Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Way Everything Works

My first software job, when the ink barely dry on my Computer Science diploma, was being a QA guy, a software tester, for a midsize local company. I'd been only a day or two on the job when I found a bug. A bug! I was sure of it. I verified it.

I showed it to my boss, who was unimpressed. "Sure," he said, "let's have you learn to file a bug report." My coworkers also were not very interested. I began to wonder if I had found myself a dud of a company. The next day I found three more bugs. I was hot stuff! Only nobody seemed very excited.

As time went by, I learned why. There was a enormous database of known bugs. The software was riddled with bugs. It was miraculous that it worked at all. Each development cycle, the developers would spend a few weeks fixing the worst ones, but the backlog steadily grew. Many of the bugs were so deep in the infrastructure that they couldn't be torn out without rewriting the thing from scratch. Some -- many -- most -- of the bugs would never, ever be fixed.

This was a successful product of a successful company. And as I moved on to bigger-name companies, ones you've heard of, I found that this was true of all software. A QA guy's job is not to discover the few rare, uncommon bugs. It's to find the important bugs, the ones that users will typically encounter, the ones that will make them grumpy. And yes, this is true of the software that decides how to modulate the force of the brakes in your car, and the software that decides whether a command to launch nukes has really been received from the White House. You might want to think about that. Or you might not.

As I wander on through life, observing various human endeavors, I've come to realize that everything is like that. Nothing has really been built to specs. Nothing quite operates as advertised. The flaws are various and infinite. All you can do is fix a few of the most glaring problems. The rest will have to stand. You can see it in software, because software is uniquely observable: it does exactly the same thing, over and over again, and it breaks down readily into tiny discreet steps. But everything works that way.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Taking Stock

Like the silence after a slammed door. The light is soft and diffuse: rain showers wander in, window-shop, wander away. I have been off balance for several days. A growing sense that I am off track, seriously astray. I need to slow down and take stock. Fortunately, this is exactly the right sky for that.

Partly, we are coming on to the Season Of Not Being Who Anybody Wants Me To Be -- some call it the Holiday Season -- and I'm hunching my shoulders against it. But it's more than that. I am, in fact, astray. And at this point in my life, the losing and finding of myself make such a deep palimpsest that the sheer multiplicity is confusing. I've rolled out so many versions of myself, with so many promised features, that I can't keep them straight any more: all I know is that the marketing people are way ahead of the developers.

Well, first: take the time. The world can do without me for a little bit. 

Second: back way, way off. There was a time when The Big Picture was something I spent too much time on. Now I spend too little on it. Time to zoom way out and ask some large simple questions, again: what do I really want? Which pursuits, and how much time to each, and how to judge if each chase has a beast in view?

Third, take soundings. Check facts. Don't be railroaded by hearsay and speculation.

When I do take the long view, the first fact that presents itself is this: I have already won. I have already beaten the odds; I have already made a rich and joyful life out of improbable, unprepossessing materials. The desperation that used to be the bass-line of my awareness -- I can let that fade, now. There is other music to hear.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Machine in the Field

I can never get a quorum. I would like, just once, to hold a plenary session with all the various parts of my heart, brain, and soul present, and really hash things out. But they never all show. In the midst of enthusiastic resolutions and votes by acclamation, the continual nagging thought: "isn't this an awfully small crowd?" You can look at all the concord and say, "oh, this is the real me!" but it's not. It's just the bits of me that showed up this time. The others will be along by and by, surly and bitter, doggedly pursuing their own ends. They never signed on in the first place.

Frustration: and I don't know how to put it to work. On the one hand, I want to quantify absolutely everything and lay out the rules and control everything. But that's not the solution either. There needs to be give in the system, I know that. But the formula escapes me. And I don't really know where I want to drag this ramshackle machine. The day shift pulls it one way, the night shift another, and after a week or two it remains in pretty much where it was. But older, shakier.

I really do not know what any of us want any more. I'm adrift. And have been -- I suddenly see -- for years. Or maybe forever. Maybe even to ask for a direction and a goal is to ask for falsehood, ask for blinders. It may well be.

I have never quite appreciated how finite my resources are. I've never really built that into my plans. There is still, after all this time, a tinge of grandiosity in me. Once the golden boy, always the golden boy: never mind the white hair and the occasional old man's hesitation. "I am as fierce and wild as ever," somebody mutters. But I look over my shoulder to try to see who's talking.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Toll Road

It's like waking from one of those long, complicated dreams: slow discoveries of deceptions (major or minor), the resolution of a vague, large, looming disaster into a coat flung over a chair; the slow focus whereby north is fitted to north, south to south; and the room revolves, finds its groove, settles.

The disappointment and relief of plain day. My heart has been wrenched and wrung and left out to dry: now its rough and prickly fabric, though stiff, is serviceable enough. I can dress, and walk at dawn. Nothing has changed.

What did I think? Well, I didn't think. I put off thinking as long as I could. And now what? 

Well, I know two things, now. That this is not enough: and that I am utterly alone.

I walk along the warped and faded piers, where the boats nod, and count the morning stars. The wood is stained with salt and long pounding, the rasp of painters, the droppings of gulls. The morning still has more of the night than the day in it.

I think of yesterday, of the grooves where the beach grass has never been able to take hold, the streaks of white running straight up to the crest. The wind throws the sharp edges of the grass against my arms, and the sand fills my shoes. Sometimes there's a second, even a third crest -- you never know -- and then the sea opens out on either hand, running out of sight in the misty distance, miles of beach north and miles south, and no two- or four-legged creature in sight. It's a fine pale loneliness, up there.

Well. Good morning. I'm all out of dreams: I must make my way as a waking creature, whatever the tolls.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Wave, The Particle, and the Holy Spirit

To many of us incorrigibly religious people, the fact of Presence is simply indisputable. We may, and do, argue all day about what exactly it is or isn't. We can be frustratingly vague or charmingly naive. (God is a free swerve of intention; God is an old man who sits on a cloud.) But to us God -- or Something -- is no more a proposition to be disputed than light is. If someone proposes to you that there is no such thing as light, you're perfectly willing to hear them out, but it's with a sort of indulgent tolerance. "All right, well, no such thing as 'light.' What do you call all of this, then?" And they point out that we can't see the light rays -- or particles, or wavicles, or whatever -- traveling from the lamp to the wall, and that we might very well be making them up, and we can see, yes, that's true, we might; but somehow the argument doesn't make as much of an impression on us as they think it should.

When all of our talking and thinking and feeling about moral life and ecstasy and affection has been phrased in terms of God, all our lives, and someone proposes that there is no such thing as God, it sounds like nonsense, as if they were proposing that none of the meaningful parts of our lives existed. Or it sounds like they are very horrible people indeed, if their lives have no moral or ecstatic or affectionate component to them. The truth, of course, is disappointingly bland. They just have different names for all these things, different ways of thinking about them. They try to do the right thing, they experience just as much awe, they love their kids just as much as we do. If there are fundamental philosophical contradictions in their point of view, well, there are fundamental philosophical contradictions in ours, too. My question is not so much: "are we right, or are they right?" -- but rather, "are we even disputing about anything?"

Well, except, of course, that people are murdering each other all over the globe according to the exact shades of the God color they wear. Really I think mostly they need to create a royal row to divert attention from their hand being in someone else's pocket, but the fact remains.

A sweet pale blue sky, and the leaves turning.

Oh, God, and such important things left undiscussed. That is the real problem. The things we aren't talking about.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


They are delicate, slender people, easily chilled: they wear droll curls, and shiver in sweaters and hoodies while I sit comfortably in my T-shirt. I watch their quick smiles and bird-like movements with some envy, some desire. Though truth to tell, I am comfortable in my florid bulk: I like my solidity and deliberation. Wind and tide are nothing to me. I hold my own, without effort, in the world.

These two now, they huddle in their clothes, and lean towards each other over the table, so that their heads almost touch; their gleaming hair almost brushes the table. When the waitress comes they fall back, like startled cats, but having ordered, they gain confidence and lean together again. They are so young, so young. They bounce in their seats, when they laugh. Their voices rise in bubbly little strings that tickle my ears.

They prop themselves on their elbows: one shoulder goes forward, and their heads roll over the other one. They peer at each other, with their heads on one side, as if they were birds peeking through branches. Are they in love? I can't tell. What does love look like, when you're that young, and that nervous? Would they even know?

I stretch, and take a breath into the huge slow bellows of my chest. We saw a sitka spruce on Cape Meares that was already old when Chaucer was picking out rhymes for the Parlement of Foules: I feel ancient and gigantic, like that tree, with a momentum of life in me that could not possibly run down in mere century or two.


Yesterday, Martha said, "I think you better take me walkies." So we went to Bridal Veil:

Monday, September 01, 2014

In The Doorway

No: I've said it the wrong way, or at the wrong time, or wearing the wrong mask. Whether it's true is actually not particularly an issue, if the other criteria for right speech are not met. Walk it back, erase it, start over, read and listen and think.

I feel as though I had been repeatedly kicked in the face (or sometimes the stomach, or sometimes the balls) and I was kicking back, as one does. But one does not have to believe in oneself. I am horrified, horrified, horrified by my friends, sometimes. All the more reason to shut up, sit tight, gather more info, mull it over. What are friends for, if not to kick you?

And of course the real sources of my vulnerability are deeper and more troubling. Never have I been more aware, painfully aware, of the crookedness of my relationship with the world. So many things I must feel and not say, so many caveats and trapdoors. And in the meantime minutes, hours, days, years, even decades trickle away. I am awkwardly placed in the doorway, where everyone has to apologize to me as they squeeze by. It's one thing for a cat: a grown man, and a stout one at that, is supposed to handle his bulk more conveniently.

And in the meantime, the rage of the world goes on, without missing a beat. It's the relentlessness that's so wearing: that and -- at this age -- knowing that it's not going to stop.