Life Plans

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.

Not John Lennon

As I get older it’s clear that I still struggle with one of life’s lessons and that’s that making a plan for your life is a loser’s bet.

I’m sure it’s the case with many or most that we make plans and we sometimes make many plans as we go through life. When I was in school, probably junior high, my plan was to go to college. For me, at that age, it was as simple as that: I will go to college. I had no clue what I might go to study, I had no clue how to get there, but I had the plan: go to college.

I accomplished that plan, but there were certainly issues with the execution. Because I was stubborn about where I wanted to go and I didn’t have a grasp on how to look for scholarships or grants, I graduated with a non-trivial amount of student loans. I think if I’d had better guidance in my life, perhaps role models who might have steered me, I might have accomplished the same basic goal but much cheaper.

When my daughter was getting ready for college, because I was participating to provide some of the financing, I encouraged her strongly (which one might read as: told her how it was going to be) to first attend community college for a couple of years and then finish the degree at university. My rationale was that it would be significantly less expensive and the amount that I had to help would go further and she would graduate with less debt.

After I graduated school, my life plan revolved around getting a job and, soon after, learning how to be a parent to my son and a husband to my wife. The part to be learned was how to balance between demands from my job, demands as a parent and the demands of my relationship. Frankly, I don’t know that I did that well finding that balance.

Because I went directly from college to a job and a family, I never had a period in my 20s where I could just focus on me or just focus on a relationship or just focus on my job. My choice, no doubt, but I have enjoyed watching my kids have that time in their 20s to focus on learning how to care for themselves, learn how to work a job, learn how to stand on their own two feet before they commit to a long term relationship where the focus moves from the individual to the couple.

The Life Plan in my 20s was all about learning how to be an engineer and how to be a parent. In my 30s the Life Plan was all about becoming good at my job and trying to survive parenting. My son and then my daughter headed in to their teenage years. They went, as my wife and I say, “To The Dark Side”. The good news is, they came out the other side and I was able to recognize the person who came out that other side as a more mature version of the person who went to the Dark Side. But, inbetween? Yeah, that was tough. That was about survival as much as anything, and hoping that it was all going to work out.

In my early 40s, it was less about the Plan and more about accepting transitions and recognizing that life is about focusing on the 20% of life that I can impact and letting go of the 80% I cannot. I divorced, learned how to not be in a relationship, learned how to be a single parent – generally it was about working out my own personal issues and trying to learn more about me – something I failed to do when many might have in their early 20s.

Then, I met a wonderful woman and partner and the notion of a Life Plan moved from survival to looking forward together. There was still learning how to be an effective partner and how to work with someone who is smarter than me in some very real ways and learning to appreciate that and be proud of that. When we first started out together, it would irritate me to no end when she would make an intuitive leap to a conclusion and I knew she was making a leap and she ended up in the right place and faster than I did. I couldn’t figure out how she did it! Still can’t. I’m pretty sure she threw the first few games of Scrabble to take it easy on my ego, but she won’t admit it. And playing Boggle with her is just a waste of my time. Her brain is wired differently than mine and better than mine in some very real ways. But, I like it!

In the mid-40s, I believed that what I wanted was simply a single, solitary decade where the kids were grown up and out of the house and focused on living their lives and the elders (parents, mostly) were healthy enough and enjoying their lives and I’d get a decade to focus on me and my stuff, including my life with my wife. It’s clear that is simply not going to happen and I’m sure lots of folks could have told me that would be the case. Kids still need parents. Maybe less, maybe differently, but they aren’t done growing up in their 20s any more than I was done growing up in my 20s. And, sadly, the need to help our parents as they get older grows with time. So, the curve of need from the kids extended in to this decade and the curve of need from the parents started sooner than I’d hoped. And, in fact, they overlap on some days.

Maybe I’ll get that decade some day, but it’s not going to be soon and I’m not sure it even matters.

Plans are fine things to help us think about priorities, what we want to do, where we want to go, both personally and professionally. They can help give us structure where we lack it and direction where we need it. Those are all good things.

But, the paths of our life are seldom straight because those paths intertwine with the paths of the people in our lives, and I wouldn’t change that aspect. I certainly wouldn’t wish to not be part of someone’s life because that fact might complicate my own. Part of the joy of having kids includes being part of their lives long past when we kick them out of the house to stand on their own two feet. Same goes for our parents who had us. We do for each as best we can and hope that maybe they’ll do the same for us when we need that help.

Note: According to the Web, the quote from the start is actually from Allen Saunders – 1957.

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On Being Halfway Dead

I’ve been thinking about mortality recently. This has not been something that entered my mind for most of my life, like most I felt largely invincible and indestructible for most of my life. Then, when I turned 40, I concluded that I was probably more than half way to being dead.

I had no problem with my 30th birthday. I know for some that’s a big birthday. Maybe because it often represents a transition from the wild and crazy 20s to the more calm and responsible 30s. I never had a wild and crazy 20s, so that wasn’t a thing. My kids were still young and between them, my family and my work, I really didn’t have time to think about mortality.

For some reason, things were different when I turned 40. In my head suddenly I was, to use a golf metaphor, “On the back nine” of my life. Because, I told myself, realistically did I think I was going to live much past 80? Probably not.

My grandparents didn’t do so well. One of my grandmothers is still alive, but she’s had a severe case of Alzheimer’s for more than a decade, so that certainly doesn’t sound like a good way to be. My other grandmother also passed with Alzheimer’s as did my favorite Aunt.

One grandfather passed accidentally when he was in his 40s. The other grandfather apparently (so the story goes) passed from a heart attack in the midst of an otherwise uninteresting traffic accident.

My mom passed with COPD as a direct side-effect of a lifetime of smoking, but as a non-smoker, that’s an unlikely outcome for me.

My dad keeps going having just passed his 70th birthday and he’s still pretty sharp. He can use a computer, for the most part, and send email (WITH ALL CAPS AND NO PUNCTUATION LOVE DAD). He bought a tablet and I think that’s got him largely baffled, but it’s running the Android OS, so that doesn’t surprise me. He wants to know how to watch a movie on the tablet but has no real concept how to get a movie on there. He knows I can do it, but I suspect he largely views it as magic.

A year or so ago, I did one of those cheap DNA sequencing tests for $100 and, in addition to telling me that I had a statistically large portion of Neanderthal DNA, it also told me that the only thing I was at a statistically higher risk for was Alzheimer’s, so with the family history in mind, yeah, that seems like something that’s likely to be a problem more than anything else I can point at.

Just between you and me, Alzheimer’s kind of terrifies me. I watched it strip my grandmother of her memories till she didn’t recognize any family members nor have any day-to-day memory of what was going on around her. She passed in a care home because she couldn’t be at home. It was a long and lingering death and a very sad one for someone who had led a pretty vital life – she was a jail matron in Spokane. All “her girls” called her Mom, but I suspect she could be a bit of a bad ass if she had to be.

I’ve made clear my wish that I don’t want to stick around if I lose my marbles, but if I lose who I am, I will likely lose the ability to act on that or the ability to hold that idea and I find that idea both uncomfortable and distasteful. Plus, I’ve told my wife that when that happens she may have to wipe my butt and she’s not signing up for that, so there’s that. So, yeah, pretty much all downside.

On the flipside, I still like to learn new things – almost obsessively, though definitely more slowly than when I was younger. My health is good, mostly, and I’m still playing outdoor volleyball with friends whenever I can and enjoying that every single time I get to play. Someday it will be my last game of volleyball, but that day has not yet come. When it does, I will miss it greatly! But you almost never know when that last day has come and gone for anything in life.

I do hope to not spend most of the time that I have left just working. It gave me pause recently when I thought that I’ve worked now for 32 years if we count from when I started at 16 working at Albertson’s. If I have to work till I’m 68 to get Social Security, that’s another 20 years. Really, how long can I expect anyone is going to be willing to pay me to do anything useful?

We’ve only started talking about when we might be able to retire, but that’s a very hard notion to wrap my head around because I can’t figure out how much it takes to retire if I don’t know how long I’m going to live. Or, perhaps more likely, how long I’ll require care for after I lose my marbles and am unable to care for myself. Someone’s going to have to do the butt wiping…

When can I retire? Tell me how long I will live and how the economy is going to do over the next 40 years and then I can probably project when I can retire.

I’ve got one friend who has already retired in his early 50s. It’s hard not to be a little jealous but I do realize that he is where he is, at least in part, because he lived a very different life than me (kids, divorce, etc). So, apples and oranges.

So, objectively and statistically, I was probably halfway to dead when I turned 40. Now, eight years later, it’s highly likely that we’re through with halftime and firmly in to the third quarter, to use another sports metaphor.

In the end I worked out that it really doesn’t make any difference if that’s the case. What can you do about it other than enjoy as best you can each day that you do have because, with few exceptions, none of us know how much time we have left.

While I did conclude that I’m probably more than half dead, in the end it doesn’t affect how I live my life, not really. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that at the back of my mind there’s a little voice that reminds me of the passing time, occasionally sits back there going “tick, tock! Time is passing.” That voice is an asshole.



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Making Things

My entire professional career is based on a fact that was largely unimaginable to my parent’s generation. I get paid to create software which, outside of the storage media that hold it or its representation in computer memory as 1’s and 0’s, has no physical presence in the world. I get paid for making something that exists as an abstraction running in a computer. That is a very, very bizarre thing.

Certainly there have been folks who have been compensated for making something that doesn’t have any intrinsic value or perform any specific action or purpose. Writers write, musicians create and play music that only exist as symbols on a page until they are summoned in to reality as sound. So, there is some parallel, I suppose.

In truth, I’ve never made anything physical that anyone paid me for. I’ve worked service jobs in high school and college and ever after worked in software where the results of my labor exist on a physical storage media and as a running program on a computer. Certainly I’m thankful for the opportunity because it’s hard for me to image what I’d be doing a hundred years ago. My poor vision might have been somewhat correctable, but certainly not as precisely as it is today, so that would have limited me in a number of ways.

For my entire career, the results of my work have been used by others to create actual things. My first professional job was to create simulation models of discrete electronic elements like processors and memories. These could be assembled to run in a simulated environment to test a customer’s design prior to the very expensive process of fabricating an actual, physical prototype. Our models and tools saved customers millions of dollars in expensive prototypes and months of time because simulation was faster and cheaper.

I knew that what I created was used by companies like Intel to design computers, consumer companies like Sony to make a DVD player, Nintendo to make a gaming system or even a company making a portable defibrillator or medical imaging device. While I never made anything physical, I had a second-hand role in making some of those things possible or at least making them possible faster and cheaper. I was able to feel pretty good about what I was doing, for the most part, even if it was only second hand.

In my late 20s, after I’d been making software models for six or eight years, we had a customer visit. This was kind of a rare thing for us in Portland, because customers often didn’t make it out here from the East Coast or up from California. In this case, the customer was going to share what they were doing and how our products helped contribute to what they were building.

But, here was the rub: It was a defense contractor. In fact, the product that they came to talk to us about and how our products contributed to their success was a guided missile.

For the first time, the possibility that something I helped build might be something that could be used to hurt someone instead of help someone went from a potential to a reality.

I recall that some of my co-workers actually expressed some discomfort as they, too, dealt with the reality of how our products were used.

The day for the visit came and the entire company went to the presentation. There might have been free lunch, that was usually the best way to assure good attendance.

The customer launched in to their presentation and described their product, going in to some detail but not a great deal since it was largely classified.

Part way in to the presentation, they began to talk about a problem they’d had with one of our models and how it had taken some time to get a bug resolved. They described a memory device that had something called a “half-full” flag. Imagine an opaque tube that holds 100 marbles, but you want to know when it’s half full. If the tube is half-full of marbles, this flag goes up so you know that your tube is now half-full. The problem was the vendor of the memory device had not stated clearly whether the half-full flag was triggered on the 50th marble or the 51st marble.

Something in my memory started to raise its hand and ask for attention. Sure enough, as the description of the problem proceeded, it became clear that the model in question and the problem they were referring to that had cost them time was written by me. Yay.

In my defense, it was a poorly written specification and the vendor failed to respond in a timely fashion to our requests for clarification. Whichever way the actual device operated, my model did the other. At least until the issue was identified, fixed and tested and released to the customer. Again.

So, yeah, the major thing the customer came to complain about was something I did. That wasn’t my favorite free lunch.

But, the thing that was striking about that lunch, more than the realization that I’d caused them no little trouble, was that suddenly something I had made was being used to make a guided missile which could conceivably be used to kill people. That was an uncomfortable realization that went from possibility to truth.

But, like a hammer, what I made could be used to build a house or to whack someone on the head. Once the tool is created, its use is largely out of hands of the creator of the tool.

I had a similar realization again with my current job.

My new company enables the analysis of vast amounts of data much more quickly than was possible in the past. That sounds fairly benign and it can be.

On the positive side, it can be used to speed sequencing DNA more quickly and to analyze large data sets of medical information for correlation much more quickly than ever before.

On the neutral side, it can be used to analyze trends in data for things like optimizing the maintenance on everything from a jet engine to a wind turbine so that they focus maintenance where it’s needed as opposed to just applying it blindly after a given number of hours of flight time, as they do now.

On the negative side, it can be used to analyze trends in people’s buying habits in real time, allowing vendors to adjust prices also in real time to maximize profits. It can be used by a booking site to analyze where folks are booking hotels for Spring Break and adjust the prices on those venues to, again, maximize profits. The amount of data that can be divined from sifting through large amounts of consumer data is kind of scary.

But, like the hammer from earlier, it’s a tool. It can be used for good or it can be used for ill. The intent is applied by the user, not the guy who created the hammer.

In the end, I guess it will come down to whether you believe that over time we’ll use the tool to improve lives (on the whole) or use the data simply as a resource to make more wealth. In fact, as I think about it, I suspect the profits generated pay the bills and may end up funding the less profitable work which may be for the greater good. I suspect the reality will be both, but we’ll see.



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Memory Clings

I don’t have many memories before, roughly, first grade or about five or six years old. More accurately, I do have a few, but they are definitely very episodic and disconnected. I don’t know if this is a characteristic of a developing long term memory or perhaps I lacked a very interesting life to connect those first five years.

With that in mind, I thought I’d jot down a few of my early memories. You know, before I forget them altogether. Because I’m old. And probably losing my marbles…

This first one is a mix of my own memory and probably filled in a bit by my mother re-telling it when I was older. When I was still taking naps, so call it between two and three, I had a ride-on horse that had four wheels. I would ride this around on the sidewalk in front of our house. I had a friend on the other side of the block, but I wasn’t allowed to go there on my own.

One day, I knew that I was going to be made to take a nap and I didn’t want to so, I hatched a plan. When I got called in for lunch, I planted my horse below the window to my room. I went inside, had lunch and went down for a nap. But I was having none of that and effected my escape! I climbed out the window on to my horse, got it on the sidewalk and rode it around the block. So far as I can recall, there was no world that was off my block and to leave the block was unimaginable, but to my three year old brain, the other side of the block on my own was a bit of the wild west.

I made my way around the block and hooked up with my friend and stayed there for about an hour before my mother discovered my empty room, probably saw the empty window and freaked out. This would be the late 60’s, so I don’t know whether abduction occurred to her, but regardless, shortly after discovering me gone, perhaps connecting my missing horse, she showed up and found me at my friend’s house. Pretty sure I got a spanking for that.

Another time, I was probably four or five, I was at a friend’s house and running around in their place. For some reason I made a break for the outside, looked quickly and decided the back slider was open and ran full tilt in to the slider. Got a nice lump and a bloody nose for that one. But, at least I didn’t break the glass…

If I start to string enough of these together, it starts to look like I’m a bit lucky to be alive. But, that’s just life.

Around that same time, in the summertime, after lunch one day I was climbing on the outside chimney of our house. Just climbing on the bricks. My shirt was off because, hey, it was summertime.

As backstory, it’s worth nothing that I was born with a Hemangioma. Two actually. One on my head and one on my chest below one nipple. Interestingly (and commonly) they are absorbed back in to the body as we grow. Mine disappeared somewhere between puberty and adulthood. I kind of think I miss the one on my chest because it was something that I thought made me interesting or at least distinguished me from the crowds. Hemangioma’s are simply blood vessels that didn’t stay under the skin as intended and tend to present as a bright red blotch, maybe with a bit of texture. Mine was maybe the size of my thumbprint.

On this particular day, my mom saw me climbing the chimney and called me off there and called me to her. We were outside.

As I approached, she noted that I had something that appeared to be leaking from my hemangioma on the chest. Instead of the bright red blotch, there was an oozy, thick brown material. My mom spotted this and kind of gasped when she saw it and said “What’s that?!” I’d been told that I needed to be a bit careful with my hemangioma because occasionally they would bleed because the skin over them was often thinner.

I looked down and expertly scooped it off with my thumb. I looked up at her as I stuck my thumb in my mouth and said brightly, “Peanut Butter”! She looked like she was going to faint. It was tasty.

I was never much of a fighter. Never was, never will be and that’s okay. I tried to pick a fight in third grade with Bobby Lane but he didn’t cooperate so I ended up looking pretty stupid. We got in a name calling contest and because I had been taught to not use bad words and that still stuck with me at that age, I was left with “Poopy Head” and he had a far more effective arsenal than I did. On top of that, he refused to let me hit him as he kept just backing away and dodging, leaving me looking pretty dumb. I don’t even recall why I was attempting this other than it had to something to do with peer pressure.

The only effective fight I’ve been in happened when I was about five and, I’m told, because I don’t recall this story, I used “The F-word”. That doesn’t sound like me, but what’re you gonna do. Maybe I was experimenting. So, I used the word around Troy and then he and I had some sort of falling out and he decided that his response was that he was going to tell on me for using the biggie of bad words. As my mom tells the story, she and Troy’s mom found me on top of Troy beating the tar out of him to keep him from going inside and tattling on me. So, that would appear to be the only fight that I won and I don’t recall a single bit of it…

Around this same time, and again Troy was involved, we had been to kindergarden that day and someone had told a joke and for whatever reason, it stuck with me. It’s an inane joke that involves little Bobbie being at school and needing to use the bathroom. They’re practicing the ABCs, but Bobbie has to go use the toilet. He raises his hand and the teach asks why and he says he needs to go to the bathroom. She says he can do it if he can recite his ABCs. As the joke goes, he launches in to the ABCs: “ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO-pause-QRSTUVWXYZ”. The teach asks “Where’s the ‘P’?” Bobbie replies: “Running down my leg!”

Hi-larious! To a five year old. As I was telling this to Troy and he back to me, we decided that the only thing that would be funnier than the joke is, and I kid you not, this is what passed for critical thinking for me at five, was if I actually peed when I told the joke. So, I did! Turns out my babysitter was inside the house on the other side of an open window, so not only did I get caught, I ended up getting punished for executing the BEST JOKE EVER!

Commitment, Baby!