Tuesday, December 19, 2006


I've been thinking a bit lately about my life, and how things have gone so terribly, horribly wrong for me over the last several years.

It's bad enough that my life is in havoc, but this doesn't just impact me. My screw-ups have been affecting my wife's life and the lives of our children for a long, long time too. That's hard to swallow. It hurts a lot to realize that, not only am I not succeeding as a person -- in almost any capacity -- I’m not a very good husband, father or provider either. I’m not sure at what else I can fail, frankly.

A lot of mistakes that I made can be traced back to when I was in high school, and therein is where my introspection has fallen as of late. I realized that, had I subtly changed the course of the direction of my life, and avoided some of the horrific mistakes I made along the way, maybe I’d be somewhere different by now. Maybe not, but I find it very unlikely that I’d have ended up here, in the situations in which I find myself, had I made just a few different choices.

I don’t know what happened to my brain during the years that I spent in high school, but it certainly didn’t function the way it does now. I can look back at the decisions I made and even today I shake my head and mutter “what were you thinking, moron?” I have no idea. I don’t know if I did then, either. All I can do is try not to duplicate those mistakes as I go through what’s left of my life, but the fact is, I probably won’t have the chance to duplicate those mistakes. Many of them were one-time-only, chance-in-lifetime sorts of things, and I indeed blew those chances royally. Those that I could have avoided or changed later I just didn’t, so in some sense, I suppose I did make them all over again.

It’s a damned shame.

I can sum up the things I want to change into a handful of events that, while they didn’t seem like much to me, were cataclysmic, calamitous decisions that had long-term, life-altering impact. All of them took place in a span of just a couple of years, too; perhaps the two or three years from when I was about 16 years old until the age of 19. By then, the decisions had crippled my ability to recover from them, destroyed what flimsy and pathetic “support network” I had, and I am still paying for them today.

I’m not in this alone, however; my genetic donors could have done more to help, but being that they’re not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree either, they couldn’t pull their heads from their rectal cavities long enough to see what was necessary. This, sadly, from people that are twenty and twenty-three years older than me. So, well into adulthood, they couldn’t find a clearer path to assist me than what they chose. Or, more likely, the desire to assist wasn’t really there to find another way.

At any rate, I can’t blame them. I have the pocketful of crumbled dreams and ashes of hope in my own hot little hand to attest to the wreckage I’ve brought upon myself. They were, after all, my mistakes, and mine alone. I have to deal with the consequences, not they; I have to try and find the alternate path, not them. This is my responsibility, my burden, my millstone to bear, and no one else’s. Except, of course, for my wife and children, who had nothing to do with any of this at all. They just get to bear the brunt.

If, however, I had zigged rather than zagged, had weaved instead of bobbed, in just a couple of situations I was in, I could be a completely different man. I’ve been down this road thousands of time before. I torment myself with wondering what life would be like if I had chosen differently just once, never mind in every one of those situations. I could have been, and done, so much more, I think.

On the other hand, there is the theory that we don’t actually have choices, only the illusion of choices. We can’t really make any other decision than the one that we made, and there IS no path not chosen, road not traveled, life not lived. There is only this life, this path, this road which is traveled, and no other. While at the time there seems to be a fork, there is in fact only undeniable, inexorable, inescapable fate, and we never had the chance to do other than what we did.

Theologically, I reject this idea out of hand and soundly. It’s ludicrous, because the entire basis for a relationship with God becomes a random, capricious, completely arbitrary selection process to which we will never be privy. Since the decision in the Garden of Eden, the choices have been there, and have played themselves out. While the idea of foreknowledge can confuse some, foreknowledge and predestination are separate and distinct ideas, if intertwined. I can go much more into detail on this, but I’ll allow that to suffice for the Internet. Want to know more? Go look it up. You are aware the Bible opens, aren’t you?

At any rate, Calvinism is not for me. Perseverance of the Saints, one of the five points of classical Calvinism, is about all I can stomach. The rest leads people to irresponsible and dangerous behavior that isn’t biblical.

Now then, where was I? Oh, yes; my misery.

I believe that, now, after all the years of thinking about it, reliving the years between ages 16 and 19 would right the capsizing ship. Of course, I can’t do that, but if I had a temporal displacement device, or if I could slipstream into the time-space continuum and speak with myself, that’s probably the time in which my efforts would be focused. It would be interesting to see if anything that I could say to myself then would have impact on me today. If I return from my conversations with my younger self and there is no change, does that mean that I’ve been ineffectual, that I chose the same routes despite being warned, or that there is no way to alter the past and affect the future?

Of course, the latter is true. There is nothing we can do to change the past and get the future back on track. This is what we have, and in that regard, the future -- or the present, I suppose -- is set. Like the time travel theory (if you want to call it that) in the movie 12 Monkeys, there is nothing we can do to stop the inevitable outcome of the choices of the past.

Which, of course, brings me to the future. As murky and uncertain, dark and foreboding as it is, it is the only timeline upon which I can affect any deviation. I can alter that timeline. I just wish, as I sit here and realize that the present has indeed crept into the future and the future has eroded into the present, I had some lantern, some dim candle, even a matchstick to light the inky blackness ahead of me. I just wish that, somewhere along the way, there was a method for piercing the veil that separates past and future, at least my own, such that I might see what it is I’m supposed to do and which road to choose. Even if there aren’t as many as there were once upon a time, the choices are far more frightening. Fewer choices equates to more dramatic mistakes, and less time to recover from them. If I haven’t recovered from those that I made a quarter of a century ago, and if I may not have a quarter of a century left to live, what chance will I have to correct the listing, sinking ship in that shallow, turbulent, violent sea of the future?

No, there is no way to see ahead. We can only guess, and do our best.

P.S. - Don’t even get me started on psychics. Have you ever seen the headline “Psychic Wins Lottery”? I haven’t either; case closed.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Yeah ... About that Last Post ...

So, it turns out that I really AM good at messing things up. And it turns out that God really DIDN'T fix it, after all.

The job fell through; actually, the recruiter's exact phrase was "retracted." The offer was retracted. I no longer have a long term contract with a large company doing work that will greatly benefit my career going forward. I have to start all over again, and begin the painfully slow process of searching for a job again. I know how little is out there right now; it's always that way for me at the end of the year. Monster.com is full of job offerings, but nothing for me. Recruiters are busy enough to earn THEIR paychecks somehow, but me? I'll be lucky to make rent next month. The month after that is doom.

Ah, nothing succeeds like success, eh?

If you pray, please do. If you don't, I'll pray for you. Thanks.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Patching the Holes

Okay, so I have a penchant for messing things up, and being a bit ham-handed at some things. Fortunately for me, I have a God who is great and sorts things out, making the most of even the things that I screw up royale.

That being said, I’ve made some decisions lately that I thought, after “careful consideration,” were good decisions. Mostly in the area of my career, if you can call it that. I’ve blogged before that I had what I considered an embarrassment of riches before after messing up my last assignment: three jobs were in the offering, and all I had to do was to sit down, examine them all, and make a decision. Easy, right?

Wrong. For one thing, I wasn’t really sure what any of the jobs being offered were going to provide in the way of career enhancement. Two of the three weren’t long-term, and the third was never assured. (As it turned out, they hired someone else, so it’s lucky for me I didn’t place all of my eggs in that basket.) While the long-term deal I wanted so badly didn’t come through, I had two offers that were viable, there-for-the-asking jobs and all I had to do was pick one.

Looking at both of them, I decided that, in the interest of future marketing, taking less money and a longer drive over higher wages and something that was infinitely better suited to me was probably a good choice. Now, I didn’t say that I was accustomed to making these kinds of choices; I’m kind of a rookie at it, actually, and usually end up taking whatever I can get. While that certainly isn’t an excuse for being stupid, it allows you to see that with two (and at that time, potentially three) roads to choose from, it’s easy for me to make a bad decision.

Okay, it’s not easy; it’s easier than it is for someone with experience in having to choose the best of two or three good things. Offer me a filet mignon, a prime rib eye, and a tender, juicy strip steak and the choice is akin to what I was facing here. Is that going to be chocolate ice cream, or rocky road? Ah, the choices! Decisions, decisions!

Now, this wouldn’t be a problem for most anyone else. I mean, c’mon; you’ve got one offer that pays more, is closer to home, is something easy to do and very undemanding (depending, of course, on the manager for whom you’re working), and wouldn’t look all that bad on your resume. The only problem is, it’s fixed at eight weeks. The other job is a lot farther from home, much more mentally draining (and some people like that sort of thing), and is a lot more high pressure, not to mention it pays less. But, it was doing something that (I thought) would be very titillating on the ol’ CV. So, weighing the options, talking it (to death) over with my wife, and trying to do the right thing for the long(er)-term, I chose the lower pay, longer commute job.

Like I said, I have a penchant for screwing up.

Yes, it was the wrong choice. I know how much I hate technical support, how sick of it I am, how demanding and exacting it can be. I know how stressful I find it, I know how tortured I am over it, how I lose interest in it (quickly), and how turning what was once a hobby for me into work ended up being a disastrous and tormenting decision (there’s that word again) that I made all those years ago. Nearly a quarter of my life has been spent working in a field I don’t like anymore. If I had just stayed the course, I’d be a programmer now, with about ten years experience and probably making a whole bunch more money than I am now. Of course, on the other side of that same coin, if I’d stayed the course, I’d probably be a physician now, and making a lot more money – and difference in the lives of people – than I am now.

As it turns out, I hate the job I’m doing. It’s not because I don’t like the place I work – I do, the people are really nice there. It’s not because I don’t like the manager I work for – he’s a good guy, and not that hard to work for at all. I feel a bit guilty, in fact, that I’m not farther along with his requests than I am. It’s just that I didn’t get a real sense for what I was doing until it was much, much too late. It’s basically hardware troubleshooting all over again; and I’m at a different level now than I’ve been before, because the “root causes” of the problems need to be determined. That means I spend a lot of time recognizing that I didn’t ever really get very deep into troubleshooting before, and that I’m probably not as good at this sort of thing as I should be after 10 years of doing it. I’m not anymore than a problem-solver; I figure out what’s wrong and fix it. I don’t care why it’s wrong, I just fix it. That’s not very good technician mentality; very good technicians want to determine why something’s wrong so that they can fix it, prevent it from happening again, and document the problem so that other techs can fix it too.

I’m basically lazy; while my colleagues were at home, studying hardware forums and exchanging ideas with other technicians, playing with new configurations and settings to determine what they’re for and what they impact, and setting up home networks and servers to broaden their scope of knowledge, I was getting laid, working on a novel, practicing my marksmanship on the firing range, and later trying to raise a family and scheming to make more money somehow. (That’s an incredible run-on sentence, and Word didn’t catch it.) None of that paid off, but in consolation, what they did probably didn’t get much benefit from their efforts, either. They’re most likely steadily employed, though.

In short, I’m not a geek. I’m just not; I was good at finding the problem and fixing it. And I wasn’t too bad at remembering that problem when I saw it again at some future point (depending on how much time had gone by). I wasn’t too afraid of dorking around with something to see if the settings could be made to work, and I was good at passing my knowledge on to other techs. But I wasn’t a geek; I didn’t live and breathe computer science and hardware. I didn’t really … well, care about that stuff too much. And as I’ve said in previous posts (you’ll have to read them all to see), being a tech really means you need to care about that sort of thing and work to stay atop it. Like my colleagues did.

So I hate doing what I’m doing, and I think it shows. I’m always allowing myself to get distracted with other things, most of which aren’t work-related, while I’m supposed to be working on figuring out problem root causes and documenting procedures, working to figure out how to break a software installation (yes, that’s right – BREAK it, after spending my entire career trying to figure out ways to FIX them) so that as many possible paths of eventuality can be mapped as possible for when that software is rolled out next year. I go into work every day, and try to convince myself that it’s okay; it’s really possible to do that, even though it sounds like an exercise in futility. Even though the combination of things that can go wrong is so impossibly huge that not even the creators of the operating system can give you every eventuality. Even though this isn’t my favorite thing to do and I’m overall pretty crappy at it. It’s all right, I tell myself, this is what you chose and what you do until something else comes along, hopefully soon.

The year is waning; the days are short, the nights are long, and the job offers are drying up and companies are starting to sit tight until next year. There is nothing on my radar. I’m going to spend time out of work again, in all probability, at the end of this year and the first part of next, unless by some miracle this job is extended.

As I fought my despair and tried to make myself feel like the decision wasn’t so bad, a man named Paul called me. I’ve mentioned this in other posts. He had a job offer. Something interesting. Something I would like to do. Something that pays more – a lot more. And something that will benefit my resume over the long haul. And, best of all, it’s a year-long contract, barring doing something incredibly stupid. You know … like I did on my last assignment.

Friday, things moved forward. I had a phone interview. I found out, in the course of that interview, that the decision would be made on the strength of that phone interview. I was on the phone for 35 minutes, and told that a decision would be made fairly quickly. Monday or Tuesday, in fact. Very encouraging, and very exciting.

When I heard nothing today, and knowing that the interviewer was speaking to another candidate on Friday, I assumed the worst. I always seem to lose out when the interview seems to go well, so why not assume that? It’s happened to me a couple of times already over the last few months.

At about 1:15 p.m., my contact Paul called me back. In his very English accent, he told me that he had good news.

You see, even though I have a penchant for screwing things up, I have a very great God who can make even my worst decisions work out somehow.

Thanks, Lord. I really, really appreciate what You’ve done here today.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Men and Their Bodies

It’s a wonder as many people get married as do.

Women are completely different creatures than men; by and large, they’re much less … let’s see, what’s the right word? … oh, I know – disgusting.

As an example, just spend a few minutes in a public restroom. I don’t mean a public restroom that you’d find in the mall, or maybe in a restaurant. I mean a public restroom in a place of business. Specifically, go find a potty in a place where there’s only one company. That’s the best example; if you find one in a place where there is a public restroom shared across multiple companies, then you get mall-like behavior. To really see what I mean, you want the bathroom in a corporate headquarters of a company, or in a building where only one company resides. That’s when you’ll get it.

I do my best not to use them. I have my reasons, but unless the need is really dire, I’ll put it off until I get home, or at least until I get to “off-peak” hours.

If you’re a woman, it’s obviously going to be harder for you to do this, but maybe if you’re feeling adventurous one day, you can sneak in when no one’s there and hide in one of the stalls. I don’t know. Or, just take my word for it.

I don’t know what the thinking is behind it, but men in a public restroom in their place of work are absolutely nasty. I mean, nasty.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate. I used to work for company that had the entire second floor of a three-story building. The company that owned the building had strict regulations in the lease regarding where we could and could not go within that building. We were allowed in the cafeteria/dining area, and on the second floor, period, and nowhere else, without prior approval from the leasing company, etc. Fine; not a problem.

So anyway, on this floor there were four restrooms: two for men, two for women.

In the men’s room, there was one urinal and two stalls.

Go into the restroom on any day after about 10 a.m., and atop the urinal, where only a man standing 9 feet tall would be able to reach normally, there would be urine puddles. All under the urinal would be puddles. On the wall behind the urinal, and beside it, were urine marks. Any day of the week, guaranteed. Someone there either had really bad aim, or was deliberately whizzing all over the place.

What kind of person would do that?

Pretty gross, huh? Well, it gets better. One day, I went into that same restroom, and the stench of feces was absolutely overwhelming. I couldn’t stand it. I covered my nose (and mouth to keep from gagging), and looked into one of the stalls. The toilet was clogged with dirty toilet paper, urine and the biggest pile of defecation I’d ever seen from a human. It was as if the individual gave himself an enema in the stall.

Of course, I left to use the other washroom. Ugh.

On those occasions when nature’s call will not wait until I get home, things get even more exciting. I never know exactly what will happen in that nether realm of the bathroom. I have laughed uncontrollably, wanted to weep with anguish, and been nauseated, all by staying quiet in the semi-private domain of the restroom stall.

There are times when I swore the person with me was going to have to have new clothing, because they excreted so much, surely they’d lost sixty pounds. Other times I’d swear the person was having a heart attack and needed help (I didn’t offer to help, of course, but my GOD man, what is WRONG with you??). I was certain in other instances that the person I was hearing was struggling against an opponent, wrestling and sweating, toiling with a task too great for any one man to bear.

What is the matter with these people?? Don’t they realize that those of us outside of their immediate family don’t care to hear that sort of – yuck?? We don’t want to know that much about you, dammit!! Stop sharing it!

The sounds that emanate from the stalls in a men’s room are horrific. And none of us are exempt; I can’t tell you how many times I struggled to keep my anus from blowing fecal raspberries into a crowded men’s room and failed – to my mortification. In those times, I wait patiently for the restroom to empty before shyly creeping back out, hoping no one would recognize me. Don’t ask how I thought they would recognize me. Distinctive shoes, I guess. And who’d be looking at my shoes while I’m in the bathroom? What kind of person does that?

Well, I do for one.

Yep, I’m guilty. I’ve more than once noticed the bunched up pants crumpled at the ankles of a sitter and noted the shoes. Later in the day when I saw those same pants and shoes again, I’d steer clear and try to avoid eye contact. I figured, if I’m doing it, others are too. So I try to keep my private and dirty bodily functions to myself as best I can.

I’ve heard men exhale loudly through flapping lips as they dumped their loads into the toilet, as though this were the culmination of a great effort. I’ve heard men stand at the urinal and let out a long, low groan like they’re having some sort of orgasmic experience by urinating. I’ve heard guys pushing and grunting with tremendous strain, knowing that if I could see their faces, they’d be purple and pursed from the expenditure (and was always so glad I couldn’t). I heard one man pushing until an explosion of material splashed violently into the toilet (and I’m certain it splashed back onto his buttocks when it hit), at which time he panted and heaved as though he’d hefted a huge burden from his shoulders (which, I suppose, is one way of looking at it).

They share so much that we don’t want to know, and they don’t seem in the least embarrassed or concerned that they reveal that much of themselves. They greet each other in the bathroom too, as though they’re in any other social setting. I hate that; I’m only in the restroom for one of two reasons, possibly both, and neither of them are social contact. Leave me alone.

I’ve also heard other, more disturbing things.

I was sitting once in a restroom trying like hell to mind my own business, when someone came in the door. Great, I inwardly groaned, just what I wanted: company. I heard the man step in front of the mirror. I didn’t know what was going on, but he was there for a short time, and then came back to the adjacent stall. I heard him drop the seat, I heard his belt buckle and zipper, and I heard him collapse onto the toilet. No seat cover used. I heard him rectally vomit into the porcelain pool; I heard the sound of toilet paper being taken, and thence used. I heard the man get up from the commode, dress himself, and go out of the stall. I heard him step back in front of the mirrors (hey, idiot, aren’t you forgetting a step here?), and after another brief time there, I heard him leave.

Just like that … no hand washing, no toilet flushing, and no concern whatsoever that I was there to blindly stand witness to the aural crime he’d committed.

I can’t tell you how many men I’ve seen and heard use the urinal and not wash their hands. It’s one of the primary reasons I don’t like to shake hands with anyone I meet, and it’s one of the reasons I’m about a half step away from becoming like Howie Mandell. Even someone born in a barn would realize how sick that sort of behavior is. For the sake of us all, in the name of all that is holy, please – PLEASE! – wash your frickin’ hands, jackass!! No one’s in that big a hurry, I don’t care who you are!

What if one of these vile pigs is your waiter? Or better yet, the person that cooks your food for you? What if it’s the person who assembles your hamburger at the Golden Arches or BK? At least at Subway they wear those ridiculously large vinyl gloves. I’m glad for that, frankly.

I suppose it could be worse … I suppose I could have to watch all these horrors and still try to get through a meal. Like some sort of spectator forced to watch the lions devour the Christians, I could have to watch the atrocities that are men in the bathroom. If they’re like this at work, what are they like at home?

Never mind … I don’t want to know.


Monday, November 27, 2006


I have a lot for which to be thankful.

I don't just mean for things like the roof over our heads, the fact that we're all safe and happy, well-fed and warm, etc. I am grateful for those things, and for my salvation in Christ Jesus, and for a myriad of other things I can't even begin to list here. But I mean I have a lot to be grateful for just this past holiday weekend.

Here's what happened to us over the weekend:

First, everything seemed to be going well. A bit of a tiff between my wife and I on Thanksgiving day, but nothing major. I don't like the way she cooks poulty and she doesn't like the way I like it, so there. I ate what I liked, left what I didn't, and we went on. Nothing big, and we had a wonderful meal. Lots of leftovers and some really great football to watch, although I wouldn't have minded some of the outcomes being different. Oh well, still a good day.

Friday was just rest and relaxation. Wonderful. I finally felt like I was rested and unstressed. Normally, it can take me a week to leave a job I don't like at work and be fully relaxed; this time, for any combination of reasons, I was able to completely unwind by Friday of a 4-day weekend, and that was reason enough to be grateful.

Saturday was fine, too -- to a point. We got up earlier than normal, and scampered about to go get family haircuts. My wife's is wonderful, and she's loving how it's turning out. My son always keeps his about a quarter of an inch long, and never waivers from that. I got mine cut. It was nice, and we left with a good portion of the day in front of us. We had a Sam's Club run to make, and after that, it was off for home with the children getting a bit tired and ready to relax at home. I was feeling the same way. So, we went happily home and as we pulled into our parking space, it happened.

The brakes on the car ground grotesquely with that metallic, crunching sound.

I've heard that sound before. Last time I heard it, the brake job that came with it cost me a ton of money and the car was out of commission for a good while during the repair process. My heart sank. My wife and I looked at each other; we'd both heard it. We knew the brakes needed to be done; we just kept hoping for more time. With my commute being so much longer now than it was in September and prior, the brakes just wouldn't be stalled any longer. At 2:45 on Saturday afternoon, panicking about the fact that my contract is going to expire at the end of December, I have to go out and find a place to fix my brakes on a Sunday during a holiday weekend and hopefully do it all in one day. If God is willing, it will only be replacing pads and maybe a rotor. The expense was frightening, but I had no choice; we need the car. It's all we have.

I started calling at 3:21 p.m. Nobody was open on Sundays. After four phone calls, I gave up. I'd have to book an appointment for Monday and miss work. No work, no pay; it was an ugly situation, but I didn't feel I had any choice. I stormed off in frustration to have a cigarette and just settle down. So much for quitting over the weekend.

My wife intruded on my internal soliloquy of anger. "Here's a place," she said. "They're less than three and a half miles away, they have a really super website, and they are open 8-2 on Sunday. See if you can get the car in tomorrow."

Hmph, I snuffled. How DARE she come up with a ray of sunshine in my gloom. I'll call, all right; and I'll rain on HER parade when it's ridiculously expensive and there's a minimum $500 charge for work on Sundays.

I did call; after speaking briefly with a nice young man, I came smiling and panting in relief out of the bathroom (or maybe that was from smoking, I don't know) with a new sense of hopefulness. I had an appointment at 8 a.m. to have the brake pads replaced and the rotors re-surfaced, and all of that was competitively priced with the national chains that AREN'T open on Sunday. Ah, thank you, Lord. Another bullet dodged.

Oh, I never mentioned to my wife that she was right ... of course. How could I? That would be ... well, that just isn't going to happen.

I opened my phone to check on the phone number I'd called; I thought I may need it if I had trouble finding the place or was running late the next morning. A black screen stared back at me.

"Hey, my phone shut off. What the ...?"

I powered the phone on, but then I heard the familiar sound of it shutting down. Confused, I activated the power again. The phone powered up, and buzzed happily at me to announce it was on -- but the screen remained black. Tapping on the back of the LCD, the screen would flicker back on briefly with each tap before going black again.

GREAT. My phone's display has died. While making desperate phone calls to find a repair shop open on Sundays to fix my car, my phone died. Just over two years old; they don't make 'em like they used to, eh?

The problem is, my wife and I fulfilled a two-year contract as of October. We were month-to-month with our carrier, and I didn't want to commit to another two-year contract. But to get a reasonable price on the phone, or to take advantage of any of the promotional offers the carrier is touting, a two-year commitment is required. So I had to bite the bullet and go get a new phone; but, while I was at it, I got one for my wife too, since buying one got us one free and with rebates, etc., both end up being free. Okay, so I'll sign up for two more years.

So now I have a car that actually stops when I step on the brakes, and a phone that I've wanted for a long while, and we have a whole lot more credit debt than we did on Friday. Still, I'm grateful, and here's why:
  • The car only needed brake pads and rotor re-surfacing. It could have been much, much worse.
  • The phone deal ends up being free, so after 6-8 weeks when the rebate comes back, we're back to square one with that situation. And if we have to cancel the contract, it would be about the same as the cost of the two phones anyway ... my wife says. I'll trust her judgment.
  • The brakes could have failed altogether, and while we were out and about rather than as I was pulling into the parking space. The kids could've been hurt; my wife could've been hurt. Any or all of us could have been killed. No, the Lord was definitely watching over us.
  • The costs aren't really as bad as I thought for either of them. And we got good, fast service on the car (I was only there for about an hour), and we had a GROWN-UP, who was COMPETENT, servicing our requests at the cellular store. THAT was a refreshing change.

Overall, it wasn't as bad as it initially seemed; it's just that things never come one little bit at a time. It seems as though when it rains, it pours, and the rapid succession of events probably made them look larger to me than they actually were.

In the end, I'm grateful. Our family is (seemingly) healthy, and happy. We love each other dearly. We like each other too. We enjoy time together. I'm working, and we're going to be okay, at least until the end of the year. We are praying and doing what we can between now and then to find something for longer-term, but for the moment, we're all right.

And this moment is the only one we have, isn't it?


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Life CAN be Simple!

Well, how do you like that?

Sometimes, things are easier than they seem. That's usually not the case; but for once in my life, something was easier than I expected. It's a rare occasion, when something is easier for me than I think it will be. It's happened before -- just not often. Most of the time, nothing's as easy as it sounds/looks/seems. It usually ends up requiring so much time, money or resources I don't have, I end up having to abandon the endeavor ... whatever it may be.

So, let me provide some background.

For the last several days, I've been asked to see if I can develop a method for using an external USB hard drive to store what are commonly referred to as "images" -- files created by disk-cloning software, which are exact duplicates of the source drive. For instance, you can create an image of your computer onto say a DVD or two, or a few CDs, and create a boot disk for your computer. Then, you can completely and totally erase your computer, and use the boot disk, the imaging software's recovery disk, and the image file(s) of your computer to put the image back on your drive, so that it's like nothing EVER happened. It's more complicated than that (see what I mean?), but that's the essence. So anyway, one of the groups at this company I work with wants to be able to have image files of the computers of their developers so that they can run tests, debug, install and uninstall, etc. -- and then be able to restore the computer to it's nice, pristine condition without ramifications. They want to do that by using this 300GB Seagate brand USB hard drive, and they want to do it by bypassing the local computer's Windows environment. This way, they can carry the USB drive to their desk and plug it in, boot to the USB drive, and image their local PCs with their computer's image file. Simple, clean, effective.

But, how do you make the USB drive bootable? Under normal circumstance, the computer looks to its own guts for devices to start up with; it won't look outside unless you force it to. That's the rub; how can I get this computer (whichever one it may be) to look outside of its internal systems to see something to boot to? Add to the challenge that I've never even HEARD of anyone booting to a USB device, or trying to, before, and you've got me walking out of a meeting knowing that there are a few things that need to happen, and not having a clue as to how to make them happen.

I'm given a "few days" to test this; I have to do the research, try it out, document the process as best I can, and then do it again. I was provided a laptop computer to work with, and then I was to use my own computer (the one here at work, not my personal computer at home) for desktop platform testing.

With wide-eyes and a lot of hope. I set out to accomplish my task. Everyone in the meeting was so impressed with me; I remembered what was involved with making a device bootable from the last time I'd done it -- nearly two years ago. Back then, it was as simple as making a boot CD, and creating an AUTOEXEC.BAT file (a batch file that executes automatically when the system starts up; it then calls other files and gets things rolling to automate processes) to do the things you need done. For us then, we created a Windows 98 boot disk, which loaded the generic CD-ROM drivers we needed; also on the disk was the image file we'd created and the executable (DOS version) of the imaging software we were using. We also, at that time, wanted the machine to load some software from a network address, so it was about making the bootable CD network-capable. It has to load the drivers for the network card being used, and then it has to log in to map the drive to the correct location. All relatively simple. We found "Bart's Modular Boot Disk" and used that as our basic network boot disk, making any additions and modifications as necessary, and then we scripted the batch file(s) that needed to execute. As I recall, there were either one or two that were called from the AUTOEXEC batch file. And, in addition, there were three of us working on it. That was back in 2004.

Today, I'm on my own. Would you like to guess how many times I've had to create network, or even NON-network, boot CDs since 2004?

None. Exactly none. I haven't touched that technology since 2004. Now reference my post from November 20, 2006. See where I'm going with this?

I have no CLUE how to make a bootable CD anymore. I have no CLUE how to edit a CONFIG.SYS file to call the correct drivers, or to edit the AUTOEXEC.BAT so it references the correct paths for commands, the correct drives for files, etc. I couldn't remember jack SPRAT about that, and after a few hours of digging into this, that became painfully evident.

The disks created for that company back in 2004 belong to that company; I don't have copies at home. No problem; I'll download the modular one again. Oops, the site's changed. Darn, if I'm not booting to a network, this is going to crash and have issues. Hmm. Okay, I'll create a Windows 98 boot disk and then just copy it to a CD. Oh wait -- I don't have a copy of Windows 98 anymore. Even if I did, how do I edit the CONFIG.SYS file so that the correct USB DOS drivers are loaded? What ARE the correct USB DOS drivers? Oh crap -- there aren't any. You can try one of these GENERIC ones and SEE if it works, but no promises. Just edit your CONFIG.SYS so that the ... crap. How do I do that again?? Damn!

Okay, time for more research.

No luck. All the documents I can find on the 'net say the same things: Make the drive bootable first, load the correct drivers from a CD or diskette, then use the drive that way. Most of them were talking about a pen or key drive anyway; you know, one of those cool little sticks you can carry around in your pocket-protector and whip out to impress your friends. Normal people use them for storing things like digital photos or for porting presentations back and forth to client sites, etc. Geeks use them to boot their buddies' computers and do things like load Windows XP on a 256MB storage device. How cool are THEY, eh?

Okay, this is WAY more about hardware than I EVER wanted to know, never mind have time to LEARN. Now what?

Day two: still no luck. Still lost at sea. Still stuck on this. Hope is on the horizon, though; I've located a utility that will allow me to format the drive as a boot disk! Ha-ZAH!! YEEEEEE-haww! Now we're gettin' somewhere. Okay, I downloaded the utility and installed it. I launched it, and there it was: HP USB Flash Storage Formatting Utility. It looked just like the format utility in Windows; the only difference was that the devices it detected were the USB drives attached. It saw the Seagate no problem. Wow, this is cooking along now! Woo HOO!

I selected the FAT32 file system for my drive. Selecting the NTFS file format disabled the option to make the drive bootable. Now, it prompts you for the DOS files you need. Ummm ... where did I put those DOS files again?

Back to the Internet. Search, search, search; come up with a couple of options. Try them one at a time, I suppose.

Okay, first, I make a Windows XP boot disk from some files I downloaded. I apply them to the (working) boot disk my wife made for me the night before (she's helpful like that). I test it. Seems okay. All right, now I can tell the utility to get the files from the floppy. Selecting that option, I proceed.

At first, I thought the utility was hung. It didn't seem to move. I checked on it about 15 minutes later, and it had FINALLY click one little progress bar farther along. Ugh. This is going to take some time.

So I blog, I do some more research, I check my email, and I check on my utility once in a while. Progress is happening faster now; more bars appear more frequently. Nice -- maybe it won't take that long after all.

Blog some more, post the blog, check my email again, text my wife. Smoke. Come back. Check the utility.

"Drive is too large. Format failed." The error message stares at me as coldly as a reptile, unfeeling, uncaring about the sinking heart in my chest. Windows won't do it -- because the drive is large, it wants to use NTFS to do the formatting, and that won't enable me to make the drive bootable. This utility, by which EVERYONE on the Internet SWORE (well ... for key/pen drives, at least), didn't work. WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?? Failure is imminent!

Go back to the Internet, and this time, I'm searching specifically for the HP Flash Drive Formatting utility. I get hits ... lots of hits.

It turns out there are two versions. Great. Just my luck. One version (the one I have) is version 2.00.006. The other version is 2.1.8 Rev. A, which I DON'T have. Okay, how do I get it? A few more pages -- stay awake now, dammit, this is important, even if it IS boring as all hell and loaded with technogeek speak! -- and I find that there are a few references on the web for this particular utility. On HP's website, the newer version is bundled along with a 45MB (!!) software package designed just for making their USB storage devices bootable and flashable (I don't even want to know). But some clever duck had found it on another page somewhere, and provided it sans all the fluff and stuff. That's the one I downloaded. Bingo bango bongo, I'm ready to try again.

I load it up. It's version 2.1.8 Rev. A. Beautiful. I launch the utility, make my selections, insert my Windows ME boot disk (don't ask), and I go off to deliberately not think about it. I check back after blogging, checking my email, and texting my wife. I go smoke, too. I need to quit, I remember thinking. I really don't like it anymore.

I come back and I chicken out; I found out that Iomega put out a utility a while back that not only loaded their drivers for making a flash drive bootable, it comes with all the files to make it a boot disk, too. I extract and run the program, and copy the files to the floppy. No errors; I guess the HP utility is finished with the floppy disk. Cool, now I can check my boot disk once the formatting is finished.

I check my progress.

IT'S DONE!! IT WORKED!! (Insert "Hallelujah!" from Handel's Messiah here.)

Okay, now ... I have to get the files off of the boot floppy onto the USB drive. Easy enough; now to test. I erase all the boot files from the Seagate, and load on the Iomega-provided files and utilities. I restart my computer, and I wait.

My computer boots right to the internal hard disk.

Whiskey tango foxtrot ... ?

Okay, try again. Go into the BIOS; enable every possible USB device. Change the boot order priority so that the HDD is last. Reboot the PC.



Son of a ...

Okay, now, I unplug the USB drive from my computer and plug it into the laptop I was given; I reboot THAT machine.

Errors. Errors out the ass. So many errors I can't even read them all -- they roll right off the screen.

ARRGGHH!! Okay ... now what? I run the system step-by-step. The problem is that the CONFIG.SYS file references static drive letters, and I have no idea how to change that. Son of a ...

All right. Go back to the floppy. Reformat; load on Windows ME boot files again. Plug the USB drive back into my desktop unit and reformat the USB drive as FAT32, use the WinME files from the floppy, and wait. When it finishes, I reboot. Nothing. FRICKIN' FRACK!! Remove the drive from my desktop, plug it into the laptop, and try yet again.

And it worked.

HUH?? WHA--??

More research.

Hours and hours of research, reading every line of every page even remotely relevant. I found HP's own discussion forum, wherein I discover that many people are trying to fix this problem with this Compaq product line, and there are a LOT of chimed in opinions. The original poster was saying that they couldn't get a model in the same product line as my desktop wasn't able to get the machine to boot to USB no matter what they tried. Did anyone have any suggestions? Several users all offer helpful tips; no dice. Pages upon pages of "no dice," in fact. Conspicuously absent from the discussion where both HP and Compaq reps. At the latest, as of October of 2006, no one had fixed this issue.

Well, isn't that just peachy?

I copy the GHOST.EXE file (which is the DOS executable of the imaging software I'm using) onto the Seagate drive, and reboot the laptop. It comes up perfectly, and I run the imaging program. It creates an image perfectly.

At about 4:00 p.m., my manager comes to me and asks how it's going. I tell him I've gotten the laptop done, but would need another desktop to finish testing. He says I have until noon today to do so before I have to return to what I was working on before. For the life of me, I can't remember what that was, so I agree and go home feeling pretty good.

Day three.

I come in this morning, and the manager greets me at about 9:00 a.m. He tells me he got approval to test on another desktop and we go and grab one from the storage area where the developers hide all their stuff. I set it all up, and the 19" flat panel that is going to be used with it. I know academically it makes no difference, but I don't want to take any chances here. It takes me maybe half an hour to set everything up. I make sure the USB drive's power is off, plug it in, and then power on the small form-factor HP desktop. When it comes up, I see it has the company's image on it from the IT department, so I go ahead and log in, then power on the USB drive.

It comes up successfully, and I check to see that all the files are still there. So far, so good.

Now, I restart the PC, and as it's coming back up, I go into the BIOS and set it up for USB booting. The BIOS looks a lot like the one in my PC, and I'm instantly concerned, but there are some differences. Hopefully functionality is one of them.

I reboot the computer after accepting all my changes and wait.

And guess what?

You know what. The title of this post says it all.

Sometimes you're good, sometimes you're lucky, and sometimes you just can't tell.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Losing it Slowly ...

I wish I could tell you why things slowly seep out of your brain and into the ether of life.

That's a sad, sad thing. I heard about a story once, though I never had the pleasure of reading it, by a brilliant sequential artist named Will Eisner. He's so brilliant, the Eisner Award is one of the most prestigious awards bestowed upon those working in the comic industry. At any rate, Will Eisner once wrote and illustrated a comic called The Spirit. It was about a '30s or '40s era crime fighter sort of hero. In this particular story, there was a man who claimed to have figured out how to fly. Of course, no one believed him, but he swore up and down he could fly. Finally, at the end of the story, he's doing his darnedest to try and communicate this information, but there's a lot of other stuff happening, and a gun fight breaks out. Just as the little guy goes to launch himself into flight, bullets assail him accidentally from the gun fight nearby, and he's killed. The secret of human flight dies with him.

Dark, is it not? But think about this: How much knowledge have you gained over the course of your lifetime? How much information -- and let me quantify that by saying valid, correct information (because your head is probably full of a fair amount of misinformation, too) -- have you stored up over the years that your brain has been recording? When you die, how much of that information is going to be passed on to someone else?

Now, in all fairness, you probably aren't holding the secret to human flight in your noggin. If you were, you'd be soaring all over hell and back, hawking yourself as the next great evolutionary step in human history and making millions from your capability. Don't try to BS me, and worse yet, don't BS yourself; you'd be raking in massive amounts of money on this if you could do it. Nevertheless, you do have valuable information in that quagmired little bog of synapses and noodles in your skull, and unless you're teaching it to someone, sharing it with someone, or at least getting the crap down on paper or some other long-term storage medium, it's going to be lost forever when you cease.

That's not always a tragedy, but sometimes it is. What if you're brilliant at one thing -- just one thing -- at which someone else would desperately love to be brilliant? You could share what you know about it with them and enrich the slipstream of human history with your own share of the content of human knowledge and/or wisdom. Your brain's imprint would be indelibly etched on the collective consciousness of humanity. You'd be a minor hero, even if unheralded, because of your contribution to the betterment of ... yadda yadda, you get the point.

It's hard for me to even say this with a straight face, but it's true ... sort of. I mean, we can all contribute something to the greater good, and leave the world a better place than we found it. It's not that hard. Just take the time to jot down everything that's in your brain about something you feel you can share with others. It can be a talent; it can be an insight; it could be a collection of wisdom gleaned from the years of living in this miserable little rathole we call "the world." It can be anything; something is going to be beneficial to someone else at some point in time. And you are the one that can make the difference.

The worst thing about it isn't just that it will vanish when you do, whatever "it" is; the worst thing is, it's going to slowly slip away from you. As we age, things tend to evaporate from our minds. We tend to forget things -- some of which can be quite important -- unless we are diligent or deeply blessed. I'm not just talking about the accursed and feared Alzheimer's Disease, either; I mean that your brain, simply put, functions very much on a "use it or lose it" sort of system. You have to practice the things you love to do in order to keep them fresh and at the fore of your awareness. Those things you don't do very often, which aren't ingrained in your memory somewhere, will fade away as you don't resort to using them very often. You'll recall snippets of information, flotsam and jetsam remnants and scattered bits of those things. But it's very much like trying to recall a tree by chasing it's dried autumn leaves as they skitter about the street on the wind. You have to exercise that wonderful organ that sits between your ears wondering why you don't use it more.

For example, how many of us have to pull out pencil and paper to do long division? It's hard to remember just what those multiplication tables were and work them backwards and forwards now, all these years removed from grade school practice, isn't it? I know it is for me; it's a challenge. I can't remember very much about high school algebra at all; I can remember quite a bit more about my grade school mathematics than I can about stuff I "learned" in high school math courses. Why? Because I use it more; we use what we're taught in grade school about adding and subtracting a LOT more often than we use the FOIL method of calculating quadratic equations, or finding the parabolic arc of a line given specific coordinates. So, those things have evaporated, at least for me, into the ether of the universe. They've been lost to the fog of my mind. Fortunately, I believe that if I found the refresher information and re-read it carefully, I could probably figure it out again. But if I don't use it on a regular (and, at least in the beginning, fairly frequent) basis, it's going to vanish again. Eventually, my brain won't work as well as it does now and I won't be able to recover the material; at least not completely.

Thus are the ravages of age; synopses don't close as quickly as they did once, or fail altogether. Cells die; information is lost.

We forget things. Some of them are important.

Like, putting in my time card for the week so that I can get PAID, for instance. Yep ... I forgot to do it.

Son of a ...


Sunday, November 19, 2006


My eyes opened and blinked in the bright, sunny room. The surface of my eyes felt like sandpaper; I tried to focus them to no avail. My impacted sinuses kicked hard against the front of my skull, and then my brain began to emerge from the fog.

Sunshine? At this hour? Wait a minute ... wait a minute ...

There shouldn't be any sunshine at this hour. What time is it?? What time is it, dammit!!??

I squinted cruelly through my protesting eyes, forcing them to see the soft glowing green digits on my clock.

7:28 a.m.


My heart exploded in a hormonal tsunami as adrenaline and a quivering rush of panic. I tore the covers from my body, swinging down my legs and heaving my bulk toward the bathroom.

Why didn't I hear the alarm?? Oh, sweet Lord, I didn't set the alarm!! Why didn't I set the alarm? How could I be so stupid?!? HOW AM I GOING TO GET TO WORK ON TIME?!?

I raced for the bathroom, but my body wasn't awake; I stumbled as my still sleeping toes dragged against the ragged surface of the cheap apartment carpeting. I blindly stuck my arm out to stop myself from crashing into the wall, but it was too late -- the back of my hand slapped uselessly against the drywall as it rose, and my forehead bashed into the corner. Yellow-white stars sparked through my eyes and I cursed softly through clenched teeth, fighting to keep from falling completely. I realized then that I wasn't going to make it; I needed to shower, shave, brush my teeth and do a plethora of other morning rituals before I'd be even remotely presentable in a professional environment, and I needed to have been on my way ten minutes ago to have any opportunity to make it on time. This wasn't happening.

I stumbled back to the nightstand, and pulled my phone from its holster. I had to call; there wasn't anything I could do about it -- I was going to be late, period. I'd have to let them know.

Oh, CRAP! I don't even know the guy's NUMBER! How am I going to call him?

"The guy," as I so unceremoniously referred to him, is my manager. I've been on the job just over a week, but I've only been issued a phone and a computer in the last few days. I didn't know my own extension, and hadn't been given opportunity to get to know anyone else's. I couldn't even call in sick. My heart sank again, and I knew I'd have to resort to desperate measures.

I paced quickly into the living room, still trying not to wake my wife, blissfully snoring in the warm, inviting bed. I'd have to call the contracting firm, and ask them to contact the manager. I didn't have any choice. I flipped open the phone to dial the number. What's the number again?

A black, dead screen stared back at me.

Normally, I don't have to charge my phone very often, but for some reason, the battery was completely dead. I hadn't thought to put it on the charger the night before. We don't have a land-line at all.

Again I swore angrily through my panic and clenched jaw, still staring at the blank screen. I turned, trying to remember whether the spare battery was in the charger, and headed back toward the bedroom where the chargers are plugged into the wall. There was a plastic crunch and I felt my third toe accordion back in unnatural positions, white bolts of agony ripping up my leg into my brain.

I danced that horrific and fascinating I've-stubbed-my-toe dance of pain, and cradling the injured and likely to be amputated foot in my right hand and my lifeless phone in the left, I hopped like a Simon-Says contestant to the bedroom. The green LED on the cell phone charger winked at me, indicating that the spare battery was ready. Fumbling and nursing my injured toe, I pulled the battery from the charger, then pawed at the one on my phone. It snapped free after much cursing and tugging -- along with the antenna, which rolled pathetically and uselessly into my lap as I sat trying to comprehend what was happening. That ridiculous Dunkin' Donuts ad campaign, with the annoying chorus "Alarm Clock Catastrophe," was mocking me somewhere in the back of my head.

I tried to reassemble the phone. I didn't know what I was doing, but somehow, the pieces went back together and I pushed the battery into place. I hit the power button. Nothing. C'MON, DAMMIT, COME ON! What the hell's wrong NOW??

The battery wasn't in place correctly. I had to pull it off and re-seat it, which took four tries.

Time! -- what time is it?? 7:36 a.m.

I audibly groaned. The phone toyed with me, and I swore at it, threatening it in the worst way I could think of, and slammed the battery back into place.

7:37 a.m. And counting.

My shift is scheduled to begin in less than an hour, I haven't showered, and I couldn't get my phone to work.

You son of a --

The battery suddenly collapsed onto the phone unit. FINALLY! I pushed the power button, and exhaled sharply through pursed lips in relief as the screen glowed and came to life.

Sweating blood, I watched as the picture of my son came smiling up at me, calmly, as though the phone had all day to power up. The vibration rattled my hand as the phone acknowledged that yes, it had, in fact, been powered up, and would soon be ready for use ... soon.

I watched the screen change in slow-motion, the pieces of the reception and status icons falling one by one into place. I didn't recall another time when the phone had taken so long to come alive. The personalized message I use as my status bar blinked, then held -- almost there.

Finally, excruciatingly, the time and date flashed across the status bar. The phone was finally ready!

The status bar read "Sunday, November 19, 2006, 7:38 a.m."

I hung my head and cried.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Friday - Wandering the Labyrinth of my so-called mind

Well, now isn't this an interesting development ...

I've been in tech support long enough to know a couple of things: you have to really stay on top of it to keep up, and I don't like technical support.

Technical support was interesting, fascinating, and easy at one point. There are a specific set of things that a computer had in it, there weren't radically different flavors of it, there weren't any discrete components, and not too many things could go wrong. When they did, it wasn't hard to figure out what it was and how to fix it. Over time, the operating systems for the computer became more and more complex, and hardware was quickly outstripped in performance demands. Soon, the computer became extremely complex, even though there were still only a few things you could have in them. Now those things come in all shapes, sizes, and with myriads of performance options and various controls, and each of those things is an area of failure. Hardware is now the weakest link in a computer's chain of operation, where it used to be the strongest. With as much as can go wrong with software, the hardware still can't keep up.

To be in technical support now, you have to know so much about so many aspects. It used to be easy -- if the software failed, you reinstalled it and off on your merry way you went. If the hardware failed, you pulled it out, put in a new one and off on your merry way you went. Now, who knows what's failed? It could be hardware, but it's not likely; it could be software, but reinstalling it may not be the solution because the operating system has spread the installation all over the computer. If the installation procedure sees that one of the files it needs to write is already there, it won't prompt you, and maybe it will overwrite and maybe it won't. Things are just so complex now. Troubleshooting a computer is a lot of work today, and I don't envy desktop or phone support people trying to figure things out.

The worst part, though, is that you're not allowed to just work on a problem anymore. Now, it's all about logging your time, how much time did you spend on what, how many tickets did you close, and matters that are either metrically or monetarily driven. When I was a new tech, companies courted me from all over the United States -- Boston, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, San Jose and the silicone valley, etc. Companies wanted to hire techs and maintain an army of support folks, because they knew the computers were their lifeblood as businesses. Now, there's no shortage of tech support people, and the only game businesses have to play is for how small an amount of money will they work. I'm not a hot commodity any longer, but I don't flex very far in my salary requirements either. I don't negotiate very much any more and I am actually not as good technically as many of my counterparts and colleagues. I don't care; if they want someone else, fine, go get them. I'm not interested in being a whipping boy anyway.

So, here I am, doing support work again. I'm trying to make an external 300GB USB drive bootable, and I've had to resort to going to the Internet for help. There's a fair amount of work done in the field, and that's good news. I've got a lot of help. The bad news is, I don't really care. It's just not fun anymore.

You know what I have fun doing? Writing code in VBA. I bet I'd like writing it in VB, too, but haven't really been brave enough to just dive in and start doing it. I've played, but playing isn't going to get me far. I've invested in books and actually worked through some of them, but VBA is so ready-made and readily available -- just hit ALT+F11 in any MS Office program, and BANG! -- you're in the VB Editor, ready to code. I find Excel especially relaxing to code in; it's fun to watch numbers and data move about on the spreadsheet. I've been working on getting specific data copied from one location on the spreadsheet to another, and eliminating any empty cells along the way, so that the column's data is stacked neatly and cleanly. Nothing particularly useful, but like I said, I really enjoy it. Now, it may be another matter completely for me to have to write code for someone else's use, and work out all the bugs, and do things that are kind of scary. Oh, and the deadline part; that whole thing kind of sucks too. I like methodically solving problems and making the code work. Okay, in all honesty, I like typing the code in and having it work without having to debug it, but that never happens.

The coding is cool because it's me and the machine. I type some stuff in, I click F5, and I wait for the error message. When it comes, I click on F8 and step through it until I see what blew up. I fix it. I hit F8 again and walk through the code again. Does it work? If so, great; onward. If not, DARN -- now what? And so it goes. No one bothers me, no one cares. And it's relatively easy. I found some old files I was working on when first I endeavored to write VBA code, and I realized how long it'd been since I'd done anything with it. I just opened the file, which was my first attempt at capturing user input from a text box and placing it backwards onto the underlying spreadsheet. The idea was to have what Excel calls a UserForm that would present the user with a consistent, easily understandable interface, and would gather the data and do things with it -- total up currency, write specifications into specific cells, and print up a receipt or invoice, that sort of thing. There were a lot of things that didn't work on it, but to try and figure out the best way to get data from the form back onto the spreadsheet, I'd made a tiny form with nothing but three labels (which display data/captions), a text box (in which the user would provide input) and a button (which executed the code to move the user data back onto the spreadsheet). It worked fine, but I was curious how I'd done the work, so I opened the VBE and took a peek.

I was appalled. My code was horrible to say the least. I had the user input passed to a variable (fine, no problem), which then passed the value to another variable (oooo-kay -- WTF was I thinking here?), and then the two variables were written into to separate spots (EH?? What's going on?? Are you sure I wrote this code?) -- into the spreadsheet and then from the spreadsheet to a separate variable that was then dumped into a display label on the form (HUH??? What're you, STUPID???). Ugh; I didn't get it at ALL.

So, I commented out all the code I'd created, then wrote new stuff. I took the user's data and put it DIRECTLY into the spreadsheet; then I made the display label show what was in that cell. Two lines of code; just two. No variables needed; no passing values around from right hand to left hand and back. Just BOOM. Do it. It worked fine. The form displayed what was actually in the cell, and the value from the user was placed nicely on the spreadsheet. Yay.

That doesn't sound like a big deal, but you know what? It is; it's a big deal because it shows that, somewhere along the way, something good happened in my brain. Something sifted down and into place, and it clearly showed that I was learning and understanding this stuff better than when I was reading a couple of books a month on it and trying to assimilate everything. I don't know why, but suddenly something clicked and I was a better VBA programmer than I was a year ago.

Of course, I've forgotten some things. I've stumbled across things (like finding the last cell with data in it in a particular row or column, for instance) and haven't been able to figure out how to do them, only to return home and find that I've saved a spreadsheet with that exact problem solved in it. Or that I was struggling with that same issue back in March of '04, or something like that. It's funny; it's almost like a time capsule. I can go backward in time (to a point) and see what I was working on back when; how I was progressing. It made me wonder what I'll see in my code five years from now, or even two years from now. Will I be as appalled then as I am now? Will I be programming still? I suspect so; I think I enjoy it enough to really want to work at it. I think it's enough fun that I won't set it aside, even when I'm not doing it for a living. Hell, I'm not doing it for a living now and I'm still pursuing it.

I wonder if doing it for a living would ruin it for me?

Anyway, I have a database file - it's a Microsoft Access database, if that's important - and I was working on this back in Sept. and Oct. of 2005. I never got a chance to finish it, for reasons I won't go into now, but when I look at that database, I wonder what might have been. I wonder where I'd be now if I'd just stuck with it (more accurately, had been allowed to stick with it)? I wonder what my skill level would be, where I'd be working, what my salary would be ... so many things. Perhaps nothing would be different; perhaps I'd have ended up here anyway, floundering for my next contract, praying every night as I fall asleep for the protection of my children, the sanity of my wife, the security of a real job. I suspect that, even if I had mad skills with VBA, I wouldn't be a full-time employee. In fact, most VBA contracts I see are short-term -- six months or less. Who knows? Maybe for the sake of steady work, this was the best path for me to follow. Only the Lord knows, and as far as I can tell (which isn't far, by the bye), He ain't talkin'.

So anyway ... I like programming. I also like SAP (that's "Systems Applications and Processes" for those wondering, and no, it's not pronounced "Sap" like the goo that comes out of a tree; it's "Ess Ayy Pee", just like it's spelled). So, imagine my joy when earlier this week I was approached by a young recruiter offering me a $10 an hour raise to do work in SAP, which would take me just a TAD deeper into it technically -- and probably increase my demand ration by 10, too! WOO-HOO!! FINALLY!! Yes, a $10 and hour RAISE -- as in $10 per hour MORE than I make NOW. I was elated, to say the least. Of course, I don't relish the drive to the location -- in excess of 30 miles each way in a car with more than 130,000 miles on it -- but for that kind of dough, I'll do what I have to do. I bet that it will add another half-hour or forty-five minutes to my commute. My wife feels it's worth it. I wonder if she's grown tired of me? That's a three-hour differential overall; three hours of my life irrevocably spent getting to and from work. Still ... it IS good money, and an opportunity like this is not likely to come along again any time soon.

Thus, I was happy; but they haven't gotten back to me, and that's usually a bad sign.

So, while I was wondering and worrying, I kept reminding myself that it would only be until the end of the year. Yes, it's possible that it could be extended in three-month increments for however long the client wants me, but that's not guaranteed. All they'd guarantee ("they" being the recruiting firm) is that it would be an end date of 12/31/2006 initially. That's the same end date I have here, where I am currently, doing a lot of hardware work and failing miserably at it. The money is still a draw, though.

Then, this morning, I got another call from an English gentlemen (he's been in the US for 4 years now, and loves it -- he found cars here to be ENORMOUS, and the roads WIDE, initially; now he has a Jeep Cherokee and doesn't turn left into the oncoming traffic any more) offering me a job doing almost EXACTLY what I was doing before with SAP (not a technical jump up, but still SAP). I told him, politely, about the other company, and he told me what his client was offering for pay -- a five to eight dollar an hour increase over where I am now, AND it was even closer to home than I am now (which is, by the way, about 19 miles, give or take). WOO-HOO!! A $5-8 per hour RAISE!! That's almost as good, and it's doing something that I know I can do with minimal training!! (There is a caveat, however; familiarity with "all aspects of SU01 is required", and that frightens me. I know how to use SU01 [it's easy], but I don't think I'd qualify as "familiar with all aspects of SU01" in anyone's definition.) Of course, I told him to please submit me at once, and I would naturally follow up with an email and my consent to work exclusively with this firm -- which coincidentally is located in Virginia, one of my favorite places in the world -- for this position. He was careful to specify that I wasn't obligated to work with this firm for other positions within this client company, just this particular job. I said that was fine. Then he dropped a bomb on me -- he said that this position was for no less than twelve months. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a LONG-TERM offer at last!! I had to stifle the joyous ejaculation that threatened to emanate from deep within me. I cleared my throat and casually answered that this was an acceptable duration. He appended with a standard line about how it could go permanent, but that wasn't guaranteed; I countered that, no problem, but it was guaranteed to be at least one year, right? And he said that was correct, yes, no less than one year. Again, I did the Cabbage Patch Happy Dance internally, and said fine, would he please submit my resume for consideration. He agreed to do that. I hung up feeling like there was a new sense of justice to the world, and I was happy for the first time in a while. In a good while, actually.

Now, time will tell. So to pass the time, I've done some programming today, and looked at some of my older code, and done things like that while I struggle with the problems I'm facing on this job. I'd like the record to show that I'm grateful for this job; I really am. I thank God in Christ every day for what I have, and I will continue to get up and get in here and do my best. But it's not what I love; it's not even what I like, and I realized how deeply this is impacting me yesterday when I caught myself in a deep depression. My wife's defensiveness at my depression (how that happened I'll never know) only made matters worse. But I've got a new sense of hope today, and I hope I can sustain it. Now, I leave it in the hands of God Almighty, to do what He wills with both of these potential offers. There are birds in the bush; we'll see if any of them end up in the hand.

And that's the end of that story for now. God bless, all!


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thursday - More Musings from the Neural Tangle

What a Week it's Been ...

There is so much happening for us now. I have a job, but I have an opportunity for a bigger, better, farther away one. I like the bigger (paycheck) and better (field of interest/demand), but not the farther away (this is plenty far; an hour or nearly each way is plenty, thank you). I leave that in the hands of He who does all things. It's not my decision, but I did throw my hat in the ring for consideration.

And our son has turned 5. "My son turned 5 just the other day ..." Heh. That's how it feels; like time is slipping through my fingers and the harder I clench my fists trying to clutch it in my palm, the faster the grains squeeze out and skitter away into eternity. If I had a way of slowing it, I would. Not so much for myself, but because I feel that my kids are rushing headlong into a world that probably won't welcome them with open arms. It certainly hasn't welcomed me. I was driving along thinking this morning (because there's nothing else I can do) and I remembered one sunny day when I was young. I guess I would have been in third grade? Maybe second; I don't remember now. It may have even been kindergarten, but I can't remember. I just remember being young. There I was, in my black horn-rimmed glasses, walking along and crossing a street to go home from school. As I was going away from the school, a much older boy was coming toward the school. He was tall, blond, and looked like a grown-up to me at the time. I really don't know how old he was, but he seemed very big and adult-like to me. I stared at him a bit, because I recognized him -- he was the older brother of one of my best friends.

He caught my gaze as I was approaching him, and I suppose that, shy and dorky like I was, I didn't smile or make any acknowledgement of him. I think I was under the impression that, if I knew him, he must also know me. I was in for a real surprise. He watched me watching him, and as I approached him, he snarled "What're you looking at, four-eyes??" He then punched me in the stomach.

I didn't fall down or anything, but I remember being a bit injured, and as I walked home, my eyes watered. I may have cried a bit from the insult, and I was stunned that he could be so mean for what I considered no apparent reason, but I didn't think I warranted being punched. I walked the rest of the way home wondering why he'd done it. As an adult, I still don't know.

My childhood is filled with all sorts of memories like that, and despite my best efforts to ignore them, they always seem to come back to haunt me. I've tried telling myself that those days are long past, and that I am not that scared and intimidated little boy anymore. In my twenties, I took great measures to separate myself from that little boy. For a time, I succeeded; I was not intimidated, but intimidating. I was not scared, but I could be scary. And I was not shy, but I was not welcoming either. I was someone to be reckoned with, a force that no one would dare punch in the stomach randomly for no reason without fear of reprisal. I was confident, arrogant, and I could be very, very mean indeed.

Time has a way of evening the playing field for us. When I was in my late twenties, I began to struggle with my weight. In my thirties, I got control of it again, but my physical presence wasn't what it had been. I never restored my body the form it had when I was 25 or 26, when it was at it's peak. Still, I had the potential to do it, I just lacked the discipline. I assumed, erroneously, that there would always be time for me to recover that physique, to work diligently at it. I just had to find the right time, the right motivation, and then pursue.

The problem is, it's nearly ten years later, and I still haven't done it. I'm nearly 16 years now separated from the sport I loved the most. I've grown fat again, and this time, I'm fatter than ever, and the recovery of what I once was may never really be possible again. I have two children now, and feel completely inadequate to protect them from evil, should the need arise. I don't feel confident, capable, sure and relaxed anymore. I'm nervous, afraid, shy and concerned about every eventuality. I've become that little boy who felt defenseless and vulnerable all over again, and God help me, I can't stand it.

How can I raise children to be sure of themselves when I am not sure of myself? I can't teach what I don't know. I can't demonstrate what is alien to me. I can't be what I'm not and expect my children to intuitively know what that should be. Even if, by some chance, they find that information on their own, it won't come without resenting me for not being what they needed. I know from experience, from the distaste I have for my own father. He was a failure as a father and as an example of manhood; the only male role model I had worth emulating was only a year older than I, and I couldn't spend enough time with him to learn enough to be like him. I even tried doing the things he did to try and capture some of it, to see if it would rub off on me. Of course, it never did, and it never will. How can it? It's learned over time, and in part, it's biological. My genetics are poor for this task; and I'm afraid my poor genetics may have been passed on to my own children.

Every once in a while, I get a flash of something that happened in the long ago, and I realize that the only thing stopping me from being that little boy all over again is the power to understand what happened and to make choices. But sometimes, when I'm alone, I still fight back tears in stinging eyes, because all of the effort I put into being something else is lost in the years of complacency, and I have returned to what I wanted to get away from so desperately. I grit my teeth and shout through tightened throat that, unlike that sad little boy, I don't have the benefit of a full lifetime ahead of me to recover what was lost. The grains of time slip inexorably through my clenched fist and skitter away into eternity, and that fist is so much more empty than it was when I was a scared little boy crossing a street on a sunny day so many years ago.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Wednesday - D'OH!

I don’t know; no matter how hard I try, it seems I just can’t make a good decision.

It’s not like I don’t work at it; I mean, for the first time in a long, long while, I was a popular commodity. There were three different companies jockeying for my affection, each hoping to win my heart over the courting of the others. It was a beautiful thing; I felt like a petite and blushing debutant emerging shyly to the cloying attention of my suitors. I felt downright svelte, I tells ya.

But, I had to choose. I mean, like it or no, I had to pick one; I can’t work at more than one place, even though that’s probably the only way I’ll ever make enough money to actually live and have money for retirement. (yeah, right; retirement. That’s one for another entry, though.) so, despite the LOVING it feel I had going on, and all the tingly warm-fuzzies that I was experiencing about being so popular, I had to decide where I was going to work.

The offer 3 is a no-brainer; it’s a long-term contract-to-hire (possible) job, and I just can’t ignore the steady income that I, and my family, so desperately need. So, that one’s the first choice; but it’s also the least concrete. The interview was Tuesday, and I thought it went well, but how do I know? I’m crappy at these things.

For the immediate term, however, I need to pay the bills, so I was looking at the shorter-term contracts and trying to decide which one would be the better choice. I was also obligated to consider that, if the long-term job doesn’t come through, I’d need to pick a job that would get me as far into the first quarter of 2007 as possible. I just had to; so, I wanted to consider a few factors other than pay and proximity, which are normally pretty high-ranking considerations for me.

The first offer was at a major pharmaceuticals company about 17 miles away. The pay was $1 an hour more than I was making at the job I just … mishandled. That’s a plus. It was only about 5 miles farther down the road, so that didn't seem too bad. It’s doing some extensive testing and documentation for a new software roll-out to the clients of this company, so that seemed like a plus, too – certainly, that wouldn’t look bad on my resume. Lastly, the name of the company alone, along with remaining in the “pharma” industry, should prove to be a feather in my cap … or so I’m told.

The second offer was from a financial services company of some kind; I don’t know specifically what they do, and didn’t care. They were offering a whopping $6 an hour more than the last company I worked for, and possibly as much as $8 an hour more. They’re closer to home, and it was doing something that I know I wouldn’t have minded doing, but wasn’t sure would benefit my resume much after the smoke cleared. But dang – that’s a lot of money. That would have been more money than I’ve ever been paid before, and I was sorely tempted to take it. Sorely indeed.

So, I had to decide. The young lady I worked with for offer 1 was really, really diligent. She followed up with me every day, she assuaged ever anxiety, and she answered every email promptly – then followed up with a phone call. The guy I worked with for offer 2 was clearly an older gentlemen; he too was terrific about follow-up, but he wasn’t so dogged in his punctuality. However, when I spoke with him on the phone, he really quizzed me about why I would take offer 1 over his offer. I thought carefully about it, and answered him as honestly as I could. He’d follow up later that night with an email. He also called me after business hours a couple of times, but I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. He was really nice; they were both terrific, and in the end, I had to weigh in on all of those considerations.

After much agony, I chose offer 1. I thought that, for the benefit of my resume going forward, I’d sacrifice some bucks. Besides that, the potential for going into next year simply didn’t exist with offer 2; it was a fixed duration with a budget for 8 weeks and 8 weeks only, end of story. That’s it; after that, no more budget. No more budget, no more job. I would be out of work at the worst possible time, right at the beginning of the new year, when absolutely no one is hiring. I was scared of that.

Today was my first day at that big “pharma” company. I found out that the world is smaller than I thought – I’m working for a man that held a job at a company where I was working about 2 years ago. Two and a half, actually. I was there for about six months, doing technical support working for the most bitchy, obnoxious, masculine, dumpy and living-in-mom’s-basement-nerdy woman I’ve ever met. I was pretty sure she was a man masquerading, but didn’t want to find out for sure. Anyway, that only lasted about six months, even though it was supposed to be permanent eventually. She coped the old “we have a personality conflict” storyline, and I was quickly sent packing. It worked out all right in the end, though.

So anyway, this guy worked at the same company at that same time. I remember him (vaguely), but don’t remember what he did there. Now, he’s in charge of getting this new software they’ve developed migrated from a DOS version to a Windows version, and he wanted someone to do the installation and testing of that project. At least, that’s what I thought.

Today, I found out that they really want someone that’s close to a computer architect, a specialist with documentation, and who can do all these wonderful things in the next two months. So the project is going to end at the end of the year anyway. After turning down more money, closer to home (by a lot, by the way – it took me nearly an hour to get there this morning, and more than an hour to get home), and a no-brainer for responsibilities, I find out that, not only am I having MAJOR doubts, if I don’t perform to their expectations, I’ll probably be dismissed for lack of performance.

So, do I sweat bullets? I don’t know; it’s not really professional for me to dump this now, but I’m really, really tempted to call back the other recruiter and find out if the more-money-closer-to-home gig is still available. If it is, I’ll ask if they can let me give two weeks’ notice. And if they can’t … well, I’ll have to burn that bridge when I get there. But I’m so, so close to making that phone call. I even remember the guy’s phone number.

I guess I’ll figure out what to do PDQ or suffer the consequences. It just seems that I always zig when I should have zagged; I also seem to make the wrong choices. And It’s not as if I didn’t weigh my choices carefully. I spent long, agonizing hours thinking this through, and thought that I’d made the best choice.

Once again, I’m wrong. Well, I shouldn’t say that definitively. But I do have to decide if I’m going to do something about this quickly, before I don’t have ANY options left.

Those who pray and read this, please pray for us. I’m still screwing up, somehow.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Thursday - More Randomness

I've always been a passionate person; fiery temperment, flaring emotion, barely-contained desires, soaring heights, diving depths -- you know. Borderline manic, I suppose. Well ... that's not really true, but you get the idea. I'm hardly your average, even-keeled sort. While I've always considered myself to be more intellectually bent -- and driven -- than emotionally, I can't deny the impact that my (often ungoverned) passions have had on my decisions, and perhaps the course of my entire life. I'm not adept enough at recall and analysis to tell you for sure, but, off the top of my head, I can name no fewer than 2 decisions that were driven by passion ... and had dire outcomes.

The consequences of those decisions are still impacting me today. I can safely say at this point that they will have permanent impact on my life; the course of my life was altered and cannot be changed back.

So, while I have often claimed the high-road of "intellectualism" as my governing force, and reason as my primary guide and steering device, that isn't always true. And when I have allowed my emotional fury to dictate my actions, I suffered the consequences ... sometimes very dire ones indeed.

Obviously, not all decisions have lasting impact, but all of them do have ramifications. I'm not always aware of all of those; the ones I can see vary in their severity.

My point in bringing all this up is just that, in my day-to-day functioning, I've been a person of extremes. That's sort of funny, because I don't like extremes in most other areas of my life. I don't like extremes in weather -- the deep, arctic cold of the midwest is a lot for me to digest each and every year, and it's duration is hideous. The summers aren't any better, either; they're sweltering and oppressive, with high humidity coupled to stifling temperatures, the combination of which is awful and has taken life. The autumn and spring are my favorite times of year -- soft, gentle days with low humidity and delicate, yellow light or, my personal favorite, heavy gray skies. I especially love fall, though; the richness of the colors, the feel of the crisp air, the gentle rains, the smell of the moist, earthy woods. I love it. I wouldn't trade autumn in a rural, wooded area for anything.

I don't like extremes in traffic, either. Nothing is as big a stressor to me as traffic. I've gotten better at accepting it over time, but I still don't deal with it well. I don't like extremes in fashion, or music, or pretty much anything else. I like my food to be good (which is much more difficult to achieve than it sounds), I like my cars reliable, I like my movies entertaining, and I like my stories and fantasies to be engaging. I don't like extremes; I've never turned on the TV because I wanted to watch something "mindless" or read a book so I could "shut my brain off". Never.

At the same time, I don't like mediocrity either. That's a bit of a contradiction, I suppose, but I expect very high standards from almost everything I do or am involved in. I want to be the best, and have the best, and be around the best. I'm not the best at anything I've ever done or likely will do, but I still strive for it in all that I do. At least, I strive for MY best.

I've been described as "stormy" (a favorite of mine) in nature and temperment. I'm not exactly sure what "stormy" is, but I didn't mind the image it conjurred up. (Think a raging sea, flashing lightning and crashing thunder, frothing waves and a battered, creaking ship traversing them.) The problem with that is, I tried to live up to it at some point (rather than just being myself) and it became a problem. I got too extreme about it, in short.

So, if I dislike extremes so much, why am I such an extreme individual? I'm capable of going from the height of joy to the depths of despair in an amount of time that would absolutely astound many people. I can be as cold and calloused as a career hit-man, and yet I can love with all the depths of my soul, with my whole being, pouring every ounce of self out for the sake of the relationship. That's cost me dearly more than once, too.

I want stability and security in my life, in particular where finances are concerned; I want things nice and steady where my parenting is concerned; and I love the security and safety that's come in my marriage. But I'm still extreme in my nature. Can it be that I just despise what I am and don't recognize that?

Yeah, maybe ... or maybe I just don't have as much self-control as I fancy. Maybe I'm just immature. Maybe I AM manic depressive, but it's a mild case. I don't know. Most of the time, I don't care. But I'm sitting here writing this stupid blog because I messed up -- AGAIN -- and didn't let my brain control the ship. That lead to my making mistakes I shouldn't have made, and the consequences have again come back to haunt me. And it's entirely possible that I'm going to have those consequences follow me throughout my career. I pray it won't, but I can't be sure.

What in life IS certain?

As far as I can see, nothing. Things are getting extreme everywhere, and there's no sign of it letting up or improving any time soon. If I don't stop letting my emotions and my "passions" -- or whatever it is you want to term it -- make decisions for me, I'm going to be perpetually sorry and wonder how it is I've ended up wherever I end up. For the record, the aforementioned mistake was not one made in a passionate state or governed by emotion rather than reason; it was just stupid. No two ways about it; it was just a failure to engage brain. Period. Most of the decisions I've made that were emotionally- or passion-driven have, however, wrought similar results. There is only one decision that I made emotionally, in a fire of passion and desire, that I do not regret in any facet.

Marrying my wife.