposition to his rule, or perhaps he wanted more goodies to dole out to his friends (which is, in fact, what happened to a lot of the land).

The reasons the black farmers are failing are logistical and economic, more than racial. You can't take large agribusinesses, chop up the land into tiny parcels, hand them to people who may never have even farmed before, and expect them to have the same output. The value wasn't really in the land, per se -- it was in the business, the relationship with the land. Mugabe flushed that down the tubes when he kicked out the white farmers. Also, the new black farmers still don't have title to the land -- they only have 99 year leases, and the government still owns the land. No bank will lend to these farmers, when there is no ownership that will appreciate. The farmers themselves have no big incentive to make long-term investments in land they don't own. (That is, in fact, part of the reason for the whole land inequity to begin with -- the original British white colonist were allowed to own their land, while the blacks were most confined to tribal collective plots, leading to a tragedy of the commons.)

The lesson from all this? It's really, really hard to undo unjustices, especially if you try to do it with further injustices. Wealth and prosperity are not hard commodities, like gold or diamonds, that you can arbitrarily take from one person and give to another, and all the value is retained. It's more like . . . well, like a plant. Rip it up, chop it up, spread it around . . . and something dies. Ironically, giving that land to the poor peasants was the worst thing that happened to them.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006


I recently discovered that I'm a WAHD. I never knew I was an acronym before, but it turns out I'm a Work At Home Dad. WAHDs were a source of discussion recently on the Attachment Parenting email lists. (Acronyns, once limited to the dark corners of governmental programs and activist groups, now breed unchecked in online discussion forums across the globe, gaining a foothold with people who talk a lot about the same things and who don't type very fast.)

What are the challenges of the WAHD? Some of them I seem to share with most -- kids busting through the door while you're on the phone. When I get up from the breakfast table to go to my office, Malcolm declares "Daddy talk-talk." That is all they really know about my work: "Daddy talk-talk."

But actually, my dogs are usually more reliable disruptors of my work than the kids. The dogs seek asylum in my office, where they can rest undisturbed by gleeful toddlers and glint-eyed five-year-olds. That means an unbroken string of scratches at the door, or baying at the UPS man. The effect is the same, though -- once the person on the other line knows you're not in an office, you never quite recover the level of regard. There is a powerful mixture of envy and disdain, usually reserved for useless playboys. Nobody thinks someone very important can be working from their home, but everyone wishes they could do it, at least sometimes.

One of the best tools I have in the battle is a Voice-Over-IP phone system, which I share with my other WAHD colleagues. The four of us are all in different homes, different cities, and sometimes different states, but we can transfer calls and send-to-voicemail like every other Office Joe. Combine that with an soft-but-firm alto voice on a professional-sounding phone system, and people have a hard time remembering you're in a home office, even when they know the truth. I just wish the Mute button didn't have a distinctive beep.

Another thing I miss, ironically, is the commute. I love the fact that I can roll out of bed and be at work in five minutes . . . but sometimes I wish I had the decompression time at the end of the day, when I wasn't working but I wasn't quite home yet. I go outside with the kids at five while my wife makes dinner, but I have a hard time disengaging from work and really being there.

The danger is not, as most employers imagine, that you will goof off while you're home. It's far more likely that you will work too much. Without the clean divisions between work and home, it's too easy to let work drag seep into the rest of your life . . . especially when desperate people are calling you for help.

Still, there's not much I would change. A little more sound-proofing, maybe.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Attention Getter

I've noticed a thread running through some of Aidan's less endearing behaviors, and I'm trying to desconstruct it's meaning.

It came to me when we were on the phone with Granny to wish her a happy Mother's Day. At first Aidan was excited to talk with her, and he managed to ask her some questions and have some happy exchanges ("How do dragons breathe fire?") But after a while my mom and I started talking about boring adult stuff, and I could tell that Aidan was having a hard time sitting through it.

Kids being bored with adult talk is nothing surprising. But what if that were the case, I would expect him to wander off, or pick up a toy and begin to play with it, or something else that amused him. But it wasn't simply boredom; he was bursting at the seams to break into the conversation and talk, even when it was clear that he hadn't even formulated something to say. And when he had run out of things to say, he kept trying to get my attention, jumping on me and waving things in my face and trying wrestle me, all while I'm on the phone.

Then it occurred to me that I've had the same experience before, when I was on the phone with someone. Or when someone is sitting in the living room talking to me . . . or even when I'm paying attention to his brother Malcolm.

There seems to be something utterly unbearable to him when, for whatever reason, it is clear that someone else is commanding exclusive attention in a situation. It isn't merely a desire for attention; it's the desire that I not pointedly pay attention to someone else while he's in the room.

It sounds so awfully self-centered when I say it that way, and I don't think he comes across that way . . . it's not like he's constantly saying, "Hey, I'm great." But he is making these routine gambits to steal the spotlight. It's as if he needs to test his ability to regain our attention.

Again, which I could understand, if he felt starved for attention. But this is a kid who gets lots of one-on-one attention. It isn't merely a deficit needing to be filled. There is something else going on, and I can't figure out what it is.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Wisdom of Harry

My boss and colleague, Harry, is the best boss I've ever had. One of the reasons is that, in addition to all the skill and knowledge he has about software consulting, he has a certain wisdom as well. Here are some of his best aphorisms:

1) "If what you're doing seems really hard, you're probably not doing it the right way."

Sometimes we find ourselves slogging through the implementation of solution, and it's taking a long time and has lots of catches and exceptions and problems . . . Harry has taught me, in the spirit of productive laziness, to recognize that not all problems need to be solved, and that perhaps we're not taking the right approach.

2) "There is always a reason."

Strange things happen in software, and a lot of times technical support people will brush off particular events as general "bugginess" without ever hunting down the true cause. Harry actively discourages this sort of mentality, because it tends to produce superstitious behavior in the users and a general anxiety about their computers. It's reassuring to people when you can tell them: "This problem is not the result of random coincidences in the universe. It has a specific cause, and we can probably find it, and make it go away."

3) "People don't fill out forms for fun."

In sales and suport automation, there is a tendency for managers to go overboard in the amount of data they want to collect . . . or more accurately, the amount of data they want other people to collect for them. It helps for those managers to understand that most people will only do those things that they find genuinely helpful in getting their jobs done . . . and asking them to do something that does not directly contribute to getting their job done is close to impossible. You might have five different fields you want someone to fill in for every appointment . . . but just because you put them on the form doesn't mean they will get filled in. The corallary, then: "Make sure the things you ask people to record will be genuinely useful information -- for them as well as management."

4) "Skip to the end."

Sometimes when we get bogged down in a technical solution, Harry will prompt us to think of the most drastically simple, straightforward, blunt-edged approach to solving a problem as quickly as possible. This is an absolutely essential skill for a consultant working under a limited budget. You will rarely have enough budget to solve every problem the best possible way. So, sometimes you have to "skip to the end"; solve the problem quickly if not gracefully. Sometimes the best way to make a problem go away is to just take it off the table; "Gee, Mr. Customer, this one is kinda hard . . . do we really need to solve it? No? Ok then."