24 September 2002

I have not observed men’s honesty to 
increase with their riches.” — Thomas Jefferson  

I have just finished browsing through what is probably the most honest, although astonishing admission ever to reach me from a writer.

On the celebrity news site, "Page Six," a small item about author Stephen King's response to an interviewer asking him if he'd miss publishing. Here is the response he gave:

"STEPHEN King has no qualms about quitting the writing business. Asked if he would miss the rush of seeing a new novel come out, the horror-meister replied, "Absolutely not. Would I miss that?
What? I mean, I'm going to Detroit this time to sign books at a Wal-Mart. What a thrill! Are you kidding?" King, who recently announced that he won't release any new work after the final volume of his "Dark Tower" saga comes out in 2004, isn't worried about disappointed fans. "Hey, there are people in hell who want ice water, too."

He's willing to turn his back on fame, fortune, and men's eyes, apparently in one grandiose, fell swoop. Not that he needs those things -- he's got enough money to last through several lifetimes by now, and after so many publications, surely his hide is thick enough to withstand the brickbats of unappreciative critics and hecklers. As for fame, well, his reputation, whether he likes it much or not, is surely well-settled, and there's hardly a place on the planet he can travel where people don't recognize his name.

His comment about the people who want ice water rankles me. How dare he. A writer who has a convincing, deep command of the language, and these are the words he chose to justify himself to the world? Why couldn't he have said, "I'm tired of writing for others. It's time to simply write for myself," and left it at that?

Honest or not, his off-hand insult stings me, particularly since he has so much of what I want for myself -- readers, reputation, rewards.

My impulse, which I've thwarted, is to write him a note. "Dear Mr. King, I wish I could get a refund for every cent I spent on your words. I wish I could get back the minutes I spent reading those words. And most of all, I wish I had a bellows to fan the flames on the day you sit in Hell wishing you had a cold glass of ice water. Sincerely, R.B."

Not that it would matter -- he clearly doesn't intend to validate himself based on anything I think. But I'm telling you, nobody in Hell is going to want ice water on the day I invest another nanosecond in Mr. King, ex-writer and ingrate.

Excuse me. I'm feeling cold and thirsty. I think I'll go burn a few useless books and drink ice water as I do it.


02 September 2002

We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing
it in full.
  -- Marcel Proust

I have finished fifteen hours of grueling, mind-bending work at a dear friend's home. I downloaded, installed and configured virus-checking software on her Thinkpad, and also on her darling's Presario.

Once installed, I ran full scans on both machines, and discovered both were infected with Trojan polymorph viruses, the ever-popular "W32/Magistr.A@mm" and its nasty and even worse little variant, "W32/MagistrB@mm." If you ever feel like having your hair stand on end and your toes curl up, go have a look at the documentation on what those viruses will do to a computer if ignored. They deliver the worst kinds of payloads imaginable, including erasing hard drives, overwriting disk sectors, writing to flash and BIOS memory, and then propagating themselves out to ten of your dearest friends via self-generated stealth emails.

My friend might never have discovered her machine was infected, had her darling's computer not shown signs of peculiar behavior first. He complained of a general slowdown in performance, and occasionally, his desktop icons would "dance" and "escape" from his cursor. She worried, and since I'm the technical guru in our circle, she asked me if I thought something might be wrong. Adding to the concern was the fact that her darling, an artist on the verge of a cyber-festival showing in a couple of weeks, had never installed anti-virus software, nor had he ever performed a backup of his data. He was working entirely without a net, and in her opinion, the tight-rope was definitely dangerously frayed. "Please come over," she said. I went.

What I discovered was that my friends' ignorance could have proved costly, indeed. His machine had little time left before the final payload was going to shut him down permanently, and she so seldom used her Thinkpad, it might have died the very next time she booted the machine, and she'd have never suspected a thing. Scary stuff.

My task list included disinfecting the machines, consigning the files we could not cure to the quarantine area, at least until I can figure out how to fix or replace them, and checking all known haunts for the virus' residual activity. I also scanned every diskette, zip disk, and CD-ROM disc we could put our hands on in the place. Once the de-lousing was complete, I configured the virus scanners to check and certify every piece of incoming email, every new file arriving on the hard disk, and every shred of media that enters system memory. In return, they have promised me they will invest in backup utilities and devices, so I guess they learned something from the experience.

Fifteen nerve-wracking hours, over one spanned day, and there were times when I couldn't get the machines to re-boot after the anti-virus installation. Sweat was a normal actvity in my vicinity, even though tempers remained even. They trusted that I could help, and save them from a disaster. I wish they'd trusted the software makers, even half as much as they did me. If it sounds like a good time was had by any or all, you're a candidate for serious therapy.

In all the time I've been writing here, I've resisted putting links to other pages. The time has finally come. The anti-virus manufacturers who have earned the gratitude of my friends--and me--are GRISoft, Inc., manufacturers of AVG 6.0. They made it easy, effective, and best of all, completely, unconditionally free, on several operating systems and platforms--there's no excuse for not protecting yourself from a hacker's malice. If you don't have anti-virus software installed, you're tempting the devil, and it's your own fault. The only genius at work last night and today was that of the anti-virus application, no matter how much praise my friends are willing to heap on me. I told them, "Given what I found on your systems, they should call that software AZT, instead of AVG."

It's late. I'm tired. My brain -- what there is left of it -- hurts from so much extended concentration.

Excuse me, I'm going to dip myself in disinfectant and go to bed.


20 August 2002

The end of all scribblement is to entertain."
   - Jonathan Swift

I had a sobering moment at the local bookseller's today. Let me give a little background information here. I write a regular newspaper column about journalers, focusing on topics and issues, rather than on the mechanics and how-to-do-its. Week after week, I slog through published journals, some dating back several hundred years, searching for common themes. I excerpt small bits, and then weave them together into a brief rumination on said themes. Normally, I stay away from offering advice about keeping a journal -- the market's saturated with articles, columns, and advice on that matter by plenty of people with considerably more qualifications than I possess. Instead, I offer up tidbits of commentary on the lives writers have led, and I try to frame the writing in some context that makes sense to local readers. I've been told my column is serving its purpose, and that readers are enjoying it, even as they learn something.

I'd recently read one of Virginia Woolf's diaries (the collection is one of my all-time favorites). In it, she made some off-hand remarks about how it was time to have the loose sheets packaged up and sent to the printers for binding. She was in the habit of writing on single sheets, piling them up, and then creating the "journal" after the fact. This is a similar thing to what Julia Cameron suggests journalers do with "morning pages" in her wonderful book, "The Artist's Way." I've been writing morning pages for several years, but I've always had pre-fabricated journals for them, rather than the loose pages. My latest contrivance has been to make my own blank books: I buy stationery I love, then take it to a printing press, where they obligingly cut, shape, cover, and bind the sheets into blank books made to my precise, demanding specifications. I've always thought the blank books and sketch books you can buy in stores were somewhat expensive, particularly since I'm in the habit of filling up seven to ten pages every day (only the first three are morning pages, mind you). Over time, it adds up.

So, today I decided to see what was available in the bookstore by way of blank books. I didn't have anything specific in mind -- I even considered that if warranted, I might include some information in my next column about the sizes, costs, and options (ruled, unruled, gridded, weights, covers). After all, I've been writing the column for nearly a full year -- surely by this time, a few people might want to know how and where to acquire the materials for journaling. Did I ever get a surprise.

Instead of blank books, what I found on the shelves were mostly "tutorials" for journaling, covering a variety of topics and themes. Gardening, gratitude, grandmothering, spirituality, weight control, book/movie/music reviewing, feminism, teaching, travel, illness, writing, and a host of others, all designed to step the neophyte journaler through from the first page to the last. I was flabbergasted. 

All I could think was, these aren't journals, these are specialized self-help books masquerading as journals. Some even had full pages of photographs and paragraphs and inspirational quotes designed to lead the writer through the thought process which might result in a paragraph or two about him or herself. Sort of a "paint-by-numbers," using words.

Most significantly, the only words in my journals are mine, unless I consciously choose to quote somebody else. All the pages in my journal are unmarked until I put my pen and thoughts to them. 

Nobody else's ideas invade my privacy as I write. All I can say is thank heaven for web logs, where anarchy and freedom of thought still have a toe-hold. I'm hoping the "tutorial" journals are a passing fad, and will soon end.

Excuse me. I have to find my pen. Blank pages are beckoning me.


19 August 2002

"Go, and catch a falling star,
   Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me, where all past years are,
   Or who cleft the Devil's foot."
     - J. Donne

I was at a birthday party last weekend. Since it was such a lovely night, we decided to move ourselves outdoors, where we could enjoy the perfect summer night and the stars. We had a wonderful time, with good food, good drink, light-hearted conversation, gifts, candles, and cake -- all the magical things that make cherished memories between old friends. This was a special gathering, for several reasons. It was the first time we'd gotten together as a group since I returned from my trip overseas, and everyone wanted to hear all about the journey. It was the first time we impulsively decided to abandon the comfort of the beautifully appointed table for the rustic pleasure of dining outdoors. It was the anniversary of our twentieth year of having such get-togethers. It marked the event of our entry into the third age -- the birthday we celebrated was the seventieth for our friend. It was the first night of the annual celestial fireworks known as the Perseids.

As our evening wore on, I happened to look up at the stars through the thick canopy of trees surrounding the lawn. To my great amazement, within a ten-second span, I saw three enormous trails of light as stars fell across the inky sky. At first, I didn't realize what I was seeing, and remarked, "Oh, look! Fireworks!" Our host remarked that fireworks were illegal in this town, and then his wife said it was probably just the meteor shower. For the next hour, we sat together in the middle of the lawn, gazing intently at the sky, our conversation pleasant and desultory as we waited for the next trail of glory to light the firmament. Ever since people have been watching the stars, this show has gone on. I've read that the shower rate for the Perseids has been measured as high as 200 per hour, but is more common in recent years at 40 to 60 per hour. We probably saw 10 in the hour we sat watching, but that was undoubtedly due to our location, and the nearby presence of neighboring ground lights. Still, it was a wonderful show.

At the end of the hour, it was late. We gathered up our things, made our goodbyes with embraces and kisses, and drove off to the various towns where we each now live. As I drove, I decided I wanted to find a really dark, open space in which to watch the meteor shower. I wasn't at all sleepy, and according to the astronomers, the Perseids weren't going to peak until well after midnight. I wasn't tired, so I began my search for a viewing field.

I drove nearly 75 miles before I gave up and headed home. I zigzagged through the small towns and country roads, scouted out football fields, parks, and commons. What I discovered is that darkness and open space are a rare combination in this day and age. Every place I went had either one, or the other, but none had both. Most, in fact, had neither. Even at the late hour, electric lights blazed their halogen, neon, fluorescent, incandescent glows upon the roads, the trees, the houses, the buildings. The lights obscured the stars, taking the places of the stars themselves.

This struck me as odd. When I was in Indonesia, not a night passed when I did not stand outside my bungalow for a few minutes at least, staring up at the star clusters and galaxies of unfamiliar constellations. There, I'd felt close to the universe, and the gods. Here, I felt earthbound and constrained.

I went into my house, wondering who decided it was necessary to blot out the darkness, to never give the stars a chance to entertain us.

Excuse me. I need to publish this page, before there's a power outage and the lights go out, leaving me in the dark.


08 August 2002

"Pay as much attention to the things that are
working positively in your life as you do to those that
are giving you trouble."
   - Life's Little Instruction Book

A friend and I were having conversation over dinner the other night. The last time we were together, she was edgy and anxious. She was doing a great deal of soul searching, and in the course of her investigation, she experienced no small amount of existential angst, which she oozed from every pore of her body. She told me that she felt like she'd been turning over rocks, hoping to find jewels, but instead there were only scorpions, serpents, and other nasty things waiting for her. She told me her biological clock was ticking loud, and she felt it was impossible to ignore. She agonized over everything, and it seemed to me she was digging herself a pretty deep hole into which she planned to throw herself. I did what I could to calm her, reason with her, and offer her options I thought might be reasonable, given how she saw her own situation. You're smart, I said. You're able to travel, I said. You have friends, I said. You're a survivor, I said. Give yourself a little freedom and leeway, I said. Shift your focus. Try to look at the things you think are problems from a completely different perspective. See what you come up with. She was reluctant, but agreed to try.

That was before.

The woman who sat across from me at the dinner table was vibrant, confident, secure, laughing, and obviously happy. I didn't think it could be solely the result of me being back in the States, so after telling her how glad I was to see her in this state, I asked, "What was the miracle that brought about all this wonderful change in you?"

She answered, "No miracle. I did what you said. I started looking at what was going on in my life, but not just at the stuff that bothered me. I looked at the good stuff, too." She went on, "I have a great job. I work with wonderful people, doing something that is fun, and they pay well. I'm not in debt. I'm having a good time in my classes, and I'm learning a lot. It's a beautiful summer. I'm getting along with my family. I'm healthy." She ran a hand through her hair, then sighed, "I guess I just decided it was time to stop with all the whining. I was getting tired -- it takes a lot of energy to be miserable, you know."

Yes, I do know. And I also know that plenty of people continuously throw away opportunity after opportunity, day after day, year after year, because they are utterly exhausted from the energy it takes to be miserable. Nothing materially had changed in my friend's life; what changed was her perception. She moved to a spot inside herself and decided to take a look from the inside out, rather than the other, more usual way. What she discovered was that she really didn't have a reason to be unhappy. Her attitude toward herself shifted, and her life improved, almost immediately.

I'm no Pollyanna, but I am a firm believer in the powers of prayer, meditation, and positive thoughts. 

The salutory effects of giving yourself the gift of any one of the three cannot possibly be overstated. 

I'm glad my friend listened to me, and better still, I'm glad she listened to herself. She's better off for it.

Excuse me. I think I want to find a mirror, and give it a smile.


02 August 2002

"From error to error one discovers the entire truth."
  - S. Freud"

Bias and prejudice creep up on us in the most insidious ways. We calmly go about our business, wending our way through the myriad contortions our lives afford us, and the whole while, we are being conditioned. That's a passive sentence, and it's a passive act I'm describing. I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible to be so vigilant at all times I can completely escape unscathed. Try as I might, I simply can't seem to avoid it.

What's brought on this observation, you ask? Why, my most recent discovery about the biases and prejudices I have held unknowingly all these years about what it means to be famous. I also had a dash of rich thrown in for good measure, but that's a different story. Now that I have had my fifteen minutes, I can't imagine how I could have been more wrong. It wasn't the thrilling romp I expected -- and I was completely unprepared for the reactions of my family. The people who hold me dearest in their hearts -- my mother, my sister, my husband, my kids, my friends -- have treated me as if my celebrity was something for which I ought to seek out medical treatment, rather than something to, well, celebrate.

My husband, in particular, who weathered this particular high sea in the marital ocean has been relatively subdued, and on occasion, sour about what came to pass. This, even though he gladly partook in every sybaritic, heady pleasure that was aimed my way over the past month as a result of my achievements. When once our photographs appeared in a newspaper heralding my little triumph, he remarked, "Hah... that's funny. They didn't even write my name in the story." By the end of the month, he was roundly tired of being identified everywhere we went as "Mr. Bilateral," and made a point of correcting people who made that mistake.

But back to my own mistake. I discovered that my accomplishment overshadowed me completely, and engulfed all possibility that anyone might want to discover the truth of who I am, irrespective of the thing I did. I was pampered, petted, indulged, and glorified. A lesser person might have succumbed to the unthinking praises and believed herself actually deserving of extra or special treatment, when in reality, what I did was no more wonderful than what hundreds of thousands of people bring about every day of their lives. The only difference between me and those people was that some deus ex machina known as a judging panel singled me out as the recipient of a significant prize. Granted, I did create the thing for which the prize was awarded, but frankly, the seeds for the thing were already germinating within me, regardless of any awards or riches. The competition only accelerated something that might have happened without any encouragement from anyone.

I now understand why actors, rock stars, and the nouveau riche all present the odd mix of entitlement and embarrassment they frequently do. It's because deep down, they don't understand what they've done to deserve all the attention and rewards, and they feel fraudulent, accepting love they're not certain they've earned. I gained some insight into this through my own experience. After the 50th person asked to touch my left hand "for luck, please," I felt separated from the rest of the world. I'd become a popular icon. I realized that this phenomenon would last only as long as the media made much of me. The realization frightened me, as it must frighten every rational human being to whom it happens.

I don't envy the famous, having had my small share of it. It was more than enough for me.

Excuse me. I have to go pay some bills. I wonder if the creditors will want to save my autograph?


25 June 2002

"Ain't nobody here but us chickens..."

In fewer than three hours, I'm on my way to the other side of the world. I have packed, re-packed (you don't want to know about this, trust me), and winnowed my life's possessions for the next four weeks down to one goodly sized suitcase (it's sort of an enormous duffel-bag thing), stuffed as full as I can get it, and one carry-on backpack, full of paper, pens, ink, journals, books, and battery-operated electronic organizers. I'm as ready as I'm going to be, and I keep telling myself, it's only four weeks, it's only four weeks. I'm taking on faith that everything I need on the road, I can buy. What I can't buy, I probably don't really need.

I'm suffering from computer withdrawal syndrome, too. I've put my email on vacation notice, set my group memberships and listservs to the "nomail" option, and set a forwarding message for people who are desperate to reach me of how they can get in touch. I have web-based email I can use once or twice a week -- I'm not going to the moon, after all. But I won't have the internet as my companion for coffee in the mornings, and I won't be cruising the cyberverse, seeking out the beautiful, the unusual, or the wonderfully weird on anything like the regular basis I now do.

I'm excited about the trip -- which I was awarded in a contest -- but I'm depressed at the leave-taking on so many levels. I'm putting my life on hiatus, while I go off somewhere else to live my life. It just doesn't seem right. I wish I had more room in my bags, to pack my friends and my family. I'd fold and roll them up, carry them aboard the planes and taxis, wheel them through the airports and foreign cities, and then gently unpack them when we finally arrive in the place that will be home for the next few weeks.

Ah, if it were only so simple. In the meantime, this ritual of arrivals and departures feels disconcerting, and a little melancholic.

I hope if you read this page, you are thinking of me, just as I am thinking of you.

Excuse me. I have to go put on the travel clothes.


27 May 2002

  "Would you tell me, please dear 
Cheshire Puss, which way I ought to go from here?'" 

  "That depends a good deal on where you want to 
get to," said the Cat.

  "I don't much care where," said Alice.

  "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," 
said the Cat.
     - Lewis Carroll

Today is my birthday. I'm moving into my second half-century, and I'm sitting here wondering what it's all been about. My life, I mean.

I've had my share of successes, and I often think I've had more than my share of failures -- but that's not what's driving the thought process for me. No, indeed. Today I have bigger philosophical fish to fry. I want to understand what the driving force in my life is, and I want to know the destination toward which I've been heading all these years.

I feel like I've been asleep at the wheel for a long time. I've cruised for a lot of years down a high-speed back road on autopilot as I passed exits, roadside attractions, other vehicles, and hulking signs warning me of hazards ahead. Buddhism teachings emphasize that we must be at all times responsible for how we drive -- the "Mahayana" actually translates as the "Great Vehicle." We're expected to keep our vehicles clean and functioning, and always under our direct control. We're supposed to be alert, and mindful of how we drive. And now, it appears I'm waking up just in time to see the oncoming headlights of what looks like a Mack truck--a "mahayana" not of my own making.

The problem is, my vehicle seems to have been driving itself for such a long time, the autopilot switch is frozen in the "on" position. My vehicle--my own life--feels sluggish and unresponsive, and I'm worried I won't be able to regain control in time left to avoid a disastrous meeting between me and the truck.

It feels to me that my vehicle accelerated when I should have been applying brakes. I cut corners too sharply, and didn't keep an eye out for falling rocks. I frequently forgot to signal when turning, and more than one crack-up occurred as a result. Still, I didn't bother to keep my eyes open and on the road. I even made a wrong turn or two at points and now I have lost my way totally.

My map disappeared a long time ago, and I never bothered to stop and ask anyone for directions, which is how I got to this godforsaken place where I am currently stalled. I didn't refuel often, and when I did, I never bothered to check that there was air in the tires, or water in the radiator. I frequently paid more than the fueling was actually worth.

My only guideposts right now are the stars and the wise people whose taillights I am trying to follow, and I'm focusing hard on them. Maybe I'll find my way back to the main road.

Excuse me. I need to check that my license and registration haven't already expired.


13 May 2002

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee..."
   - John Donne

Mercy. This was absolutely the worst day I can remember.

I went to the funeral service today for Rolf and Amy Andersen. I have never seen such a thing before, and I hope never to see such a thing again in the brief time I have here on this swarming little planet at the far end of the galaxy. Everything was doubled, it seemed. Double the number of people who generally attend such events. Double the number of coffins. Double the amount of grief.

They were vacationing when Death arrived for them, in the form of a pickup truck with a blown tire crossing a dividing strip and overturning in front of their rental car. Witnesses say nothing could be done for them, and that things happened fast. Death scooped them up when the metal, plastic, flesh and bone all fused. Rolf, Amy, and their unborn baby all stepped out of time together, and into eternity.

The coffins were closed. There were flowers sitting on both, elegant grand sprays of violet-hued roses, mixed with miniature gladioli, daylilies, and purple heather. Rolf used to grow roses in his garden for Amy. I remember him telling me one day what a pleasure it was for him to cut the roses and give them to Amy, how she would smile and inhale the fragrance, and then kiss him silly with her thanks. The flowers were being watered today by all the tears we shed, and as the tears were salty, they will grow no more roses. It didn't matter, though, because of all Rolf's roses, his most prized flowers, the blossoms he most cherished, lay unmoving and empty in the wooden box beside his own.

It was impossible to tell whose body occupied which coffin. There were no distinguishing marks, no identifying tags that said, "Rolf's remains are here, Amy's there." I knew, too, that Amy's box bore a terrible burden -- when she died in the crash, so did the five-month-old life within her. There were two hearts in the box, and two generations of children for the parents to mourn. I don't know why the polished wood did not burst from the weight of all the grief it contained. But I could not tell just by looking, which was the fuller box.

I can scarcely comprehend the grief in the family. Two such nice, kind, gentle people, one cannot imagine. That they were known and loved, an impossible heartache to bear. I was numb, listening to the two ministers talking us through the forms of social mourning -- a hymn to God's glory, some Psalms, another hymn praising the everlasting mercies, and prayers for the dearly departed. Tears leaked unbidden from my eyes, and I was not aware of them until I felt one drop on the back of my hand.

One minister said it was not God's will that these people died, or died the way they did. He said, God is not going to interfere with the course of our lives, but when bad things happen, He will embrace us and receive us and tend us, if only we open our hearts to Him. The minister said, God is "minimal prevention, but maximum care." I could not help but bristle, thinking this was a better description of a bad HMO ("no preventive measures, but excellent care once you're sick"), and unworthy of worship, if this is indeed the truth.

The homilies were intended to comfort us, but there was no comfort to be had, no way to overcome the shock and horror, no solace or peace as the coffins were wheeled down the aisles. Rolf, Amy and the unborn child stepped out of time, and left us behind to figure out how we could continue to exist in time, with all of them gone. As I watched the hearses drive away with their precious, still burdens, I was thinking there should have been only one coffin, and they should have shared it, the way they shared life, love, and death.

Excuse me. I have some meditating to do.


05 May 2002

Hell is -- other people!”
   - Jean Paul Sartre, Huis Clos

I found a sheet of three-hole punched notepaper folded and tucked between the pages of a book about the salutory effects of a positive attitude at the Public Library last week. On the notepaper, a message, or maybe a fragment of a message, that fills the whole of the front, top to bottom. The writing is large, bold, written in a hasty, slapdash hand that courses across the page. Surprisingly, the haste didn’t seem to prevent the writer from staying within the lines. Given the content, that’s peculiar. I did not decide to check out the book, but I did decide to take possession of the notepaper, the contents of which I now share with you:

constant elaboratan elumemanation from the one who with viger perades the avounus of my brand, revoliving is aparent, the tide ticks away at the stone sand is left to hold on, my mind flounder when it comes to remembering how one lives without a box, keep the bug far from the human living aperatis, this is how: know i’m dying. Survival of the fitest, delivering am end to something living, erks my being. he was a humbel, gentil, son of a bitch. Made ju feel guilty for living, every time: sayed somethin his face would make ya regreat you ever say anything at all, He never sayed a goddam word besids Please and Thankyou i swear, I wanted to beat him sensles. and so I digress: simply just ad water, you dimwits sertinly should not have a problem with this. Fear of flachuwance caused by los of stability intestents in dis eray bills not payed lost friends to no end junk yard dogs fester in onsted turmoil. i watch as she begins to pay more atintion to the little deils of this creation The faks existing matters are far from gone, but i hear her pleas, When bugs becom the pashin every thing will be okay.

It’s fascinating, reading this stuff. How often do we have the chance to see, up close and personal, a thought disorder in action? I’ve amused myself for a week with this piece of paper, in its white-ruled mystery. Who is the author? How old? Is it a man or a woman who thinks these things? Where does the author live? Is this one of my townsmen or neighbors? Is this an adult, or a child? Why does the narrative break off the way it does? And why is this screed sitting in a self-help book about positive attitude?

I could write a story about this, I think. Several stories, actually, each told from a different viewpoint, all about this single sheet of paper, and its significance and meaning in the world. It’s not enough simply to tell how it arrived in the book, because the story doesn’t end there, does it? Nor is it enough to tell only the effect on me of finding and reading it, because heaven only knows how many before me found the sheet, and left it in the book. Maybe some of those indifferent discoverers lacked the curiosity that afflicts me, makes me want to know the cause, the reason, the motivating force that compelled the writer to put down those words, and then leave them in the book. Maybe the words and the hand in which they were written felt too threatening, or too crazed, and the discomfort they generated was enough to make those people abandon the book, and the paper.

When we communicate, we send both significance and meaning with our words and actions. The way we present is as important as the what it is we present. I once was told I was loved by a person whose face was beet-red, and the corners of whose mouth were turned down in a grimace. Do you think I believed in that person’s love, for even a heartbeat? Not on your life. And looking at the heavy strokes and slash of the pen on the notepaper, can I believe what the writer says at the end of the page, that everything will be okay? Can you?

Excuse me. I want to write to my congressman about the prevailing policies toward de-institutionalization.


04 May 2002

Margaret, are you grieving
over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
  - G.M. Hopkins, 
    Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Everything's blossoming at once, it seems. As I was driving along the highway yesterday, I noticed something unusual. The trees in their half-budded states seemed caught between the death of winter and the promise of summer. If I squinted, just a little, the landscape suddenly appeared to me exactly the way it did in October, when the season changed. I saw red, green, yellow, brown, and the flaming mixed orange that takes my breath away amid the silvery and greyish-green branches. A few trees, early bloomers like the apples, dogwoods, and cherries, wore pink, white, and purple finery in thick clumps along their limbs. There were still plenty of trees that didn't seem to quite have the message from nature that it won't snow on us now, so it's time to get on with the greening, but they were fewer than those whose leaves were beginning to unfurl and open to the sun's warmth.

I've lived my whole life in places where the weather moved in definable, recognizable transitions from season to season, and the plants responded according to their life stages. Soft, fresh, tender shoots and buds in the spring. Heady, vibrant fronds full of greenery in the summer. Brilliant, blazing, brittle husks falling to the waiting earth in autumn. And the frosty whites and greys of winter over everything. I never realized the spring colors were so close to the autumn ones. This has meaning for me because as I move toward autumn in my own life, it occurs to me that I am experiencing many things the way I did when I was much younger and fresher myself.

The only problem is, I have been around a while, and the nostalgia for the freshness is frankly overwhelmed by my cynical awareness of the underlying workings of what I find at times wonderful.

I wish I'd never heard of clorophyll, or global warming, or any of the other things that are making nature do the seemingly impossible things it does on these spring mornings as I drive to work. If only there was a way to make my mind "squint" just a little bit, the way I can soften focus with my eyes.

I've been so busy going about my business, I've not noticed how spring and autumn frame our years, just like an embrace.

Excuse me. I need to go hug a tree.


01 May 2002

"The unexamined life is not worth living."
    - Socrates (attrib.)

I've been cruising Buddha's "net of jewels" we know familiarly as the Internet, and have come across several things that made me stop dead in my tracks. There's a movement about, folks, one that is going to change the world for sure. I'm not talking about cyberporn or online auctioning, either. I'm talking about philosophy, pure and simple. If you step off the glitzy cybertrack for an instant, you'll stumble onto it, and you'll wonder what hit you.

I was already reeling, having just finished J. Gaartner's amazing book, "Sophie's World." I wasn't searching for more to question about life -- I was looking for answers, having already had my fill of questions for the time being. I mean, how can you ever answer the question, "Who am I?" At the very instant you frame your answer, you've changed, and you're something else, not quite fitting whatever description you mere moments earlier thought or felt appropriate. Don't even get me started on thinking and feeling, either. I was edgy as I read most of the book, because I had a difficult time imagining myself closer aligned to Aristotle (the original list-keeper and organizer) than to Plato (the man who made shadow-puppetry a vogue). You see, one fellow believed it was impossible for us to perceive the real world through the pitiful (and often unreliable) limitations of our senses, and the other believed it was impossible to know anything that did not come to us directly through what we sense. As I read, I had a hard time making up my mind, because I felt there was truth in both positions, and that neither philosophy was complete without a portion of the other.

Come to find out, I'm neither Platonic nor Aristotelian. I'm a believer in the thing Immanuel Kant put forth, which was a sort of synthesis of both. But honestly, do I like this discovery about myself? Not in the least. For starters, I don't know what to call myself -- if not Platonic, which has a nice, classical ring to it, or Aristotelian, which calls to mind science, order, and classification, then what? Kant's philosophy has been described as radical, non-reductionist, determinist, empirically realistic, deductionist, and a slew of other high-flying terms, all of which boil themselves down to the single most important thing: According to Kant, the representation is what makes an object possible, rather than the other way around. If there is an input -- what he calls "perceptual input," that is, coming from the senses -- then somehow the input has to be processed, or recognized, before it is meaningful. I think he's got a point, and I'm willing to stand with him on it. One of these days I might even take on "The Critique of Pure Reason," just so I can find out if there's a single word to describe his followers.

How in the world am I supposed to figure out who I am, when I can't even figure out what I am? To make matters worse, in my travels today, I picked up four more questions I don't know how to answer: What is philosophy? What is a question, and why are they so important in philosophy? How is a philosopher different from a person who has some philosophical ideas? How is philosophy like a tree? Damned if I know. Yet.

Excuse me. I think I need to feel the ... oh, never mind.


30 April 2002

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
     - Theodore Roethke, The Waking

George Santayana entered the annals of philosophy when he coined the oft-repeated phrase, "Man is condemned to repeat what he cannot remember." Various and sundry sages have lifted the sentiment, and attributed it to everyone from Napoleon Bonaparte to Seneca, back through the ages. But it was Santayana who said it, and we would do well to remember it.

Memory weighs heavily upon me today. I am facing my history squarely in the eye, when all around me are willing to forget. In a different guise, at an earlier age, I worked in a company where everything that could possibly have gone wrong, did. I was caught in the maelstrom with all the unfortunate employees who were sucked into the abyss with the foundering ship, and it has taken me years to recover. I actually sat down and wrote the whole thing out, just so I would never be tempted to forget what happened at that company, and why. I had a rare insider's glimpse into the chaos and turmoil that can destroy a company, and I have never wanted to repeat the experience.

Today, I discovered that a new venture, a startup for which I held out great hope, has elected to forget the past, and welcome aboard a person who contributed actively -- through inactivity and shifting allegiances -- to the problems that spiraled the earlier company out of control and into oblivion. The people who made this decision and offered the top leadership position to this person did so without any input from me. I am sure they did not want input from me. What they want from me is a sort of blind allegiance to the new regime, headed by the anti-hero of other times. The person who they expect to guide them, to provide direction and vision, is a person I remember as being devoid of imagination, leadership skills, and even the most rudimentary personal ethics and principles.
I don't believe I'll be much longer attached to the organization, which is probably to the benefit of all concerned. I'm looking for gainful employment. What I'm after is meaningful work, a decent living wage, and nice people to work with. I didn't think this was too much to ask, but apparently, it was. 

The first slippery step to perdition has already been taken. I'd prefer to not fall the rest of the way to Hell with them.

Perhaps my opening quote should be something about how there's no teaching old dogs new tricks? 

Anybody out there need a hard-working writer who has a way with words (corporate and otherwise)? 

If so, use the link at the bottom of the page. I'm willing to relocate.

Excuse me. I just remembered -- I have to call a couple of headhunters.


29 March 2002

"You don't want to make me mad, do you?"
   - Xena, Warrior Princess 

Wow. I never would have referenced Unamuno's quote in my last entry (and I'm sure most people thought it was the last, indeed), had I realized I was going to move away from my weblog... err... blog... for more than two months. But I didn't -- realize it, I mean -- and I got a nasty surprise today, when I discovered the site was removed from its usual little corner on the web. However, I've re-archived, and re-published, and with luck, you're reading again.

I've had a nasty temper all day today. These fits don't come often, but when they do, they drag on and on, like a slow-moving mudflow that engulfs everything it touches. My mood feels like mud, sluicing through my thoughts, my actions, and my dreams, and there's no making pies with it. I don't always need a reason to be in this mood, either. Sometimes it comes without even the slightest provocation. It's worse when there is provocation, however. Today, I am provoked.

I've been on the telephone for hours today, tracking down small dollar amounts owed to me. A few here, a few there, none of the amounts bigger than the proverbial hill of beans. Each little writing project I undertake ends with an invoice. My expectation is that when the writing is delivered, my job ends, and a check should follow, preferably without my having to ask for it again. That doesn't seem to be the standard procedure with my clients, based on the spectacular lack of mail I've received. 

What I don't like about this dunning process is that it makes me feel like a beggar. I might not resent it so much if the amounts in question were in four or five figures, but really -- is it necessary for me to chase an editor down and tackle her for a sum less than $200?

Regardless, all these people succeed in doing is convincing me I don't want to do future business with them. I'd rather write for pure pleasure, and burn the articles at the end, than offer them up for sale to people who don't honor contracts and pay promptly. Which is how I got here today... this space represents pure pleasure to me. I'm relatively invisible, relatively unread, and I can speak my piece without worrying about the editor's market (I'm always very careful about the targeted audience and the editor's guidelines). And I won't have to chase anyone down for the dime a word.

Excuse me. I'm now so happy, I need to go to the bathroom.


09 January 2002

"To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be."
   - Miguel De Unamuno

This is the start of a new year. We face a fresh beginning, with the whole of the calendar unblemished ahead of us. We aspire to health, happiness, prosperity, and some of us, a little more. Many of us begin a new year with lists of things we want to accomplish. We select things we want to learn, acquire, or do by the time the final bell rings out in the coming December 31st. The lists are lengthy, and speak of our desires. I want to learn Latin. I want to earn straight A's. I want to publish my novel. I want to go to Paris. I want to bungee-jump off the Space Needle. I want, I want.

Occasionally, endings creep into the resolution lists, too. When people resolve, "This year I will lose 20 pounds," or "This year I will pay all my bills on time," or even, "I resolve to be nicer to my wife/husband/sister/brother/son/whatever," what they are doing is preparing themselves for the shutting down of bad old habits, in the hope good new habits will take root. These are the resolutions I'm always interested in, because these are the ones that show me struggles, weaknesses, and humanity. My father used to marvel that otherwise sane, intelligent men and women would write out definitions of what they didn't want in their lives, and then spend time dancing around self-imposed borders and boundaries, rather than simply stating a positive, affirming direction for themselves and heading for it.

My father died at the age of seventy of COPD, which is "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," a kind of nasty grab-bag designation for ailments of the lungs. In my father's case, the death certificate identified COPD, with complications from emphysema as the contributing cause. However, no matter what the physician inscribed on the certificate, the real contributing cause was smoking. The poisons he inhaled from the cigarettes killed him, and a slow, painful, lingering death it was.

I remember an anti-smoking campaign put out by the American Lung Association. In it, readers were informed that every cigarette effectively reduced a smoker's life span by seven minutes. Seven unrecoverable minutes. That statistic was meaningful to me, even though I was only ten years old. In seven minutes, I could take a hot shower. I could eat an ice cream cone, or a chocolate bar. I could run around the block. I could swim ten laps in the pool. I could read five pages of a good book. Every cigarette meant one less shower, candy, playtime, or book. It was too great a trade-off.

I never took up tobacco, even casually, although my father and mother were both smokers. I used to nag them, in fact, reminding them periodically that they were going to "die young" if they didn't listen to me and stop. Later, when scientific studies began appearing that showed the awful effects of smoking on the organs and body functions, I stopped nagging. I reasoned that my parents were smart enough to take control and do the right thing without interference from me. I was wrong.

My mother smoked a pack of cigarettes daily, until at the age of sixty-two, she suffered a mild heart attack while out shoveling the driveway. The heart attack was a surprise to everyone, because there was no history of heart disease in our family. She put out the cigarette she was smoking when the ambulance arrived to transport her to the hospital. It was the last she ever had. While in the hospital, she decided her desire to live was stronger than her desire to smoke, and that was that. She came home, and threw out her cigarette case, lighter, and ashtray, and she hasn't touched tobacco since.
My father smoked until the hour before his death. The COPD gained control of his life three years before he died, reducing his range. He couldn't walk half a city block. He couldn't climb more than three steps without resting a minute. He couldn't talk for more than ten minutes, without dissolving into a hacking, wracking cough. He was often tired, because he had to sleep semi-reclined, so his lungs would stay clear. He continued smoking, over his doctors' and his wife's objections. He told them time and again, "I don't want to stop."

By the time he was in the final stages of the disease, he'd been taken delusional and cyanotic to the hospital more than once, because his lungs couldn't take in enough oxygen to support his brain. He couldn't get in and out of his bed without assistance. He couldn't take care of keeping himself clean. He was literally a thin shadow of the man he'd once been.

He was also too weak to light or inhale the cigarettes he insisted on smoking. My mother had the terrible task of turning off the oxygen inhaler, airing the room so there wouldn't be an explosion, and then actually lighting the cigarette for him. She told me his hands trembled, and he barely had the strength to do more than place the cigarette at his lips. She argued with him, but to no avail. He wanted to smoke, and if she wouldn't help him, then he'd find someone who would.

My mother crushed out the final cigarette before turning off the light beside my father's bed. She was exasperated after a particularly bad day, and as she adjusted his oxygen, asked him, "Are these cigarettes really worth all this?" She says he shrugged, then whispered, "Maybe not." She kissed his forehead, and left the room. He died quietly before the next dawn.

He left us wondering what it was about those cigarettes that made him love them more than he loved life, or us. I wish he'd followed his own good advice, and defined what he wanted for himself in positive terms -- maybe then he'd have stopped.

For those who read this and have "I'll stop smoking" on your New Year's resolution list, I have a suggestion. Erase the resolution, and write, "I want healthy lungs."

Excuse me. I'm off to lay some flowers on Dad's grave.


03 January 2002

"There is no calamity greater than lavish desires.
 There is no greater guilt than discontentment.
 There is no greater disaster than greed."
   - Lao Tzu

I've been watching the Enron scandal unravel itself in all its terrible splendor. I am in awe of the dollar amount lost to the investors in this enterprise, and not at all surprised by the public outrage against the management that sat watch while the company cratered. It's a very bad situation for an incredible number of people.

I'm no stranger to events like this. There was a time when I worked for a company that held a dubious record for achievement: the highest single year's net operating loss, at nearly $225 million, a record they held for a number of years. I joined the company several years after the loss was posted, as part of a brand new management team invited to try to dig the company, by then reorganized and merged and prettied up for new investors, out of the quarter billion dollar hole it had augured itself into. The task was impossible, but our CEO never had less than incredible optimism. When confronted with mounting losses and dwindling revenues, he'd cheerily ask, "Know what's great about our situation?" When we'd confess we couldn't imagine anything great about it he'd laugh and say, "With our NOL so big, we'll never have to post a profit!" That thought was usually enough to send me off to the local watering hole for the afternoon. The company's liquidity, or lack thereof, was a beer chaser par excellence. Needless to say, not one member of the "new and improved" management team, myself included, remains in the company, which is still limping along deep in leveraged debt.

But Enron's management has gone far beyond anything we could have imagined. The implications for investor's portfolios are alarming at best, horrific at worst. Once valued options are wholly submerged, Congress is calling for an investigation, and aspersions are being publicly cast. Lawsuits are being filed on an hourly basis.

I noted one thing that I confess, I find baffling. Enron used the services of Arthur Anderson (now known as Accenture) as its auditing agency. Every year, the auditors are supposed to review the company's books, and file reports with the appropriate authorities and investment groups regarding the fiscal health or unsoundness of the company under review. The auditing agency is one of the largest, and most respected, in the nation. Surely they must have seen signs that something was amiss with the bottom line before it slid into seven- and eight-digit negative numbers. We're not talking chump change, after all. How did they miss this?

I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the consulting arm of their business was busily charging nearly one million dollars weekly to Enron for "services rendered?" Even the most inexperienced, naive managers know that the suppliers who provide services to the business probably aren't going to be the most reliable auditors for those same services. If not, our business school curriculae are more severely broken than I can imagine. Regardless, Accenture made a lot of money from consulting, and even more money from auditing, and when the dust settles, Enron's still going to be on record as a colossal investment catastrophe, a record that might stand a few years longer than the paltry $225 million of former years.

Excuse me. I have to write a check to my application programmer. He's nearly finished auditing my programs, and tells me everything's just fine.


02 January 2002

"Whom unmerciful Disaster
  Followed fast and followed faster."
      - E.A. Poe, The Raven, st. 11

It seldom occurs to me to give vent to my feelings about computers, software applications, and the havoc they generate in our lives, in writing. It's certainly never occurred to me to write about those things in this forum. Until now, that is.

While the rest of the world watched football games and flowery parades yesterday, I sat in front of a personal computer system with a friend whose nerves were frayed. He'd been the unfortunate victim of a hacker's invasion, and the resulting mess took us nearly the whole day to unravel. I found out he was in trouble when on the afternoon of December 31st, my beloved woke me to inform me that he'd received email, and not only was the text of the email garbled, but his personal computer was flashing a message announcing its detection of a virus. I came to my feet in a flash and helped my darling take care of the problem. The virus was a nasty new one, a polymorphing Trojan Horse-style invader that not only steals all the addresses from your email address book, but when it finishes, trashes your computer's operating system applications. It's not user-friendly.

My beloved's computer system has been under my watchful eye since the day it arrived in our house. As a geek of long-standing (I'm talking about more than twenty years in the software business), I know that by the application of some simple, effective preventive maintenance procedures, we could safeguard the system with relatively little effort and cost. To that end, I'd purchased and installed Norton's SystemWorks, and implemented a schedule of routine backup and data storage. I regularly update the virus definitions and pay the pittance the company asks for yearly maintenance. When software patches and OS updates become available, I download and install them. I've taught my darling how to avoid getting the IP address trapped in the spammers' nets, and what to do when anything seems wrong (call me). The email application is commercial quality, and doesn't have great, gaping security holes through which hackers can gain control of the system. My spouse's machine runs clean as a whistle. On the few occasions when viruses have attempted infiltration, the antivirus software generally has pre-empted the strikes, instead quarantining or deleting the offending attachments and emails. This time was no different. By the time I reached the computer, the anti-virus software had taken care of the problem for me, and all I had to do was decide whether or not I wanted to salvage the infected files through an automatic repair option. Since we knew the files were garbage, I made the decision to delete.

After, I cruised online to the Symantec anti-virus center (http://www.sarc.com). I researched the virus that we'd just removed. There was plenty of information about the virus, and explicit, clear instructions for the steps to take to manually remove the virus from one's system. There were descriptions of the virus properties, how to recognize infected emails and attachments, and the "payload" the hackers deliver if you don't get the infection off the system before it executes itself. It was all pretty scary stuff.

The virus was first reported in September. In fact, it's classified as a "Virus or Worm," with at least six known variations. The virus uses email addresses from Windows Book files, Outlook Express Sent items, and Netscape Sent items to propagate itself. When it delivers its payload, the damage is severe, causing system instability on a large scale. This includes overwriting hard drives, erasing CMOS, and flashing the BIOS. Further, because it sends itself off in email, there's a chance it will release confidential information to others in the form of MS-Word documents. A thoroughly nasty bug, this one.

I learned to recognize the virus vehicle (the email). The subject line is "randomly generated text up to 60 characters long." The attachments (these deliver the payload) consist of "one randomly named infected executable, and several randomly selected text or document files " This was consistent with what my beloved and I saw. Our friend's strange email had two attachments -- "camera.exe" and a Word document. The payload takes square aim at "All Windows Program Execution files that are not .DLL files." This means all .EXE, .COM, .BAT, .PIF files -- in a word, the underlying operating system.

The virus also attempts to disable firewall functionality for the user, adds an entry to the "Shell=explore.exe" line in the boot section of the system initialization file (that invokes the virus the next time you boot your system), searches for more Windows system folders (Winnt, Windows, Win95, Win98, Winme, Win2000, Win2k, Winxp), emails an executable attachment to every person in the address book, and occasionally attaches .GIF files to emails (these are where some real fun can begin, since the hackers almost always prefer to send out pornographic images), Here's the kicker, though: the payload overwrites Ntldr.exe and Win.com on all drives with code that causes it to store garbage data in the first sector of the first IDE hard drive, which is what renders a personal computer unusable. Once this last is accomplished, .you're in possession of a $2,000 boat anchor.

The Symantec information ends with this: "Files that cannot be repaired should be deleted. If necessary, restore any deleted files from a clean backup." The hackers' worst enemy is a prepared, well-defended user in possession of both current anti-virus software and a backup.

When we finished ridding my darling's system of the threat, I said we should call and let our friend know his system was breached. We decided we could wait a couple of hours and inform our friend in person of what we'd discovered -- we were going to his house for our annual New Year's Eve get-together dinner party. We thought we might simply mention the issue to him, and he'd be able to take care of the problem the next day, and that would be that.

As it turned out, it wasn't that simple. He told us the person who he'd hired to monitor and maintain his office systems was a "Mac bigot" who hated touching Windows-based systems, and as a result, he didn't do anything with the system unless absolutely forced into it. However, the Windows-based system is the one our friend uses for all his email dispatches, for file transfers and faxes, and for business proposal delivery around the globe. His business is highly specialized, and international. And he's got all the wrong stuff -- an older version of the operating system, the Outlook Express email, and no antivirus protection. His expression was duly alarmed as we described what we'd found, and he asked me if I could help.

I agreed, and we made a date for the following day, which was yesterday. We spent the whole day together. In those seven hours, we revealed seventy-four infected files, three separate viruses, and a hard drive configured for a fast failure at a not-distant point in the future. We identified holes in system security, system configuration errors that affect performance and reliability, and a non-existent backup strategy. We found, too, that a young consultant had been using the system to scan the Web for pornography, and left thousands of nasty images on his disk. This explained, at least, the increase my friend noticed in sexually suggestive spam he'd been receiving. Together, we scanned, disinfected, deleted, and then purchased some tools to prevent a recurrence of the worst events. I plugged the biggest holes, but many still exist.

He's had the computer system two years. In that time, it's never been backed up, and it's never been monitored for performance. It's never had a refresh to the operating system, and it's never had a logging facility for user access. That system was a ticking time-bomb for his business. As it was, we ended the long day by crafting an apology/explanation email, which we sent out to the several hundred people whose addresses were stored on his system. We said, "Please run an antivirus program against your systems as soon as you can -- we are sorry for the inconvenience to you." When it all ended, we agreed I would come back periodically and help him get the system up to snuff over the next several months. With all the work we'd done, we only lost one 30K file -- a self-extracting zip file that couldn't be recovered after the antivirus repair. This was indeed the miracle of the day.

My poor friend. He's been at the mercy of everyone, and didn't really know it. When we parted company, he said, "I'm just trying to run my business, and do the best I can. Why do these people have to make it so hard for me?"

Why, indeed. What a way to start a new year. Excuse me, but I have to stop and back up my system.