Oregon, which I reckon I will always call home no matter how many caveats I add, might have relatively mild extremes of temperature as a rule… but the rest of its weather is not for the weak of heart.
People here in Kansas always ask me — isn’t it colder in Oregon? To those found wanting for geographical literacy, it’s a fair question; Portland’s 750 kilometers closer to the North Pole than Kansas City.
My answer to that question carries a bit of nuance. I say “well, the temperatures aren’t nearly as low… but think of the summer humidity here. Now imagine what that same smothering sensation would feel like at 35 or 40 degrees [F.], and that’s what winters are like in Portland.” Silence inevitably follows.
I’ve already referenced the visit I paid to my grandmother before I moved to Lawrence. One of the excursions we took was to Astoria, where she nicely insisted that I climb to the top of the Astoria Column by way of vicarious living all around.
On one of the commemorative plaques at the Column site is my favorite quote about Pacific Northwest weather. That passage was written by William Clark on 1 December 1805 shortly after the arrival of the Corps of Discovery at the western terminus of their journey, in what is now Clatsop County:
“The emence Seas and waves which breake on the rocks & Coasts to the S W. & N W roars like an emence fall at a distance, and this roaring has continued ever Since our arrival in the neighbourhood of the Sea Coast which has been 24 days Since we arrived in Sight of the Great Western (for I cannot Say Pacific) Ocian as I have not Seen one pacific day Since my arrival in its vicinity [emphasis mine —BMH], and its waters are forming and petially [perpetually] breake with emence waves on the Sands and rockey Coasts, tempestous and horiable. I have no account of Capt. Lewis Since he left me.”
When I first read that counterpoint — “for I cannot Say Pacific” — I giggled a bit, and it’s remained etched on my no-longer-steel-trap-like memory.
People go on about the wind in Kansas, but at least here it stops on occasion, even during the winter. Kansas summers want for breezes of any kind. In the lower Willamette Valley and on the Coast, however, the wind rarely stops — in the Valley only when the temperature differential disappears versus points due east and south, and on the Coast hardly ever.
I try to remember one time, during the uncounted days I’ve spent on the Coast, when there wasn’t at least a breeze… and I fail.
Another point I like to make is that the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t really register in the memories of Oregonians, because they had more important things to worry about at the time.
In late October 1962, the Valley was digging its way from the destruction of the Columbus Day Storm, which fails to be designated a typhoon only because it wandered too far north. In its wake Portland was without electricity for something like a week, and without radio or television even longer since all of the transmission towers needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Salem and Eugene fared no better. Puget Sound got a big piece of it, too, though one gets the impression that their building codes were stiffer than Oregon’s at the time. Practically every anemometer on the Oregon and Washington coasts registered offscale high, and the peak gust on the Morrison Bridge in Portland — less than 100 feet above sea level — was measured at 116 miles per hour.
All of the infrastructure that was destroyed in the Columbus Day Storm was replaced with works engineered to withstand something similar, so that it would take wind more like Hurricane Camille to bring Northwest Oregon completely to its knees again.
Until I was well into grade school, oil lamps and pantries well-stocked with canned food ready-to-eat were standard supplies for every household of Portland natives who could afford them. Memories of the Columbus Day Storm are slow to fade. Where those trail off, thoughts of a Silver Thaw kick in… and those ice storms can hold their own against the ones here, where I actually saw utility poles lean into the road for the first time.
I am attached to Oregon in large part by its weather. Given a 4WD and a late spring day to myself, I can travel across extremes of temperature eighty degrees apart, from rainforest to desert.
In the interest of pedantry, it would be fit to note that Oregon’s wettest spots in Tillamook County are easily a ten-hour drive, mostly on backroads, to the driest valley in the High Desert.
I prefer sweaters to peacoats, and can in fact only imagine a peacoat as an accessory, for two reasons: I can't stand the feeling of nylon (the most common inner shell material for coats and jackets) against bare skin, and in June daily extremes of temperature in Portland have been known to lie fifty degrees apart. That's like travelling through multiple microclimates without traversing an inch, so you bring layers when you leave the house… or freeze your arse off the instant the sun goes down.
You don’t realize until you live there that Portland gets a stretch or two of triple-digit highs every summer, at least during dry phases of the ENSO. The first time I experienced that, I was suffering a chickenpox infection, and my fever peaked on the same afternoon that Portland’s official high was recorded at 100 degrees.
Since moving to Kansas, I pay a lot more attention to dew points, especially during the summer when they describe more about conditions than do temperatures. This is doubly true given my standing as a heavy smoker; an August climb up the Hill here means frequent stops, barring a willingness to take my life into my own hands.
You would need to offer me an awfully fat salary to live on the Gulf Coast, that’s for certain.
During my first winter in Lawrence I finally noticed that the discomfort from cold doesn’t really increase once the temperature drops below 15 degrees. Anything worse is owed entirely to wind, and that’s part of what makes hypothermia so dangerous.
For all that I’ve written here about Oregon and Kansas, my favorite weather anecdotes come from Central Missouri and San Diego, set a little less than two years apart. The first came in January 1996, when Missouri was pounded by one of the three really awful winter storms that I’ve experienced. I got cabin crazy, learned by telephone that the University campus was still open, and resolved to go there. On arrival I visited the National Weather Service site; at the time it published temperature maps for all of North America. That facility told me that it was colder in Columbia, Missouri, than in Churchill, Manitoba… which seems like just another datum until you realize than unlike Churchill, Columbia doesn’t sit astride a migration route for polar bears.
…Polar bears, dammit.
By November of the following year I was living in San Diego, and experienced the singular pleasure of wearing nothing more than a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt on the Monday before Thanksgiving. That made up for my polar bear problem… mostly.
Earlier this morning, a friend posted his New Year’s Resolutions, and the first was to de-clutter. That hit home in a hurry, because Mom was always a hoarder, and at the time of her death that illness had started to spiral out of control. For most of her adult life, Mom always had more rooms than she needed to live in. The rest were for stuff.
I almost took after Mom’s example until, at the age of nine, I was begged to consider the consequences of doing so. That step taken, I began reluctantly to throw things out.
The twists and turns of my own adult life have been a tremendous help in preventing me from acquiring too much stuff of my own, but I believe that simplification is too valuable spiritually to put out of mind in any case — even for those fail or refuse to believe in any sort of Deity or Maker.
I moved to Lawrence two months after Mom’s passing. I brought a duffel, two smaller bags, and wheelie backback which contained clothes, for the most part. I put aside three fruit crates containing keepsakes, books, towels, and bank statements that my grandparents shipped to me six months later.
Six years on I’ve furnished a one-bedroom apartment on the cheap, started a DVD library, added thirty or forty CD’s to that library, and filled a 24″×42″ bookcase — largely due to the fact that I fall within the scope of Simon’s professional generosity. I own fractionally more clothes, and I possess the basics of a decent kichen that I rarely use because I’m a bachelor slob. There are two boxes of computer parts stashed away in one of my closets. I’m also one router, one UPS, two computers, two displays, nearly two gigabytes, and one set of speakers ahead of where I was at when I moved here, when my only rig was a Pentium III hand-me-down that was due to be defenestrated from Sellards Scholarship Hall, according to its previous owner.
I think it can be said with confidence that most of my inherited acquisitive impulses are shunted into things Internet-related.
It’s not much, even for a 36 year old bachelor… and I worry that it’s too much.
When it comes to my purchasing decisions, my typical thought process goes like this:
On the rare occasions when I go through that list without yielding a “yes,” I start down another that requires at least two “yes” answers:
The trick with the second list is to avoid rationalizations: how, exactly, does it fulfill at least two conditions?
Framed differently, those are my “Need” and “Want” criteria.
Clutter falls mostly in the “Nice to Have” category. I don’t have one of those, and I don’t willfully collect anything that can’t be streamed over Cat5 cable.
During the 1992 United States presidential election campaign, there was no end of bleating about the “Information Superhighway” from the Democratic ticket, owed partly to the fact that one of its members played an instrumental role in turning the NSFNet into the public Internet as we know it today — work that once claimed was misquoted as a claim to have “invented the Internet.”
The public Internet as an artifact of public consciousness is now, for all intents and purposes, old enough to vote. Following are eighteen innovations that have added to its usefulness.
Props for the motivation to write this post go to Lawrence social media maven Ben Smith and the illuminating Advertising Age article to which he posted a link this evening, on Twitter.
Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (
erstwhile ) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.
…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.
All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.
The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.
It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.
I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.
The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.
I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.
Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.
The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.
As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.
Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.
We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?
If by some quirk of bureaucracy or fate I had exactly one chance to become a father that I needed to exercise in, say, the next week, I would turn it down. When I try to imagine a time at which such a scenario could play out and end with me taking the choice instead of refusing it, I’m at a loss.
The point to my sentiment about fatherhood is not just about financial well-being, or the fact that I’ve got a pretty solid Peter Pan act going, or my certain lack of confidence about being a good father. With respect to the last, the notion evokes a feeling of bemusement — not dread.
Rather, I look at what the world is becoming, and I think to myself, I am not experientially equipped to teach a child how to function in this world.
That thought is no small fraction of the source of my melancholia. Just sayin’. This would also be a good time to note that I’m not condemning those who choose to become parents. In fact, I applaud the testicular fortitude of those who do.
Between climate change, the decline of fossil fuels, the disintegration of responsible government in D.C., the evisceration of the American middle class, and my contemporary distaste for religion, it feels like the whole world has gone crazy. No-one, it seems, wants to take responsibility for solving the tough problems. I’m unable to do so myself, on many days. The expectations of the future to which I was raised have not been met, and I’m not talking about the jet-packs we don’t have yet.
This hand-wringing does not mean that I’ve lost all of my faith in my nation and my species to get tbings done, to extricate victory from the maw of defeat. However, the sense of purpose and duty requisite to activating that community sentiment requires leadership — leadership that is, for the most part, absent everywhere I turn. The people who ought to be leading are instead covering their own asses and sniping at one another.
…As a result, so many things appear to have gone by the wayside. The entitlement programs that allow the poor to participate in the economy are being torn down bit-by-bit. The education system that rose to the challenge of the Cold War and won it is now middling at best, propelled by the conventional wisdom that social promotion is an entitlement of anyone who can pay for it, but very few of those who can work for it.
Most importantly, the jobs done by people who make things are largely gone, outsourced to Asia and Mexico — all so that holders of equity can burnish their wealth, while the rest of us are left to struggle on the treadmill of month-to-month living.
“…But Ben,” you might say, “your job doesn’t really make things either, even when you are billing hours.” My only defense against that charge is that — had I been born in different times or made different chioces — I probably would be.
…I’m quite serious. Engineering was at the top of my list of career choices until my sophomore year of high school, when I realized I was burning out on advanced math. Under different circumstances I would’ve studied through my master’s degree in CE or AE and probably managed to get a good job out of school. Life had other plans, however.
I recognize the value of the service industry, particularly since nearly all of my jobs have been in that sector of the economy. Dorm living and other experiences taught me that while there’s glory in making things, the people who do the invisible work — cleaners, drivers, admin assistants, call-in reps — are the oil that keeps the gears of civilized society from seizing up. I recognize glory, but I hold an awful respect for the doers of the invisible jobs.
However… when you look at the overhead of various commercial service industries and other travesties like union work rules, it becomes painfully obvious that something’s breaking down. The “FIRE economy” — finance, insurance, and real estate — is the beating heart of the United States economy. We sell time and expertise for want of anything better to sell. The people who do that work know their place, and they feel entitled because of it, not once stopping to realize that while they (notionally) subtract drudgery from the lives of their customers, they don’t actually add anything to the world around us. If I could choose the people who’d be entitled to wealth and other considerations, it’d be the invisibles, not those twerps.
The most damning part of the picture from where I stand is my own role in the mess, small though it may be. I work in information services; I specialize in designing and building interactive infosystems. When I do my job right, other people lose their jobs altogether. I don’t know if I should be applauded for being a visionary, or lined up to a wall and shot.
The America in which I want to live has the world’s best public education system, one that teaches people how to think critically, gives them the basic skills they need to break any problem into smaller steps and solve it — or at least how to best choose someone they can pay to solve it for them. I would gladly pay a higher marginal tax rate, if I knew that the surcharged monies were being spent on infrastructure and better health care and the aforementioned education system. I would rather live in a country where causation travels from merit and leadership skill to money, in lieu of respect being granted to those with money by default.
I also believe that barring some awful, consciousness-raising disaster, I will die never having seen that nation take shape again.
Those of you who’ve been reading since I returned to online journalling six weeks ago are on notice that the constant navelgazing is finally on hold. Over the past couple of days I’ve found a sorta-happy place similar to the one I discovered eight years ago when I stopped dreading the tumble out of bed.
What I cease to dread this week is criticism. Thank Amazon, Simon, and one of my uncles. All of those have brought me various kinds of closure over the past few weeks.
The conversation with Jim was especially important, because it illuminated exactly how awful the conditioning was.
That closure gives me a bit more belief that can push back against the anxiety.
In any case, I’m ready to hold forth about other stuff. I don’t know if any of my ideas will be seen as original or interesting, and I might as well be honest: an audience would be nice. So here goes.
The Internet has been loosely engineered from its earliest days on the proposition that “all bits are created equal” regardless of origin and move about the network on a first-come-first-served basis. That’s the simplest definition of “net neutrality,” which may be useful to those few of you reading who are not Internet professionals.
When a packet of those bits cannot reach its destination it’s “timed out” and effectively disintegrated into the æther. Wanting for a reply of some kind, the sending host tries again, sometimes repeatedly. That’s not the most efficient way of doing things, but it’s easily made failsafe.
The revocation of net neutrality doesn’t alter this behavior. Instead it makes some packets less likely to time out than others — a distinction that can be enforced with trivial engineering.
What that distinction means to the end user is that instead of paying only for the quality of service at the near end of a network transaction, users and publishers will also be called upon to pay for the quality of service on the long stretches of the Internet between their local point of presence and the recipients of network transactions.
Those who can’t pay, don’t play — meaning that their bits and packets, and the content they comprise, will be more likely to disintegrate into the æther than before.
The pickle in which we — that is to say, the vast majority of everyday Internet users and Web publishers — find ourselves is the result of worship to the idols of Free Market Commerce.
By its very nature the free market attempts to put a price on everything. If it can be sold, you can work out a price for it. Add to this the civil liability of publicly-traded companies for any failure to preserve shareholder value, and you have a recipe for constant, legally
permissible larceny. Every last red cent that can be squeezed from one’s customers — up to the screaming limits of the law of supply and demand — must be, according to this prevailing notion of what it means to be a publicly-traded company. The Ferengi would be impressed.
The revocation of net neutrality is a free-marketeer’s fantasy made truth, because it allows the extraction of revenue at yet another stage of network service.
Think of your Internet bill: you pay a set number of dollars per month for a theoretically constant level of access to data throughput from your point of presence, to which taxes, fees, and (in some cases) overage charges are added.
Content publishers work under substantively similar contracts. What none of these contracts do is specify how network traffic is to be handled over backbones — the long stretches of fiber between the local networks that connect the Interneet’s various hosts. Revocation of net neutrality ends that interdict, which then puts access to those in-between pipes on the market.
The basic ethical underpinning of the notion of ending net neutrality is a fair question: the backbone providers have sunk capital into their plant, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to maximize their revenue from that investment?
I see three problems with any simple answer to that question:
The population of Internet content consumers is already subject to an ethically odious condition: a single household or business is limited to as few as two vendor choices for terrestrial network access. That’s not competition, it’s travesty.
Future abuses, meanwhile, might result in the freezing-out of some content publishers altogether. My personal nightmare is the institution of auctions for time-limited network quality-of-service agreements, which in the worst case could drive some content publishers out of business. Refusal to legislate and enforce transparency of such agreements is another, only slightly less stark nightmare.
…I come down on the side of doom. The better part of the Congress has cynically refused to show any will to protect net neutrality, the courts have toed the line of the free-market ethos I described above, and the Executive lacks the electorate’s goodwill in sufficient quantity to effectively guide policy.
I see one way away from doom: push for the addition of mobile phone, terrestrial data, and basic cable television access to the stable of publicly regulated utilities. This is only a partial solution in states where the PUCs and responsible legislative committees are in thrall to the whims of the utilities, but at least it offers some counterweight to the risk of market abuse.
My ass is in a terrific sling. I’m nearly broke, my rent is in some serious arrears, and my air conditioning is nearly out of coolant — a state I have no real hope of seeing to unless and until I see to the arrears. That happy result assumes, of course, that I don’t get tossed out on a rail first.
I’ve been living off the forebearance of others for too long. (…And it’s been a while, trust me. You could make a strong case that I’ve been doing it for years.)
Maintaining a steady income, much less acquiring progressive responsibility and pay, has always been a challenge, to put it mildly. Until a few years ago, I made a point of keeping the stakes low, of not taking on any jobs that I wasn’t willing to lose. What more really needs to be said by way of explanation than that?
Meanwhile, I sit here with a hole in my pocketbook and a chip on my shoulder. At least the two are related. Ordinarily I don’t have a problem with rolling up my sleeves and getting stuff done (give or take those spells when on account of anxiety I ignore as much as possible) but for the last six months, it’s been a challenge to do more than get out of bed in the morning. If I had cable television I wouldn’t’ve accomplished anything at all in the last six months.
It occurs to me to work, but… the anxiety steps in, to the point where I’m barely able to maintain a train of thought. It was bad when I was fulfilling the letter of my O’Reilly contract, but finishing that work hasn’t made it any easier.
I can identify three causes of this problem: conditioning, lost bearings, and impatience.
I fail to get the best from ambition; sixteen years of being repeatedly ignored and treated like an inconvenience put paid on that notion, and for twenty years the other side of my internal dialogue has been going, “are you fucking crazy?!” every time I’ve given a moment’s thought to getting over it. It was a hell of a job of conditioning, all the more because it wasn’t intentional; it was a case of my parents (and to a lesser degree my step-parents) mortgaging my sanity for the freedom to follow their own muses. It wasn’t so bad as being better seen than heard, but asking for anything out of the ordinary, from any of the four of them, was too often a waste of breath until I was in college… if I was lucky. Unfortunate outcomes meant raised voices and guilt trips. <sarcasm>Those were some fun times.</sarcasm>
Yes, I have some pretty thin skin in this regard. <sarcasm class="more">It sure sucks to be me.</sarcasm>
There’s no doubting that when I calm the fuck down I’m capable of a lot. Take jQuery, of all things, as an example: I don’t use it — because I don’t need it unless I’m in a hurry. I’m good at figuring things out, good at communication, and not too shabby at using those strengths to solve problems. Lately, though, it hasn’t mattered, because the thought of excelling at anything makes my blood run cold. The conditioning demands that I expect crickets or criticism.
No small part of that expectation is down to long-standing habits that lie beyond the conditioning and are so ingrained that they’re inscrutable except under direct esamination. I have the coping skills to interact more or less effectively with the addicts, the codependents, and the insecure, i.e., the sorts of people around whom I spent most of the ifrst sixteen years of my life. It rarely occurs to me until I really think about it that I might’ve fallen into a rut with respect to the interpersonal relationships in which I invest… and I’m usually at a loss to grasp how I could best change my nonverbal communication and attitudes to attract people who aren’t broken like that. The best I’ve got is to follow the Golden Rule, listen at least twice as much as I talk, and give compliments when they’re due. Other good ideas lie buried in a stale porridge of inexperience.
There’s a lot of room for positive belief in there that’s just sitting empty.
The self-examination that I perform in public here, and meditiation that I don’t, have deflated the last bits of my ego that were founded on anger and fear… which is to say most of them, in point of fact. Over the last several weeks, and for the first time in my life, I know right then how ludicrous and ineffective it is to raise my voice. In the past I was content and sometimes even happy to ride the adrenaline of venting my spleen, but now I feel nothing but remorse for taking it that far.
I’m literally tired of holding grudges. I get annoyed the same as anyone, but when I need not fear lasting consequences of others’ misbehavior, I lose the point of holding onto any specific action or incident. If they want to be assholes, I say let ’em.
More importantly, I’ve managed to bring my life to a point where I don’t suffer nonsense that’s forced upon me. That was the whole point to avoiding commitments of value — I might be in state of crisis over that now because of that habit, but that’s not to say that its founding instinct was entirely poor.
However, that state of affairs does a number on my self-image. I’ve been the guy who says what needs to be said, who calls it how he sees it, who damns the obstacles the very instant he’s in any position to take them personally. That guy is who I saw in the mirror.
I don’t want to be that guy anymore, at least not all the time. That’s troublesome, because I haven’t the foggiest idea who I want to be instead. It’s only been in the last six months that I’ve come anywhere close to believing in the possibility that I can set boundaries and expect to see them respected, or reciprocate at that level. Before that, those were just good ideas in theory and claptrap in practice.
That slowly dawning epiphany puts me in a headspace comparable to that found once an antidepressant medication becomes effective: their mailaise lifted, the psychiatric patient gains clear recognition of how fucked-up their life is, and they crash all over again — in some cases to the point of attempting suicide. I feel a cleanly detached regret that things haven’t gotten to that point for me, because if they had, the responsible authorities would offer help now and ask questions later.
The result is that I’m terrified of fucking up what could be a very good thing, if I do it right. Most people have had at least one significant relationship with a Member of the Appropriate Sex that engendered fervent recitation of Shepard’s Prayer or a close analogue. Lately I feel that sentiment over my life as a whole, and the apparent result is paralysis.
Just becase emoting in anger leaves me feeling like a horse’s ass, doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed or even angry with the failings of others, much less that I fail to recognize personal shortcomings, be they others’, or my own.
Working means — particularly for me and others who are wired like me — dealing with unconscionable amounts of bullshit. The world has no shortage of ass-covering, dishonest, indecisive, risk-averse, self-involved, insecure, bullying, clueless, and complacent fuckwits; these characters are disturbingly common in my line of work, even on good days. Since water seeks its own level, it can be said that I’m not entirely free of these traits, either.
Working with these people — and living with myself, when I’m down the rabbit hole — brings out the worst in me. Why can’t you just write the check, take the advice, and stand the fuck clear so that the work can get done? Why can’t it ever be that easy?
I’m quite confident that I could heave a rant of several thousand words on this subject, but you”d feel alienated and I’d be going far off message in my own head. Another time, perhaps.
When I look for the root cause of my impatience with sinecures and their ilk, I’m forced to shed light on the conditioning again: so many years of being called upon to take responsibility for my mistakes while being denied so many opportunites to strive and take credit for successes, and so much time spent repairing damage caused by the mistakes of others, leads me to an easy — albeit regrettable — self-righteous fury when I’m confronted by people who actively avoid responsibility for anything. This sentiment also stirs itself into my current state of affairs, by virtue of the lifestyle that I claimed at the beginning of this piece… because to be entirely honest, I can’t fool myself into believing that I’ve acquitted myself much better, lately.
Web sites are designed to solve problems and satisfy needs. Fifteen years of building them leads me to the habit of proposing a solution to go with each problem, or at least offering upturned palms.
If you’re still reading, what follows is a big heap of Obvious. Even so, I need to think this through one part at a time.
For starters, I’ll reduce the problems. I am:
In short I need to alter the conditioning, own the values I have left, and give my goals emotional precedence over the obstinacy of others without passing withering judgement on that obstinacy.
I’m really stuck on this one, in part because it casts its shadow over my entire life, and also because it’s ultimately dependent upon the actions of others. The conditioning is founded on my experience, not deliberate programming undertaken by the people who raised me.
The easy part is affirming to myself that I have powers of judgement enough to tell good ieas from bad, and intellectual gifts powerful enough to choose and implement the good ones. However, I’ve never been one for affirmations. There’s something awfully hokey and artifical about them that fills my head with lemons.
However, there’s an important detail that’s easy to miss: everybody wants things, and some of those people even believe that they can obtain them. A smaller subset is willing to ask for, and accept, help to that end.
This raises a constant (and for me painful) fact of childhood: in contemporary America, children are resource sinks who have little to offer in return to their families, and even those who are willing to contribute or pull some of their own weight for the benefit of their households are discouraged from doing so (by law, even!) until well into high school. My misfortune was in being raised by parents who believed that if you couldn’t eat it, drink it, smoke it, or wear it, and also demonstrate its importance, you oughtn’t spend money on it.
I fell into the same way of thinking, which is a big part of why I’ve assiduously ruled out much possibility of marriage or family until further notice. Breaking vicious cycles is pretty important to me.
I know how I got there. I can dig my way out by remembering that I can provide people with things they want, if I’ll take the time to find out what those things are. If I can do that, I can shamelessly allow myself the entitlement of pay and occasional praise for work well-done.
I can no longer build my ego around my willingness to roll on anger and push back against Wrong. Other than that militant belief in fairness, what else do I have in the way of values?
The question I cannot answer easily is if these values are enough. The first two — rightly implied to be those on the list that I value most — coexisted peacefully with the anger and the baggage. The other three are shakier, mostly because there are plenty others out there whose faith in themselves is far better developed than my own.
It’s been too easy for me to approach every possible setback by girding for battle, because that’s what I was brought up to. Mom had a “conveniently short” memory (convenient for her, anyway). Between that and an early childhood spent through the wringer more often than not at the hands of my half-siblings from Dad’s first marriage — there were five of them, and only one of me — I fell easily into the habit of fighting reflexively for every inch of ground that I could.
Reflecting on the formative experiences makes it easier for me to see why that constantly en-garde state is so off-putting: I go in ready to fight even when there’s no fighting to be done, and that attitude poisons a room pretty quickly. Verbalizing a willingness to cooperate only gets me so far, because the more “martial” aspects of my attitude are impossible for others to miss.
My first step to a solution, then, is to remember that I rarely need to fight for anything as a matter of course. I’ve gotten better at keeping that in mind, but the fact that I’m bringing it up again, speaks for itself.
More importantly, what matters most — that someone else is being a fuck-off? Not really, as long as I can still do my job competently.
The dander raised by the actually obstinate is more of a challenge, though. Very few clients or bosses will be a perfect fit; I’m called upon to assume that even in the best business relationships, I will from time to time encounter episodes of pointless obstinacy. All I can do is remember that flawed projects are not always failed projects… and that if I find myself working on a project that’s doomed to failure by the obstinacy of its sponsor, my best choice is to get it finished as quickly and cheaply as possible. The sooner I can distance myself from failures I tried to prevent, the sooner I can move onto projects that will succeed.
Note: yes, I’ll probably go through my entire DM tracklist at this rate… but ya gotta admit, it’s appropriate to the self-loathing that I’m trying to wring out of my head.]]>
March 1st of this year was the end of a long road that I spent most of 2009 travelling: that day saw the release of the print edition of HTML & CSS: The Good Parts.
I contracted to write that book not because I felt I had something specific to say to its audience; in point of fact, the audience I most want to reach is beginners, who are still woefully underserved (though less than in the past). Rather, I wrote it because I found myself wanting for anything better to do at the time.
People have been muttering to me about writing for years; they wonder why I don’t make more a point of it. I’m not too shabby at building Web sites, I write uncommonly well, and while I may not be able to tell stories worth a damn, I am able to build a case and sell it in writing.
My attitude toward deadlines, itself driven by my anxieties, was a paramount consideration. A contract is a contract, and one does not take an advance on royalties unless one intends to actually write the book. As it was, I felt barely enough mastery of myself to follow through.
That said, I made a number of mistakes along the way, and now I’m enumerating them, framed in terms of what I should’ve done instead.
At the beginning of the project I was trying for something efficient and carefully structured; what went to production had its strengths, but was nothing like what I’d first envisioned. I spent six weeks with my head up my ass, wondering how I was going to make my work measurably close to perfect, when instead I should’ve lived by a piece of advice Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have given to F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
I don’t care much for Hemingway, but that doesn’t make him any less correct here.
The strange permanence of electronic storage makes it difficult to let go of the shit and actually send it to the roundfile, but it’s best to try. Drag it to the Trash (or the Recycle Bin) and delete it permanently.
Each page of shit puts a writer one closer to that page of masterpiece.
What I did instead was freeze. If I had started resigned to the likelihood of shit, I could've written an entire first draft in two months and then spent the next four on something even better, in the process meeting my original deadline. Instead, I agonized. And I agonized some more. And I kept on agonizing. As a result, the book was finished in one picked-over draft that was submitted six months late.
This advice is the beginning and end of good public speaking, but it applies to book authoring too.
The mandate of foreknowledge was what suffered most from my failure to plan for a throwaway draft, and that failure turned what could’ve been a brilliant book into one that was merely above-average.
In the case of HTML & CSS… all I knew was that I was looking to codify best practices; two outlining passes were inadequate, and I was at sea throughout the project.
If I had the project to do over again, or if I get a wild hair and decide to do the second edition as a ground-up rewrite (which is unlikely but not impossible), it’s necessary to take a step past the outline and list the points to be made, no matter how obvious they may seem. Instead, I just stumbled into those ideas, and the result was a damned good toilet reader. There are worse things to write, but that wasn’t the original plan.
In addition to being a beacon of history, Winston Churchill was a prolific writer. Being no stranger to the effort involved in writing books, he had this to say:
“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”
The point to describing the immensity of the task is that one needs to add to their product every day, including Sundays. If you go off the case for two weeks, you lose your focus. Every day spent not writing is another opportunity lost to get to that one page of masterpiece.
Most of the pro writers I’ve read on the subject of writing suggest that — if you have the good fortune and the hang of parsimony enough to write full-time — two thousand words per day is what you should expect from yourself, within reason, and my experience renders me in full agreement with this guideline. If you’ve got a day job, you should still be trying for 750 or 1,000 words, and budget two to three hours per day. Finally, you should return your signed contract with the understanding that you’re going to be keeping up that schedule for at least six months, if not a year.
If that’s more work than you can stand, don’t write a book.
Work ethic and smarts do not, however, address the issue of burnout. The occasional day or weekend off will be called for; just make sure not to get carried away as I did.
When I had the werewithal to push back against the burnout, my greatest success came from disrupting my routine — going someplace new, exploring a new topic of interest, and getting involved in activities that I considered uncommon or actually new.
At the very least, there’s public WiFi out there; take advantage of it when you write, unless you’re one of those sorry souls who needs silence to concentrate. With respect to this last point, I discovered that I need silence sometimes, too.
When you blog and toss out 2,500-word one-offs — and especially if you avoid matter that you need to test and prove — it’s easy to do your own fact-checking and carry your own burdens.
A book, however, is edited, criticized, stitched together, laid out, edited some more, and marketed before it ever goes into the aether or the printer’s inbox. HTML & CSS… received regular, focused attention from something like fifteen people over a period of months, several of whom were addressing the project the whole time. A few of them, Gez Lemon in particular, caught some whopping mistakes.
An author who expects to write their book in less than two years needs these people. They will reduce the mistakes quickly enough to ensure that the book remains relevant.
On the other hand, even they will make mistakes that you won’t catch, and you’ll make mistakes that they won’t catch. According to nomenclature it’s the “Ringtail Book” but I presently call it the “Colostomy Book” for a reason.
In light of what I learned, here’s what I will do differently next time:
In point of fact I failed to do these things last year, and the other voice in my internal dialogue has been telling me ever since, “you can do better.”
A few days ago I wrote:
“Shame and fear would seem to be stealing the show.”
One of the steps toward a solution is to discern the tools you have to combat the problem.
In this case, those tools are courage and faith — courage to combat the fear, faith to combat the shame.
I actually stumbled on the second part. Doesn’t pride combat shame? Um, no. It’s faith, folks.
Having made it this far, I’m left asking where those sentiments went. I used to have them in considerable abundance.
Inversely, why do I — why does anyone — hold onto shame and fear? They’re not worth much, once they’ve done their job of teaching you to stay out of trouble.
That leads to an even more fundamental question: what are the fear and shame protecting me from?
When I wind up my fears into a big, continuous ball of string the product suggests that I’m afraid of people — oh, that again! — afraid they won’t understand, afraid that they’re too selfish or insecure to do the right thing, and so on. The cold truth is that I start people with two strikes, and an awful lot of them are perfectly willing to oblige the third.
I wonder how many of them read my nonsense off of my body language, and oblige the third strike on purpose just so they can get me out of their way. That’s how I would do it.
When I keep up that honesty I grasp that I’m exercising a conditioned response, not an inherent one.
The key to halting conditioned behavior is one part discipline, and more parts replacing the unhealthy conditioned response with a healthy one.
My unhealthy habits with respect to my low opinion are:
Finally, even if those habits don’t sink me, I routinely attempt self-sabotage by way of putting my foot in my mouth.
Mmmyeeeaaahhh. That’d be great.
How, then, do I replace those habits?
The latter two of these “new habits” are especially tough.
My most basic challenge is this: asking for things, up to and including the opportunity to work, makes me feel on-the-spot and deserving of criticism as a matter of course, except perhaps when I have something to offer in return that’s of far greater value than what I’m asking. Like anyone who isn’t suffering from an acute personality disorder, the notion of asking for things I haven’t obviously earned makes me a little anxious. (Well, more than a little.)
…That conditioned response comes from a heap of pretty old baggage that can be summarized as “I grew up without any rational understanding of interpersonal boundaries, and I still overcompensate, ten years after I was first called upon to recognize that problem.”
I never learned to fill in the boundary gaps with native charm; I’m not really wired for all-flash-and-no-substance. The best I was ever able to manage was a keen talent for codependency, and when I saw that for what it was, I started running hard in the opposite direction.
The thing is… I feel like I’ve got a good handle on explaining to people the sort of behavior I expect from them, and from myself.
…But while I have confidence in my ability to set, maintain, and (to a point) declare expectations, I’m a total pussy when it comes to stating clearly what I want. I’m mixing up the chicken and the egg; I assume people are selfish sonsofbitches who only want for themselves and never for anybody else, even if there’s mutual benefit to be had. Therefore I attempt to settle for what crumbs people are willing to dish out once they see past their selfish parsimony… even though I’m wired to leap at the chance to help people who are completely honest about what they want and what they’re willing to offer (fairly) in return.
One of the assumptions under which I normally operate is that water seeks its own level. However, it would seem that I refuse to include myself in that system.
I think I need to figure out how to set all of that straight.Just thinking about things does nothing for the anxiety that comes from buckling down, and facing the anxeity with nothing but force of will is a good way to give myself ulcers… what I must do instead, if only for the time being, is develop faith that I and my skills are, in fact, wanted. I can believe that in the same way that I believe a throttle makes a car go forward. However, I have a much rougher time keeping faith that the Universe will cooperate — just as it requires at least a little faith to believe that a car’s systems will work adequately to ensure that working the throttle will bring about the desired result.
Since I have no wish to write about emotionally heavy-duty shit today, and because I live in one of the reddest of the Red States, and because I have a talent for drawing a pretty diverse crowd into my life, I’m going to explain where I’m at when it comes to politics. If nothing else, it should save me some time in the long run.
Potential clients and employers who stumble into this piece should consider, before forming any opinions, that I leave my affiliations at the door when I clock in. If I’m taking your money, I’m not about to subvert anything that matters to you, period, end of sentence, line, paragraph, story.
As is natural, my policy leanings are in no small part a product of my upbringing. Dad was a journalist and, until two months ago, a tenured American History professor at a well-regarded branch of the CSU System. His forebears were Mennonites before they were Lutherans. As for Mom’s family, the better part of my examples come from my grandparents. My grandfather was himself a career educator and both of my grandparents have long been enthusiastic believers in the messages of the (unaffirmed) Lady of Međugorje, which are generally thought to pick up where the Messages of Fátima left off.
Add to these influences the fact that two of my grandparents were small business owners; after Mom’s little sister started high school Grandma took it upon herself to spend twenty years selling needlework supplies, and Grandpa Bill (Dad’s dad) was a job printer. Dad attempted his own small business when I was in grade school; both of my stepparents and all four of my great-grandfathers all signed their own paychecks at one time or another (in all but my stepmom’s case, through practically their entire careers).
When you add up those influences, the result is a belief that government is meant for the benefit of all people as a counterweight to the commercial advantage that corporations and industry advocacy groups gain from economies of scale. As much to the point, I’m mildly hostile toward large corporations.
That by itself is enough to explain why I identify as a Yellow Dog Democrat… to the extent that such a label amounts to anything substantive these days. From this desk, it looks like it’s been several generations since the Republican Party has even pretended to give a dam about the well-being of small-business-people.
For me, the real clincher is the issue of social justice. I identify as Catholic, even though I am enthusiastically lapsed… but it’s impossible for me to ignore the gravity lent to social justice by the Gospels. When I look at the contemporary political landscape, however, I see on the Right an unholy alliance of Big Business, crypto-racists, crypto-Objectivists, and the fanatically pious. I see hostility toward the unemployed. I see the scions of High Finance pulling every trick they can to evade responsibility for pulling apart the beams of the fractional-reserve system.
The Left, meanwhile, appears to be running for cover; their adversaries have shouted down, stalled, and intimidated at every turn. I’m reminded of something Dad pointed out to me a few months ago: that if the Left attempted the sort of leadership and framing practiced by the Right, they’d be accused of fascism or at least authoritarianism.
Thus my positions are those of rejection: I reject the belief that the entitlement of the individual person in all things beyond basic human rights, whether private or corporate, takes precedence over that of the community. I reject supply-side economics. I emphatically reject the notion that conspicuous wealth is a realization of the “American Dream.”
When the subject of politics comes up, I’m inevitably reminded of my most recent visit to my grandmother in Seaside, made immediately before I moved to Lawrence. Before I came out, she stocked up on groceries, among them Oreo cookies that I tend to wolf down during movies we watch, and games of Scrabble that we play (in my case poorly) when I visit. At any rate my arrival was held up for three days, and when I called Grandma to follow up, she sheepishly admitted that during that time she’d unwittingly eaten the entire bag. Many chuckles were had.
The guffaw, however, came during my visit.
At the time the case of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen was all over the papers and television, and that news was hot on the heels of the dubious detention of a Washington County attorney then alleged by the FBI to have standing as a material witness to the 2004 train bombings in Spain. Terrorism was the beginning and end of the public chatter, and Idaho figured in the conversation.
Revelations of an Idaho-based White supremacy group’s ties to the 1986 murder of an Ethiopian immigrant in front of his Southeast Portland apartment building directly thrust into Oregonians’ view the Idaho Panhandle’s status as a locus for militia and White supremacy fringe types. Take note meanwhile that my Idaho relations hail from the 84/20 corridor between Boise and Nampa, several hours’ drive south of Moscow and Coeur d’Alene.
For her part, Grandma was called upon to go to the post office for the sake of posting a letter to her sister in Idaho, and after the counter rep read the recipient address he rather dimly uttered an an aside: “I hear there are a lot of terrorists in Idaho!”
Without skipping a beat Grandma looked straight at the guy with a grin and replied, “…and a lot of Republicans, too!”
The counter rep went dead silent in an instant, and his eyes drooped in the general direction of his shoes. I exercised iron will to restrain myself from laughing out loud at that.