Teleology

In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is absolutely true.

Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until, say, twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point?

—Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

I'm in a hotel room in Munich. The room's clock tells me it is 1:00 am. My biological clock tells me it is pi past eleventy, and so I am wide awake and emailing my wife about mayonnaise.

There's a couple in the street below. The woman is singing in a beer-thickened alto, the man responding in a low baritone that stumbles toward silence. He sounds like he's trying not to sound eager. I can't make out the words, and I speak only a tiny bit of German, but I'm fluent in lust. He's hoping. She decided hours ago.

I am here to write web applications. This is my life, and I often feel guilty for my good fortune. Sometimes it feels like my life and sometimes it doesn't, and I have no idea what to make of that. I find myself measuring it against and ineffable and undefined idea of "destiny" that's been banging around in the back of my brain. Which is a not-at-all-insane thing to do.

I claim not to be a fatalist, but I am a liar. I think about things in terms of their purpose, their function. I don't think about other people in that way, but I know of no other way to think of myself. What function am I supposed to serve? What is my place?

The fallacy of this kind of thinking is the assumption that the world has a static design, that it is a finite state machine. But life has taught me that even if there is a machine, and even if that machine has a designer, he's committed to a fairly hands-off, emergent approach.

That's a fancy way of saying that people ain't tidy, and I know that that's true, and I suspect that the machine isn't real, but still I reach for it. Rands tells me that such an instinct is, if silly, common to my kind.

But here's the thing, if we want to talk about function: Things are often defined by what they do. If I am something other than a software developer, I would be doing that, or at least working my way towards a state of doing that. I would write more or learn the guitar or go back to school or start reading to blind kids or something. But I don't.

So I'm sure Aristotle would give me a slap, if he were more than dust in my nostrils. I don't give a good goddamn about the inside of your head, he would say. I don't care about your heart. I care about what you do. Show me what you do with your time, and I'll tell you who you are.

On the other hand, it is well past one in the morning here. I have to be in the shower in just over five hours and down to breakfast in less than six, where I have made a personal vow that I will brave the white sausages for breakfast. Yet I'm still up, at a table in my underwear, listening to the slurred alto down below tease her companion along, and I am writing and thinking it through. Maybe that's my thing, who I am.

Thinking it through puts a handle on the world. Sure, the handle's probably a fiction. The world of people has no structure or sense beyond that The Heart Wants What It Wants, and Sometimes It Wants Stupid Things. Trying to find meaning in human interaction is like trying to find math in a taco. What little moments of clarity we find are so easily derailed by sleep or hunger or south-bound blood flow.

There is emotion. There is the need to burn. Those are our constants. That is who we are. But it makes sense to me that I roll this rock up this hill. It makes sense that I pursue the sense of it.

Programming is all about defining a problem and grasping its handle, but most programmers I know fantasize about other, less rational pursuits. I know one who left to become a musician and bought a chain of coffee shops. One is opening his own Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu studio, hoping that he can turn it into a business but never daring to admit that hope out loud. Another confessed to me that she'd like to take people alligator hunting.

Me, I'd like to enchant people. I am an easily enchanted man. I owe much of my childhood to Dahl and Tolkein and Daniel Pinkwater and George Lucas, and I figure being the conjurer would be a pretty spectacular thing. My motives here are not entirely selfless.

The newness and the foreignness of everything here in Germany does a fair bit of enchanting, keeps me stimulated, makes me hungry. So does being out of the heat of the southern US. So does being in a culture considerably less boorish and simultaneously know-it-all and know-nothing as the one I hail from. But that would all wear off in a few months and then life would be life, as it always is.

So you do what you can and you go where you must, but you can always sneak in some thunderbolts under your coat. When I do, it's a hell of a thrill, second only to letting them out. I had to leave three of mine on the other side of an ocean but managed to smuggle the rest through customs, and they didn't give me a second look. Now I'm working on making room to take them all for walkies every day.

I'm repeating myself, I know. I don't know what else to do but prod these little problems with a stick and make notes in my book. Each time I do, it takes me a little less time to remember that there is little here beyond desire to understand. There's no map to this particular territory. There is no compass but hope and need.

Right now that man downstairs needs that woman to wrap herself around him, and I think she needs that too, but first she needs him to squirm and dance a little. I need a blanket, the smell of my children, fewer midnights listening to other people outside and more swapping warmth with my wife. I need those things more than the map.

And, hell, I'd gladly give up on the map altogether if I could hold you in my thrall for just a few minutes here and there. Not for applause or money, just to know that the magic is real and that I can wield it, however clumsily. To know that if there is to be no order, no sense, no plan, that there is yet thunder and that I can, from time to time, call it down. It's selfish, and I'm beyond fucking okay with that.

Now it's off to bed.

Memento Mori

I talk to myself. A lot. I don't feel like I've actually lived a day unless I got to spend at least 20 minutes of it talking to myself. Because I am a goddamn crazy person.

It started when I was a kid, I think mostly because I had trouble holding a coherent thought in my head unless I wrote it down or said it out loud. There was a semester or two there when I would study for philosophy exams by breaking into lecture halls and pretending to teach the course material to the empty room.

Yep, that's nuts. It's embarrassing. Doesn't seem like the sort of thing that a normal, healthy person does, right? But it's been over three decades now, and I'm not sure I know how to stop. Plus, confession time: I like doing it. Maybe it's narcissism, maybe it's my weird and contradictory relationship with quiet, I don't know. But I love talking to myself. It comforts me, grounds me.

So I'm in my car the other day and I've decided to spend my lunch break driving around and talking to myself. I'm driving around and I'm talking to myself about, I don't know, JavaScript or an ISO formatting issue or my kids or Neil Gaiman or whatever. I don't know. But it was nothing of import, just me thinking out loud. Like a crazy person.

And then a thought popped into my head, a derpily-obvious but nonetheless-there-it-is thought:

You are going to die.

It hit me as though it were going to happen sometime in the next ten minutes.

Earth-shattering, I know. But I had a french fry in my hand and form validation on my lips, and it broadsided me. I recoiled and gathered myself and said it out loud: "You are going to die." Then I said "Fuck." Then I asked myself a question.

Say you're going to die in three hours. You've already said goodbye and thanks and I love you to your friends and family. You even got to shake Grant Morrison's hand, to hug Brooks Hansen for writing The Chess Garden, to tell Tom Waits a dirty joke and join him in a round of "Goodnight, Irene". They've all been pulled away, and now you have three hours to do what you want with your time. What would you do?

You'd want to leave a marker behind, however temporary, right? I'd want to make something, and I'm better and faster with words than anything else, so: I would write.

What would I write? That's where it gets hard. But I think I would once and for all completely untether myself. Not a confession of sins, but one last stab at reaching for your hand and talking about the things we have in common and hide from one another.

Maybe it would be an essay, maybe a story. Maybe I'd do something clever and address my children while really talking to adults. Lord knows that's never been done before.

But I would write, and I would write something that mattered, if I had it in me to do so. I'd go deep purple on that motherfucker, too.

Which raises the obvious question of why I'm not doing more than dabbling infrequently with that now. Good question.

No, this isn't the typical "I'm going to quit my job and find my way as a writerly writer" revelation. I'm too smart to just shitcan what I've spent years building to pursue a life of poverty and frustration and predatory contracts. I like my job, I do, I just don't care about it all that much.

I think that has to mean that I'm going to start doing this more, so I have built myself a system that allows me to take writing breaks from my coding. Right now I'm typing blind on a covered iPad while staring at a monitor that says this:

{
    xtype: 'hiddenfield',
    flex: 1,
    fieldLabel: 'Label',
    name: 'documentationIndicator'
}

I'm writing this while I stare at that and the whiteboard at the other end of the table, just as Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club while pretending to take notes in meetings. I'm going to write blind, every day, and when things come out that are post-worthy, I'm going to post them. No promises on frequency.

I'm going to do this because I've learned this about myself in the last year: My brain does not have a stable state. It's growing or dying, and only learning makes it grow.

Every day I fertilize it or poison it. I can fertilize it with a technical challenge even if the work I'm supporting is boring and mundane, but that all goes Agent Orange when I'm pushing 200 fields around a form or debugging a validation routine.

So I must fertilize, and if I cannot find a way to make my living doing something I truly love, then I will bring my love into my work, and I will do it in secret. Don't tell anyone.

I'll do it because I may be dead in three hours, and I want my children to open my Dropbox (kids: look in the "notesy" folder after Dad croaks) and find something sublime in there when I'm gone.

I was cleaning up that folder and found this in an unnamed textfile the other day:

It should have fun
It should be funny
It should have adventure
Heroes should fall
Heroes should rise
Things should go boom
No boobs, unfortunately
Han Solo should science a mammal

Yeah, I don't know either, but any ground where I can lose and find stupid shit like that needs to be tended.

Look: None of what I'm saying here is particularly profound or daring, I know. But it's hard. It's hard not to hide from it. When I was young, I used to sleep to hide from my anxieties and fears, and though I threw away that pacifier long ago, I found other, subtler ones. Now I'm trying to rid myself of them. Only in the last year or two have I felt like I'm waking up. And wow, the stuff I missed.

So the new plan is I'm going to spend the back half of my life writing my obituary, though I'll be damned if I know what form it will take. I'll try like hell to make it an honest one and a good one. There will be overwrought and overwritten weepy time stuff, and there will be dongs. Just you wait. But it will be my obituary, my testimony.

So I'll write the opening now, and then we'll start figuring out the backstory together.

Matt Reed was born on the 110th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and died on its bicentennial because stories are tidy like that. He died, appropriately enough, in a theater, though he was not murdered.

He was watching a stage production of Daniel Pinkwater's seminal novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death when the nanobots in his bloodstream malfunctioned, swarmed to his brain, and over-stimulated the neurons that housed the combination to his brother's first bicycle lock. Experts are still trying to determine why this caused him to combust.

Onlookers reported that Mr. Reed had shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" in the manner of Marcus Junius Brutus and John Wilkes Booth, but a scan of the nanobot logs indicates that he had instead shouted a slurred "six two three two", which analysis suggests was the bike lock's combination.

Mr. Reed leaves behind his beloved if overly-sassed wife Jennifer; his son Jack, inventor of tiger invisible robot technology; and his daughter Georgia, Roving Warlady Empress of the Fourth Obfuscation.

Mr. Reed died as he lived: terrified, confused, and on fire.

Blackest Night, My Ass

So your kids are about to be pretty goddamn disappointed that I'm not their dad.

Superman Night Light

Superman Night Light

Solder lines are lumpy, the edges are uneven, and I've got about two dozen gripes with it overall, but hey, it's only the third stained glass piece I've ever made.

And? I made it.

And? This will light up my son's room.

Little Pea Pod sister's got her order in for a Wonder Woman.

Cost/Benefit Analysis 101

About a month back, I stopped taking my attention pills out of concern that they were staking what optimism I had to an anthill and breaking out the sorghum. I was in what you might call a bad way. So I talked to a doctor friend, put the pills down, and set an appointment to talk to my psychiatrist about it. I went nine days without taking my thinkum.

Now lacking its lubricant, my brain settled right back into the fog of the previous 35 years. Meetings turned into high school jazz band concerts. Things I love started to bore me again. And hey, what's on TV?

But here's the problem: I immediately got happier. The fog was a struggle, but man did my general dissatisfaction evaporate.

The psychiatrist cautioned that likely the pills didn't create that unhappiness, but dug it up. And he was right; starting a new medication brought much of it back. Blowing back the fog uncovered some stuff I hadn't wanted to see.

So this has me thinking about costs, which is to say that I'm thinking about scarcity. Finding drive and ambition at mid-life presented itself as a choose-your-own-adventure version of Flowers for Algernon: If you want to slip back into the fog of contentment, turn to page 39 and let's look at some pretty mice. If you want to be prodded by a nebulous cocktail of passion and terror that disrupts every corner of your world but so far exists beyond your capacity to understand or channel it, turn to page 67 and let's punch us some goddamn Martians.

Yes, there's Martian punching in Flowers for Algernon. Having fun ain't hard if you have a library card.

Even so, the fog still beckons. The epicurean ideal of retreating to the garden to reflect and create has its allure. I imagine sitting at a desk writing for my dinner or plunked down at a workbench making something with my hands, and yeah, I'm not a little bit in love with the romantic ideal there, if not the reality I know that would come with it. But: quiet, contemplation, refuge. Manna.

Thing is, I also know that I'm not necessarily here to be happy. The point of being is to get to work, to make things better, or else who gives a damn. Change is made by people who grab a used snorkel and wade into the sewer. It comes from those who cut themselves and bleed into boring, thankless, necessary work. They don't allow themselves the luxury of retreat, if it's even available to them. They know that if you're not helping, you're in the way.

So I guess I'm asking; Do we have to choose between being happy and using our lives to the extent that we should? Do we even have a say in the matter? How much satisfaction can a man claim for himself and still sleep the sleep of the just?

Maybe it wasn't a revelation. Maybe this is just the by-product of what happens when you give my brain a stimulant. Maybe I'm in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Maybe I'm just bored.

I have not a clue, but no way I'm going back. I begged to be made to burn and it happened and it turns out that that hurts a lot. There's zero that's romantic about it, I don't give a tinker's damn what the poets told you. Like love, burning is hard, especially when you're a middle-aged man with no idea where or how he's supposed to combust. It demands payment.

This business of dissatisfaction is a slog, and I'll be honest, sometimes it borders on despair. But I'm finally beginning to feel like I'm in the world. And I don't have a clue what I can do with that, but it's going to be something.

Also, I got a new job.

Exit Stage Left

So this essay by Wallace Shawn made the rounds almost exactly a year ago. It's one perspective on why so many artists, actors particularly, tend to skew toward economic liberalism or, in his case, socialism.

But economics isn't why I linked it. I linked it because of this part:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him....

And as I walk out onto the street on a sunny day, dressed in my fortunate bohemian costume, I pass...the grim-faced domestic worker who’s slipped out from her employer’s house and now races into a shop to do an errand, and I see nothing, I think nothing, I have no reaction to what I’m seeing, because I believe it all.

I simply believe it. I believe the costumes. I believe the characters. And then for one instant, as the woman runs into the shop, I suddenly see what’s happening, the way a drowning man might have one last vivid glimpse of the glittering shore, and I feel like screaming out, “Stop! Stop! This isn’t real! It’s all a fantasy! It’s all a play! The people in these costumes are not what you think! The accents are fake, the expressions are fake -- Don’t you see? It’s all --”

Boom.

Every now and then I'll be walking to the office I choose to work at from the car I chose to drive, wearing the jacket and shoes and pocket hanky I bought for myself, and for just an instant, I wonder where I am and what the hell happened. Whose life is this, whose jacket? Who cast me in this? Why do people expect me to walk into this office and sit down and do this job, don't they understand that we're only reciting this script we've never read because we've all (insanely) agreed that it's real?

Shawn's mob of characters abides in me too. Sometimes they won't shut up. There's an athlete, a doctor, a salesman. A preacher, a murderer, a philanderer. A politician. A musician. A homeless addict. A writer, ker-chortle ye not, and dozens where each of them came from. They're in there, these men, waiting only for circumstance to let them out.

The really loony thing is that I don't want any of them to solidify and become permanent, not even the one that I let out every day for everyone to see. I want to contain them all, give each the fullest range of expression I can allow without hurting anyone. I don't think it's fair that any of them should be favored over the others, not even this one that's worked out pretty well for me so far, because I love all of them, even the scary ones and the bastards.

George Saunders was in a plane he knew was going to crash. And he caught the eye of the woman sitting across the aisle, and they held hands as the plane went down. They held hands because they knew each other, though they had never spoken before.

You see things for what they are when they're about to end. You see the costumes, and you think maybe you could change them just as easily as putting on a new jacket. Or, hey, maybe try nudity for a change, if that's even possible.

It doesn't take tragedy or crisis to show us this. Anything that jabs at the center of us is enough.

Usually it's a new thing. A song you never heard before that sounded as if it were plucked from the sky. Someone farting in the middle of a eulogy. Your son swimming nude across your freshly-shellacked hardwood floor. The cat leaping onto your ass mid-thrust. Or, maybe, the wind catching you just right as you're crossing your office parking lot.

Every now and then I'll hear a guitarist bend a string a certain way or a harp blower curl his tongue back and suck hard or, shit, something like Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, and I know that at the center of me is a factory that forges that exact sound from my liver and my terror and my semen and my shit and my joy. Stories do it to me too.

I know that sound is in there, I can hear it echoing off my spleen, and I need to let it out of me now now now or I'll burst. But it passes. It's like finishing sex without getting to come, but it passes.

Then comes a welcome quiet, and I forget for a while. As Shawn points out, to live with this conscious knowledge every moment of your life would be unbearable, would paralyze you, would make even the daily chores that sustain your life seem absurd. It would lead any sane person to think themselves mad. I sure as shit feel crazy admitting all of this to all of you. But I've got to figure a way to let that sound out, don't you?

To understand it is to understand that so much of what transpires, so much of what we think of as The Way Things Are is what it is because we agree that it is, and therefore there's little that can't be piped to /dev/null and replaced with something new. You just have to get enough people to agree to change their clothes, that's all.

It's not quite that simple, of course. There's work to be done first, a new set to be built, new costumes to be sewn and fit. But I suspect it begins with a conviction: I'm not going to play this part any more.

Jason and George

Every now and then I go back and re-read this comment on the generational divide between James Bond and Jason Bourne. A snippet, if you're not up to the arduous task of reading an internet comment (in which case, why you're here for my overwritten bumf I don't know):

Who is our generations [sic] James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can't trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. In fact, his employer is outsourcing his work to a bunch of foreign contractors who presumably work for less and ask fewer questions.... What about work tools? Bourne is on is own there too. Sure, work initially issued him a weapon, but after that he's got to scrounge up whatever discount stuff he can find, even when it's an antique. He has to do more with less. And finally, Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education.... Oh, and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him.

And, indeed, that's our reality these days. Cross reference this one from Eddie Smith about the current professional's mindset, less that of an employee and more that of an independent contractor:

I don't care who you work for, stop thinking of them as a boss or a company. Think of them as a client. Think of yourself as a business. And start thinking like that right now.

Now, I'm guessing you're like me, and when you think of Jason Bourne, you think of "It's a Wonderful Life".

It's pretty much everyone's favorite dramatic holiday movie, right? Pull ten people off the street, six or more will gush. They'll use terms like "uplifting" and "inspiring" and "hopeful". It's that magical Capra touch.

Let's recap, shall we?

Hometown boy wants one thing in life: a little adventure. He wants to see the world. He wants to build things. And it never happens. Ever.

What holds him back? Obligation, mostly. His sense of duty to his family, to his town, to his neighbors. He greets even falling for the woman who would be his wife, what should be one of the most joyful moments of the film, with frustration, anger, then resignation.

His honeymoon, his last great shot at adventure, sold away to keep his family's business afloat. Then it's a mortgage on a drafty old house in need of constant repair, then it's children. And more children. And sick children.

And then? His business again put at risk and now a looming felony conviction, all because of one doddering, drunk uncle and a rich asshole George once pissed off.

He's toast, his dream ground to powder and thrown to the wind, his future ruined, entirely because of other people. The real bitch? Nearly all of them are people he loves. People who need him.

So he does the only sane thing in the world left to him. He gets stinking drunk and wrecks his car. And then? He tries to throw himself off a bridge.

I won't waste words running down the rest of it in too much detail. You all know how it goes down. But let's flash-forward to the end. What's our hero's reward?

He doesn't go to jail. All those people he helped out return the favor and bail him out. Still broke, still never see his dream fulfilled, but not going to jail and slightly-less-screwed financially.

This is a joyous fucking movie.

Yes, yes, I know. His real reward is learning that he made a difference in other people's lives. He discovers that he'd been an important man all along, important in a sense that wrinkly scrotum facsimile Potter would never be. But other than the house full of singing people at the end, this is a black tale of the woe-est woe. If it weren't for Clarence's ruffly Mormon undergarments and rum punch, it'd be nigh-unwatchable. Hell, it only needs someone shooting John Turturro in the face.

Is it too much to give the poor bastard a plane ticket?

Just as Bond and Bourne are hyperbolic analogues of businessmen past and present, so is George of the modern family man. Just as the Bourne movies are about navigating the modern realities of employment, "It's a Wonderful Life" is about navigating a mid-life crisis.

Now, that's a phrase we all like to use as a punchline: hair plugs, convertibles, secretaries. And certainly those men who abandon their posts are worthy of criticism, if not contempt. But look at George Bailey, slumped over Martini's bar and rubbing his face. I love my family, he thinks. I need my wife, my children. But I also need just one thing that is for me. Just one dream fulfilled. Just one break.

A friend once said that inside of every man in his fifties is a man in his twenties wondering what the fuck happened.

I wrote before of my fear that I'd never leave a lasting mark on this world. A number of men who read that came forward to confide that same fear. Not a need for fame or riches or a Wikipedia entry, but to die with the knowledge that we did something that mattered, that outlived us. That we will not disappear with those who remember us. Maybe, along the way, the ability to live a life without caring too much about the expectations of others.

Facing the possibility that it might not happen, that in fact for most of us it will not happen, stinks going down. Those of us who have read our Thoreau remember being young and coming upon that phrase "quiet desperation" and thinking, not me. Never. And now, in our thirties and forties, we re-evaluate, and we wonder if there is still time. We are not ready for resignation yet. And yes, some of us panic.

The thing about men who accomplish big things is that a shocking number of them are complete pricks. Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, all reputed dickholes. You wonder if that's the secret, not giving a damn what others want. You wonder if you have to choose between being a good man or a great one.

If you do, the costs of greatness are obvious and on display in a million movies. Just look at old man Potter. But no one warned us of the costs of goodness. Nor perhaps should they have. Like any important thing, goodness is hard, and it is hard because it means choosing obligation, cleaving unto others. Goodness, like love, is a choice you make every day of your life.

God rains plagues on George Bailey because of his goodness, again and again, until he's begging. I have done as you commanded. Please, just one dream. Just one thing to go the easy way. Just one thing that is mine.

God's reply: No. But here, I'll show you what it was all for.

We cry over Zu Zu's petals and atta-boy-Clarence because we are George Bailey. Nearly no one escapes their youth with their dreams intact, because life is what goes on while you're dreaming, and it has its own ideas. We cry because George got to see that he had built something all along, while the rest of us can only hope that we did.

Jason Bourne survives by being the baddest of the bad, fulfilling every corporate stooge's dream of shooting his boss. But that's a power fantasy, not a reality we can or should relate to.

George? George survives because those other people who broke his dreams pull him from that wreckage and tend to his wounds and tell him that his sacrifice made their lives possible. Nothing badass about that. No plane ticket. But it matters.

Lot's Wife and Vinegar Chips

Terry Pratchett is not well. Hasn't been for some time. He has Alzheimer's.

My grandmother had it too. She spent years watching her mind leave her inch by inch before she died. Before she was too far gone to know what was happening to her, I imagine it was a private, bitter hell. My relief at the news that she'd passed was likewise bitter, but it was relief.

She met her illness with humor. It's a family trait, one that I don't possess as strong a measure of as I would like. My dad will tell you funny stories about the Vietnam war. My mom will tell you about sitting by his side at the Mayo Clinic, trying like hell not to lose him to renal cancer, and howling with laughter.

As for Grammy, there's the story of her adult daycare. On winter mornings my aunt would usually dress her in a sweater that she had knitted for herself back when she could still do that. Then she'd take her to daycare, where they would be greeted by a woman who was so far gone that she introduced herself every time.

At some point this woman would point to Grammy's sweater and ask where she got such a beautiful thing. Grammy would puff up her chest and answer that she'd made it. Her new friend would express astonishment. They did this every single day. Grammy indulged it. She was kind.

One day Grammy showed up and her "new" friend came up to introduce herself. They chatted, and then the subject of her sweater came up. "Where on earth did you get that?" she asked. "It's beautiful."

"I made it," Grammy said.

"How on earth do you do something like that?"

My grandmother thought on this, and thought. And thought.

"Well," she said. "There was a time I could've told you, but right now I'm about as goofy as you."

That's how she faced losing the knowledge of one of her great loves. She cracked wise. I cannot fathom this.

Yes, I'm glad it's over for her. Grammy was sweet and loving and one motherfucker of a seamstress, and I miss her, but I wouldn't wish what she endured on even the most monstrous of men. Certainly not on Pratchett, a man who has given me laughter and delight.

He nearly died last month. I haven't made up my mind about how I feel about that. I want him around, but I don't want him to endure this any longer than he must. I hate it more than I hate cancer.

The gospels declare that storing up treasures on this earth is an evil worthy of eternal damnation. I get where Jesus is coming from on that, but if the Almighty will permit a little criticism, I much prefer the Buddhist view: evil maybe, but certainly it's futile, even ridiculous. Because here's the thing: you don't own a goddamn thing of this earth. Until you know that in your bones, you'll never stop hurting yourself.

That's a harder pill to swallow when the treasures are our minds and bodies, but it's no less true. Regard them as being on loan. Regard them as a heartbeat from gone. They don't belong to you. Maybe that's how Grammy could laugh. Maybe she knew that. God, I hope so.

Last Wednesday was a right good pigfucker of a day. The last shreds of hope I held for Big Scary Job Opportunity evaporated with one speech from a member of the senior management team. So it goes.

So it goes, but I had trouble letting go of a thing I never had. I ditched the office potluck, went home and scarfed some leftover Hoppin' John, made an iced coffee, and hightailed it out to the UAMS biostatistics computer lab to finish up some work and chafe.

Chafe I did. I was sour with the two young women behind me who chatted when I wanted peace. I was sour with my coworkers who stood in the boss's office doorway chatting about nothing right outside my cube. I was sour with my own children.

I didn't want to go for a run that evening, but I knew I had to. I took my headphones but kept the podcast off, ran with nothing but my thoughts and the occasional speed and distance report to keep me company. My toes went numb on the 40° pavement. I told them to piss off and pushed harder. I hit my nine-minute mile.

It was on the cool-down walk that I turned my eyes up toward Jupiter and remembered that there are other things than my troubles. It was in the shower that I, returning feeling to my feet and worrying over my left Achilles' tendon, realized the gift I had been given in that meeting. I was given possibility.

Granted, right now those possibilities seem like a buffet of greater and lesser evils. Sit in a greybeige cube cranking out assembly-line code for somebody else's bottom line? As unlikely as it is unpalatable; I haven't written a line of object-oriented code in five years. Sit in a greybeige cube doing something something health IT something? Seems more plausible and less unpalatable. Chuck everything, learn the harmonica and hit the road with a blues band? The inevitable divorce would be pretty good fodder for blues songs.

Something else? Something else would be nice. But something. That's a gift.

I don't want to wrap this up with anything as trite and trodden as "gather ye rosebuds", but in an entirely self-centered way, last Wednesday left me envious of Pratchett. Not of what he's going through now, of course, but of what he did with his time before and is doing with it now. He always knew what he wanted, and he pursued it with all his strength. He used what time he had to develop his gifts and create delight. Just read this comment, for God's sake.

A friend of mine once said that he'd choose a life that ended with a shotgun in his mouth if it meant leaving behind a legacy like The Old Man and the Sea. I don't know if I'd go that far, but if you told me the price of leaving behind something like Terry Pratchett's work and touching millions of lives would be one day watching your beloved brain degrade in front of you, I'd take it. I'd take it in a heartbeat. And I fear it more than death.

So. I don't know where I'm going from here, beyond keeping my eyes open for opportunities. I will, for a change, allow myself to be just a teensy bit optimistic about what may come. The hard part will always be letting go of what was, but that's because it's the important part. Nobody ever made tomorrow come by giving a damn about the past.

Grammy and Mr. Pratchett never belonged to me. I got them on loan, same as my legs, same as my dreams, same as my mutinous hair. I hope the day will come when I can digest that truth without it choking me on the way down. But I think it will. It gets easier the more you lose the things you love.

Incidentally, if you're one of the poor sad sacks who hasn't heard of or read Terry Pratchett, I recommend Good Omens, still my favorite of his. If you're not familiar with my grandmother, well, here she is as a young woman, singing with a gospel group:

I still have her voice. With a trumpet! Neat, huh?

FINGERBLAST THE FUTURE

So I just finished a shitter of a week that ended with a merciful blumf. Two, count 'em, two projects fell out of the sky with the same deadline in the same week that I'm on deck to do some volunteer work for our church, and...well, I won't bore you with the details, but it sucked there for a while.

Friday morning I went for my quarterly psychiatrist visit so that my doctor could be sure that the TV isn't telling me to masturbate on the mayor's dog before she gave me more pills to make the shiny things be less distracting. We talked about my life. I mentioned I was angling for a promotion, and I've got the kids, and Jack's in kindergarten and Georgia's being potty trained, and my wife works too hard so I'm hoping that the promotion will take some pressure off of her, and I'm on campus all the time because I'm a student here working on a Master of Public Health degree, and...

She held up a hand and laughed. "Are you sure you want this promotion?"

Well...no. It's a sexy thing, but no, I'm not. But I know it's a big shot that I'd be good at, I'm unhappy where I am, and I'd rather risk climbing into a fire than stay in this annoyingly tepid sauna of busy work.

There are two items that will forever stay at the top of my to-do inbox. These are they:

Transient

The first is a reminder of where I need to go, the second of how I'm going to get there. Do something with your life that needs to be done, find a way to make things a little better and maybe just maybe leave a mark on the world, and oh yeah, work is the only thing that will get you there.

I cling to those two sentences like a life preserver sometimes, and sometimes it's enough just to let them nudge up against my brain. Keeping them in my inbox means I look at them at least twice a day. That way the distractions can't make me forget.

It's all so damn hard to navigate sometimes, and if it weren't for my system, I'd probably be traveling upriver to murder a colonel.

My system, if there be a damn that you give, is the stereotypical Mac nerd setup: Getting Things Done (well, most of it) and OmniFocus. It's a bit difficult to get used to, but once you get okay at it (I don't think anyone ever gets good at GTD), it's very useful.

Uses:

  • Not standing in the middle of Target thinking what was the other fucking thing that I needed here
  • Indeed, having a mobile application that knows I'm near Target and need to stop in there for stuff. Achievement unlocked: ROBOT BUTLER
  • Not annoying my bosses or my justifiably weary wife with yet another thing I forgot
  • Boiling all the things in my life down to what I can do right here, right now with the tap of a finger
  • Remembering books and movies and websites and games and wines and comics I want to remember, ideas I want to write about, and things to make my wife and kids happy

I'm careful not to put only work in there, for fear my system would become a thing I would avoid. I put happy stuff in there like a recurring lunch date with my wife and an insanely difficult puzzle I want us to do together rather than watch TV. I'm thinking of setting up geofenced reminders all around the city of fun things I can do with the kids when we're out and about. Project likely to be called "Planned Spontaneity".

It was after I got all that stuff in there that I looked at my screen and realized I was seeing damn near the sum total of my life, the chores and errands and work and distractions and things I value, my days and weeks and months to come. My system was showing me the hard data of who I am, and I found myself comparing that to who I want to be. The outcome was okay, but there was a vacuum in there waiting to be filled.

So now I use those lists to chase that first inbox item and never fall prey to the second. And it's a wonderful twist of fortune that the same system that mapped out my life for me also relieved my brain of the burden of remembering, thereby carving out enough space in said brain to think about those two sentences.

Every morning I process my stuff, check my calendar, write my day out on a sheet of paper, and update my trickle list. For the rest of the day, I am out of my system unless I'm running errands. Every evening I check off what I did and take time to think about whether I did anything that day to move forward. I usually spend that time trying not to beat myself up. But I also try to understand where I am and where I can go from here.

You can't think your way out of it. Should I go for the job? Shouldn't I? Should I be spending all this money on grad school? Should I ditch it all and learn the harmonica? Shut up shut up shut up.

Forward motion. Get up and do a thing. Fuck finding your passion. Work. Grab anything interesting when it comes by. Keep your eyes open, and keep your stuff out of your brain so you're ready when you see sexiness happening. Go run. No, fuck you, go run, and tomorrow pick up heavy things and put them down repeatedly. Did you write today? Fuck you. Go run, then go write.

It seems the only hobby I have is making myself suck less. I'm okay with that, as long as it's in service of something greater, lest I disappear up my own ass. As long as it's to make tomorrow come. To be ready when the opportunity presents itself.

Notifications that aren't mission-critical may die in a fire. Email, I don't want to hear from you more than hourly. Twitter, I've somehow found the ability to ignore you most of the day, and I believe it's called "Wellbutrin". My system made the space in my brain to think, and I'm cutting all of you off to make the time.

More days are failures than successes. I'm gradually becoming okay with that. I'm gradually getting better at understanding what it really is I want. Road's gotta lead somewhere. Thanks to the pills and the system and the many many people who have led me to this place, I can think about it, but of course I can't think my way out of it.

I keep a third sentence in my pocket at all times, and it reminds me of a related thing that's equally important. This one's from Leonard Cohen:

I hated everyone
but I acted generously
and no one found me out

Your hands will tell you what your brain cannot. Your brain may lie to you; your feet will not.

It's a curious thing not to trust your brain, indeed to think of it as something separate from you that must be managed. Wonderful servant and terrible master and all that. But it seems to be working. I try not to depend on it to remember. I try not to listen to it when it whispers to me about the possibilities. I try to grit my teeth and take a step forward, because it's the only way I'm going to find out.

Want evidence that I'm right? It took me five drafts of this post and probably at least 6,000 words before I got the right foundation laid. I didn't figure out what I was trying to say until I started writing while I was making dinner. Two-way chicken. I shit you not.

Rise, My Creation, Your Master Commands

You've probably figured out that tools are important to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about them, and I like to write about them too.

Problem is that most of the tools I rely on every day are, predictably enough, software, and there's already a big crowd of people who write about software and getting work done. There's Sven and there's Patrick and there's Sparky and there's Eddie and there's Drang and there's Brettsy von Terpington and there's Merlin and there's Merlin and there's Merlin and there's more besides. I don't feel like trying to duplicate their success.

I was ruminating on this the other day when I had made my third failed attempt at a post I still haven't given up on about how I use alerts and notifications to emulsify awesome sauce. I found myself slipping into doing some variation on the sort of thing I read in my RSS feeds every day, and let's face it, if I do that, there's really no point to this place.

That got me wondering what the point of this place is, and I was surprised at how difficult that question was to answer. I thought on that for days, and then a very scary career opportunity presented itself, and the answer tumbled out of my skull.

I was trying to get work done but had just finished one of those conversations that completely derails your brain with scary possibilities, and as a result, I was worse than useless. I was literally experiencing a mild fight-or-flight response thinking about it, swept up in a mix of exhilaration and the sort of terror one feels when confronted with the dead-eyed ghost of a six-year-old Japanese girl.

I had anti-focus. I knew I had to process it before I could get anything done, so I started typing, and eventually, the following came out.

A note before we dig in: Please pardon the grandiosity (and random perspective-shifting). I tend to tinge purple when I'm brain-dumping and I hadn't intended it for public consumption, but I don't think I should edit it too heavily, for honesty's sake.

This is what I wrote:

The thing is that you are meant to do something on this earth. You are meant to change things in some small way. That is why you were given hands and a mind and a heart and legs. You were meant to do things that make people's lives better. You certainly were meant to always be working to make yourself better. This [opportunity] is the devil you don't know, sure. But would you rather be impotent and underused?

This thing in me that wants to live, I want to let it, and I'm not sure of how. I worry about the costs. But I desperately want it to live. Sometimes it seems I can physically feel it burning in my chest, and I don't know if that's real or not, but I damn near don't care because it feels alive.

The job's not going to give me that. No job is, unless it's a very special one. I'm not sure that even necromancing my old dream of being a decently-paid writer would do it for me, not really. Once you're doing what you love, the trick is to keep loving what you're doing. And how many people get paid to write what they want?

That sense of being alive, I've found it in music and art and books and women and movies and funerals and Jennifer and the birth of my children and I'm hungry for more of it. I want to find it in me, in my life.

"Your life is coming to you," I hear that thing say, and I think, it's here. I'm living it. What else is there?

To build something, for starters. To feed and amplify wonder. To make others feel a hunger and longing for that feeling and to be lost in it.

You can write about OmniFocus. You can write about notifications. You can write about clutter and focus and tools and tricks, but it should always be connected to your heart and your fear and your life and your longing for something you're not sure exists. That is your blog. The intersection of tools and dreams, usefulness and impracticality, fear and longing and love and sex and giving and meaning and failure. A glorious Kurt Vonnegut butthole-shaped crossroads of life.

That is The Tool Shed. Looking for a way to build dreams and change out of the things of this earth. Talking about the stuff we all know but don't say. Finding a way to help that thing live. Not a whole lot of blogging about that.

Now look at notifications and OmniFocus and tools and your job in THAT light, fucker. Where are the angels and goblins in your contexts?

Woof. Is that Bill Shakespeare? I don't have my glasses on.

But I hope the gist is clear: that thing at the center of me lies mostly beyond my comprehension, but I'm pretty sure it is at least partly a call to do work. Not necessarily my job, not even necessarily an avocation like this place, but something that matters, something that changes things in some small way. I can't quite shake that loose.

I'm only now starting to get comfortable with the idea that all life is searching, that when you feel like you've arrived, it's pretty much all over. So if this site really does last and is to be anything, it is to be a chronicle of that searching, with a keen eye on keeping it bullshit-free.

I'm encouraged by the surprising level of reaction I've gotten from people who have read this site and the new friends I've made because of it, but the real reason I know this place is on the right track is that every time I write something like this, I'm choking down panic. That means it's worthwhile, because it means I'm selling my heart.

Now I think I'll call my shot: Spinning the Wheel of Topics, the next post will be about trying to spend more time acting and less time reacting.

Arrows and Options and Vomit, Oh My

Everybody in the world's commenting on this essay by Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, so I figure I might as well bumf around on it too.

I stumbled across it via the Radiolab iPhone app (which is excellent) in the middle of a pisser of a day: low focus, bad workout over lunch, and kicked off with this post from Rands in Repose in my RSS feeds. The Rands post announced that he will now start advertising jobs as a way of monetizing the site that might actually benefit his readers. He asked this question:

There are many forms to not being busy. You might just be getting your day started with a cup of coffee, you might be on your lunch hour, or you might have seven precious minutes to take a deep breath amongst your crushing responsibilities, but here’s my question: is the lack of busy more fun than your job?

And I was just getting my day started with a cup of coffee, but I thought, well...yeah. And then I went back to navigating my way through the best career advancement opportunity I've ever been handed. Yeah, I know.

I was feeling more than a little down on myself -- bad workout, bad focus, bad answer to that Rands question. Then I found Jad's essay.

It's about how Radiolab started and the deep existential dread Jad felt trying to get it off the ground and make it good. It's about the joy of not having a plan.

In it, he brings up three ideas that kept me standing still until I'd finished reading the whole thing: pointing arrows, the adjacent possible, and running toward things that make you want to vomit.

Pointing Arrows

I'm a messy person. My house is a wreck, and I'm lucky to have kids to blame for it, but it isn't their khaki shorts on the bookcase. Still, there are many places in my life where I crave order like it's oxygen, particularly when I am contemplating a new project or task. I don't need (or want) all my days to look alike, but when it comes to the important stuff, I do need to know the plan. I need an anchor point. An outline, a process diagram, a syllogism, something. That's what my brain craves: logic, sequence, order, plan.

That's precisely what frustrates me about living. I often grope for a plan for my life but have yet to grasp one. Truth, I normally can't see beyond the next move or two in my own career or personal life. And so my life has mostly felt like a chain of back roads I've meandered along. I was okay with that when I was young and immortal. No more.

My hope? Looking for that moment when something seems to shift, when a chance encounter illuminates a possible way forward.

My life has been pierced here and there by those pointing arrows, as I bet so has yours. Those little moments open up possibilities that make my brain pay attention for a change. They invite me to go left instead of right, often without a hint where I'm being pointed, just a glimmer that it could be important. Listen up. Pay attention. It feels like something important's happening.

This job and my last one were pointing arrows from the first interview. Falling for my wife, of course, was a pretty big one. So was that Back to Work podcast I wrote about before that completely changed my life. And so was Jad's essay.

I always follow those arrows. I never regret it.

The Adjacent Possible

I love that term. I love the concept more. It's the change right next door, the one you can make right now. I love it because it's what makes the uncertainty tolerable for me.

When I'm overwhelmed with frustration because I don't know where I'm headed or what my life is finally going to amount to, I am calmed with a simple thought: What can I do now? What can I change?

It usually ain't much. The answer is often "keep heading this way and see where it leads". Sometimes it's "you've hit a dead end and you should have planned for this weeks ago". But sometimes it's something new.

My adjacent possibles are easy to enumerate because they are few. I am a husband and father, which pretty much trumps all other considerations. That takes away a lot of sexy (and probably therefore illusory) possibilities. It means I don't have time for hobbies, let alone something like starting up my own business, but it also keeps me from doing anything truly stupid. It's one thing to do something that scares you. It's quite another to do something that could hurt your kids.

But that's another thing, too: my job is to protect them and provide for them, but it's also to lead by example, and that example has to include that you go for the thing you think you should be doing. Trouble is I don't know what that is. I'd love it to be doing something like this, but as of yet I have no way to monetize it. File it under "things I hope I work out one day" and keep writing stuff like this because I love it and I think it's important.

So I keep my eyes open. I look for what's next door and hope it leads to a good place.

Anthony Hopkins once asked a priest "Father, what is the shortest prayer a man can pray?" The priest replied: "Fuck it."

It's okay that I'm not a master of life strategy. It's easier to make choices when you're not surrounded by dozens of possibilities and terrified of getting locked into one. Speaking of terror:

Gut Churn

Fear's a tough one. Fear and self-doubt have been my most faithful companions in life. Making a step toward something that terrifies me is, well, terrifying. But.

I don't know if it's the need to be a good role model to my kids, my growing awareness of my own mortality, or simply that I'm getting to be too old to give much of a damn, but these days I find myself more inclined to push myself toward doing things I find scary. Or at least I find myself telling myself that I should.

I've been quietly working on a thing with a guy that scares the shit out of me, a thing that I very much want to see the light of day and may die if that doesn't happen, a thing that seems silly to care that much about and won't earn me a goddamn dime. No, it's not a thing I'm going to tell you about. Even you, Mom.

But it's a pointing arrow. It's an adjacent possible. It sure as shit churns my guts when I think about it. It may lead nowhere; it may lead somewhere merely pleasantly distracting. But I have to see.

I'm scared of it, and right now I kind of suck at it. If (when) you behold the first couple of efforts, you'll detect both that fear and the suck. But that's why I have to do it. It's the monster in the closet, and I'm not going to kill it. I'm going to ask it to dance.

Go and Do Likewise

I don’t use them very much anymore, but I used to say a prayer of thanks every time I went through a fast food drive-thru. A literal prayer of gratitude that I was lucky enough to have been born into a life that kept me on the outside of that window.

I don’t scrub toilets for a living. I don’t pick up discarded condoms out of the backs of limousines. I don’t have to resign myself to the possibility of spending the rest of my life smelling the same floor cleaner every day. I don’t have to worry about shelter or fresh water, for that matter. A bad day for me is when my DSL connection goes down.

I feel fortunate because of this. I also feel guilty, sometimes, though I know it’s irrational.

Yet no matter how good the job, my most constant companion during the workday thus far has been a perpetual round-peg-square-hole sensation, that no matter how cohesive the team or stimulating the work, where I am is not for me, not long-term.

It’s not exactly a dissatisfaction, more a sense that it’s not what I was built to do, if you’ll pardon the determinism.

I met a woman in an Auto Zone parking lot once who claimed to be a prophetess. Mary was (and, I assume, still is) a die-hard evangelical Christian. She believed strongly that the Holy Spirit had given her the gift of prophecy. She wasn’t trying to proselytize, wasn’t insane or pushing an agenda on strangers. It only came up then because she felt what she believed to be a sudden stirring of the Spirit and began to use what she believed to be her gift.

I remember her looking me dead in the eye and declaring that I would one day help children. She fanned herself and smiled and shook just a bit and declared that she was feeling it strong that day.

I was in my early 20s, most of a decade away from having my first child. But she was adamant. Wouldn’t necessarily be yours, she said. But children. She was certain. It was strong that day.

Now, I don’t believe in prophecy, not as a magical psychic power. I believe a prophet is no more or less than a person who understands his or her own time and place perfectly, who sees what can and must change. That’s what John the Baptist was. That’s what Martin Luther King was. Hell, I could point to a long line of capitalists that fits the description. Certainly it wasn’t Mary, as she only knew my first name.

But what she said occasionally comes bubbling up from the depths of half-remembrance and I wonder if it will come true. What really pokes my poodle is wondering if it will because she indeed did have a gift, that of planting suggestions in perfect strangers’ respective heads.

My life and the Internet have taught me about one thing over and over again: my own privilege. I am white. I am a man. Damnable cruelty of aging aside, I am not difficult to look at. I am straight, I am thin, my gender matches my genitals, my parents could afford my college education, and I learn things usually much faster than the average person. I even attend a mainstream Protestant church, though my theology and ethics swerve pretty far left of the average Arkansan. Life, in short, is a goddamn golden goose for me.

Life owes me nothing. I owe life a debt of gratitude. Yet I do so little.

And then there are those people I am condescending enough to be grateful not to be. There are Mary’s words. And though I don’t believe in fatalism, there is that lingering question in my head: Is the sense I get with each new job that this will not be where I put down roots caused by this guilt? Can I even claim not to be a fatalist when I catch myself looking around an office where I am happy to work and thinking this is not where I am meant to stay?

To be dissatisfied with so much would be an unforgivable sin, were it not that I know that my real dissatisfaction is with myself, with my laziness and cowardice. I suspect I’d be happier if I did more. For all my liberal pretensions, I simply do not do enough for others, when the God I claim to believe in says it should be my whole life.

Anesthetizing yourself is much easier, of course. You merely start by saying the right sorts of things and getting angry at the right sorts of people. But the attractiveness of that option has faded, and my patience with myself is wearing thin. The trick will be finding something to do that doesn’t detract from my time with my wife and children, as I have so little to give them as it is.

Currently I work for a non-profit, trying to help doctors to provide better care for their patients. I believe it is very important work, good work. I’m going to start graduate school so I can become more of an expert in this field. Perhaps this will be the path to change. I hope it will, as I have no clue what to do otherwise. But more than that, I suspect (and hope) that this is only the beginning.

As for the children I was prophesied to help? Who knows. I adore kids, the smaller the better. I even made two of ’em, and for all my failures as a father, so far they’re all right, beautiful and brilliant little critters. I’d like to claim some responsibility for this. If I can help others as well? Name me something nobler, and I’ll do it.