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, February 03, 2007

Call your sponsor

I was reviewing a project with one of my colleagues yesterday, giving him some feedback from the customer, and raising some concerns on some instability in the program. And he said, "Well, by Monday everything is going to be done and locked down tight." And I felt a chill run down my spine . . .

I used to be that guy, I thought. I used to be the one who foresaw huge amounts of work getting done over the weekend. The weekend is seductive, that way. To an unregulated workaholic, it feels like virgin territory, and undiscovered gold mine . . . two whole days where no one calls you, where you can work as early or late as you want, when no one has extra expections but you can get stuff done. And the thought of all that extra time, relieving your time-pressure stress to managable levels . . . and the thought of everyone being so surprised and happy to see what you've accomplished in that weekend. The weekend starts to feel like two weeks instead of two days.

I am not that guy any longer. I see a different weekend in the future for my colleague. I see someone getting up a little later than he intended, because he's so wiped out from the week's work and all the stress he has internalized. I see a wife with a six-month-old, who will have a lengthy honey-do list and will want some rest and freedom for herself -- after all, she too foresaw a huge expanse of freedom coming in the weekend. For a while she will accept the "I've got to do this to get established in my job" excuse. It might last a few years . . . but eventually she'll realize that he does it because that's the life he has chosen: constant, frantic, reactive, never-ending work. Resentments will build: he'll be frustrated by all the seemingly unimportant chores he is saddled with; she'll wonder why he doesn't spend more time with the family. Neither will say anything about it . . . that will come in a few years.

Even if he gets all the time and freedom he longs for this weekend, the end result will not quite be what he expects. He is, after all, only getting two days. In his mind he really saw two days and two late nights as well. And all the stuff he thought he would get done . . . well, it will probably be 80% of what he hoped to do. He will have spent too much time trying to get certain things right. The kind of guy who works on the weekends is also the kind of guy who has a hard time prioritizing, compromising on some items, pushing back on others. And, even though no one is calling him, he will still have accumulated some new stresses from ignored obligations. A big thick folder with tax stuff will stare at him accusingly from across his office. Emails from friends will go unanswered. His back will ache, because he's carrying a little too much weigh, and not getting quite enough exercise. And he will tell himself the next lie, the grandchild of the original lie. "I'll get it done this weekend" inevitably begets "Someday I'll have time for those things."

I couldn't tell him all that, though. I know that he won't understand, yet. All I can say is what my boss said to me: "You live your life the way you want. But your job description does not say, 'Must work all weekend.'" And in response he told me all the same things I would have said, not too long ago: "But I want to get it done. I'm close. I like coding. I like this project. I'll be ok."

My prayers go with you, my friend. I hope you are not thirty-seven before you realize how much pain you are causing yourself.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Corporatations defend use of spanking in the workplace

A representative in the California legislative assembly proposed a bill that would outlaw spanking of children under four years of age. The legislation drew fire from lots of religious and privacy organizations, as well as from corporate America, where the practice of spanking unruly or disrespectful employees is commonplace.

"I mean, what if some new hire doesn't get his quarterly report in on time? His whole company might miss its SEC filing. Clearly, you have to hit him to make him understand the importance of the matter. How else are they going to learn?" said Yoyodyne CEO John Boutee.

Boutee believes that a "lax and permissive corporate culture" could lead to "rebellious and impulsive employees." Boutee dismissed so-called "alternative management" practices such as appealing to reason or withholding salary as "wrong-headed and wimpy."

"When I was new clerk, my boss smacked me across the face in front of my peers if I questioned his judgement or was slow to comply with his directives. I'm here to tell you that I'm a better person for it," said Boutee. "Clearly, if a middle manager physically violates and humiliates an employee, it's just another expression of his concern."

Employees who are corporally disciplined reaffirmed that the practice "totally underscores the need to not get caught," said Yoyodyne regional account manager Jeff Metzner. "You quickly learn not to show any disrespect to that sadistic fucker [Boutee] and find more subtle, creative ways to defy him."

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Officer Material

I need to prepare an application for officers for the SKS. (We've had an application process in the past, but I wasn't completely happy with the previous forms and questions.) Here's some of what I came up with. (Yeah, I know, it's work-a-day writing . . . but sometimes it's all I have in me.)

(Why be an SKS officer? )

Officer Positions
  • President
  • Vice-President
  • Treasurer
  • Secretary
  • Publicity Czar
  1. Experience. What leadership or organizational experience do you have? Describe whatever organizations (academic, extra-curricular, community, etc.) you have been involved in helping and the roles you fulfilled.
  2. Skills. What specific skills do you possess that would be helpful in fulfilling the officer position for which you are applying? Consider speaking skills, writing skills, computer skills (publication/layout, web design), planning and organizational skills, and artistic skills. What specific skills that you currently lack would you be willing to learn to fulfill your officer role?
  3. Motive. Why do you want to be an SKS officer? What do you hope to gain for yourself in the role, and what do you hope to give to the SKS community? What, if anything, would you like to see happen in the SKS that is not happening now?
  4. Philosophy. In 250 words or less, describe in your own words the philosophy of the Self Knowledge Symposium. Then describe your relationship to that philosophy: what appeals to you about it? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with?


Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Live up to it

I was cruising the web, looking for good quotes to include in some routine SKS email announcements, and I came across this gem:
"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard
it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious
books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and
elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many
generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find
that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one
and all, then accept it and live up to it.

~~ The Buddha

I only wish it was shorter, so I could fit it on a poster. It says so much of what the Self Knowledge Symposium is about. The "do not believe anything" part is not that unusual; our society has "question authority" bumper stickers coming out of its ears. What struck me was that he focused on all those sources of religious teaching -- personal testimony, widely-held beliefs, scriptures, and teachers -- as valid objects for "observation and analysis." He doesn't say, "Throw all that crap away." He says, "Look at that stuff. Think about it. Watch it in action. Then ask yourself: is it true? Is it right?" It is an invitation for the individual to validate spiritual teachings in the light of their own reason and experience.

The real brilliance is in the the clincher: "accept it and live up to it." The purpose of seeking is not analysis, critique, and coming up with "the right answer." You could spend your whole life (and many do) endlessly analyzing and critiquing and weighing the merits of every point of view. The challenge is to take whatever truths you do find, however fragmentary or conditional, and use them. No matter what you believe or disbelieve, there is no room for complacency if you decide to live in accordance with the truth.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Baby Watch

My usual writing time got preempted by a phone call at 1:30 am. "Heather says this is the real deal. No hurry, but could you come over?"
Oh. Yeah. Sister-in-law. Pregnancy. We were on call. Right.
"We'll scramble the jets," I said, squinting at the clock again. I pull clothes on over my pajamas, hoping against hope that the kids will be asleep and I can just crash at their house. I try to strike a balance between being awake enough to look supportive and happy, and sleepy enough to go right back to sleep as soon as convenient. There is a part of my brain saying chirpy enthusiastic things to me about a new life coming into the world, and how important this day will be to their family, etc. etc. but it evoked nothing in me at that moment. The emotional centers had already rolled over and gone back to sleep.

Fifteen minutes later I'm lying in someone else's bed, listening to a baby monitor with someone else's kids snoring. It felt a little disorienting. I settle into light sleep, but the monitor rattles with coughs from time to time and my parental habits keep twitching. Finally one of the boys, the younger, pushes his way into the room and walks business-like to other side of the bed. His head appears above a mountain of blankets and body pillows. "Where's Mommy?"

I explain that Mommy and Daddy have gone to have the baby, and they called in Uncle G to be with them tonight. The little guy didn't even miss a beat; he burrowed into the covers, curled up next to me, coughed a few times, and fell asleep. For the first time that night, I smiled a real smile.

Older brother Mason came next -- he a few more questions but was still cool with everything, and he feel asleep in the big bed too. A few hours later, another rousing phone call: Beth, the boys grandmother, was at the door, arriving from Wilmington. "It's Izzie," I told Mason, and he frowned. "I'm sad because I wanted it to be Mom," he said, and he shlumped back into bed.

I slept. I dreamed I had bought the house I was sleeping in, and now it was raining and great gushing leaks were coming in everwhere. One pipe was throwing off so much water the kids were playing in it like it was a sprinkler. I woke to see Bill coming into the room; he told me the doctors had sent them home again, and he was going to crash in the other room.

I sleep in; no five o'clock writing time for me. By 7 pm the kids are waking up, ready to seek out Izzie now that their brains are revitalized. Bill looked wasted. Yeah, I remember now, how exhausting that was, to be rushing around in the middle of the night, waiting for a baby to come. I take my leave of them. By the time I get home it's feeling more like a weird dream, the kind that makes your waking life feel odd.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

First joke

Malcolm had an array of dishes, cups, bowls, and smoothie bottles in front of him. He had eaten a little of his broccoli-and-rice casserole, but mostly he had become absorbed in carefully spooning it into his half-full smoothie bottle.
"Mal . . . . !" his mother quailed in annoyance.
"It's good this way," he insisted, with three-year-old earnestness. He did take a hit off his concoction, a tiny dribble of orange wrapping around his chin. He plunked down the container, now drained of smoothie but still holding plenty of yogurt-slimed broccoli, and he declared, "I want ice cream."
"You need to finish all the stuff in that bottle, Mal, before I would give you any ice cream."
"Oh," he said, composing his face and tone into one of patient tolerance, as if he was the one talking to a three-year-old, "That's way too much."
"Well, if you don't have room for that, there's no way you have room for ice cream," said Janet.
"I have room!" he said brightly, "See, riiiiight heeeere..." and he pointed to the one spot of bare table in front of him that doesn't already have a bowl or a plate occupying it.
I cracked a smirk, trying not to laugh out loud, and failed miserably. Janet shot me the mock-anger "how-could-you" glare, which only made me dissolve into giggles and nearly fall out of my chair.

Ah, the dawn of word-play with ironic intent!


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Insurance Thought Experiment

I got a notice in the mail from my insurance company about a little rider policy I had been carrying for years. Most insurance companies will not cover certain extra-valuable things -- jewelry, art, musical instruments, cameras, etc. -- on their regular home-owners policies. Now, we've never been a part of the diamond-wearing, fur-sporting, expensive-painting-owning set by a long shot, but we do have what practically every middle-class family has, namely, a diamond engagement ring. And, like a conscientious fellow, I got it insured. The thought of one's single most valuable posession, a tiny, immanently losable thing at that, walking around on one's person day in an day out . . . well, that just called out for some insurance.

Fast forward ten years. We still have the policy, and we still have the ring. And I'm wondering. . . do I renew the policy?

Now, the first answer, the easy answer, is, "Why yes, of course. Why wouldn't you?" The ring is no less valuable than before. And it gives you a feeling of cozy security to know that it's "protected" by insurance. And the premium -- about $30 a year -- seems negliable in the grand scheme of things.

But then I start thinking about another way. Would you buy a $1 lottery ticket every week for the rest of your life, knowing that you might, just might, win a prize of a couple thousand dollars some day? Not a multi-million dollar jackpot, just a couple thousand dollars. The answer to that question is a resounding No, because I have never played the lottery, not even once, not even for a $100 million dollar jackpot, much less a couple thousand dollars.

The two question are, in terms of risk and investment, nearly identical. Over the next thirty years, I could spend nearly a thousand dollars insuring something worth a couple thousand dollars. Do I think the odds of the ring being stolen or lost in my lifetime are about 50%? I am essentially gambling on the outcome, as surely as if I was playing the lottery.

Ah, but what a difference the words make! Smart, consciencious middle-class people insure their possessions. Reckless, avericious, low-class stupid people play the lottery. How we mentally assess risk depends a lot on whether we think we are "protecting" something we have (especially something to which we are emotionally attached), or "gambling" to attain something more.

All this only underscores the very nature of insurance. Insurance does not lower the overall level of risk in the world. Insurance only displaces the risk, lowers the risk to an acceptable level. Some events -- a catastrophic illness or accident, a fire in your home or business, the death of a wage-earner -- are so costly that almost no one can afford to carry the cost. And those are the things that nearly everyone insures. But the process of displacing risk does cost money, and so in general you are well advised to only displace the risks that you have to. It is entirely possible for someone to write an insurance policy against the loss of pocket change. You could insure your pocket change, but why would you? If you lose your pocket change, it will not ruin you.

So, will I renew the policy on that ring? Ironically, I suspect that I will. There are more factors to these decisions than mere risk and reward. What would my wife say, if I told her I didn't think her wedding ring was worth insuring? What would my mother-in-law say? Intellectually, they might agree entirely with my reasoning . . . but emotionally, they might think I was cheap, or worse, think that I didn't value the marriage that is symbolized by the ring. Human emotions may not be logical, but they are very real, and well worth a low monthly premium to protect.