Category: Journal

A most horrible weekend

The night of Friday, 5 February 2010 was the start of the biggest snow storm of the season. In the first night and day of snowing, over twenty-one inches fell.

That was also the weekend I had a ski patrol duty shift, with my patrol shift to start early Saturday morning. Rather than rush the drive up through the snow on Saturday morning, I decided to head off to the ski resort at my own pace on Friday night and spend the night at the shared cabin I rent close to the resort.

I spent the early part of Friday evening with friends at the Wine Loft. By 10pm, I was in my car with the heat turned up, driving in shirt sleeves having taken off my winter coat for comfort, and with satellite radio tuned onto a New Wave channel.  The snow by this point was already thick and heavy on the roads, coming down faster than the road crews could plow and clear the roads. The drive was a white knuckle affair: the thickness of the falling snow made seeing the road lanes and edges impossible. The usually one hour journey took twice as long, and it was near midnight as I neared the resort.

The cabin was uphill on an unpaved dirt track that turned off from the main road to the ski resort. Halfway up the dirt access road was a sharp right hand turn. At the apex of the turn was a truck stuck in the snow on the outside curve, which meant that I had to cut the right hand bend close and tight to the inside curve, resulting in my car sliding sideways into the snow bank and ending up well stuck. No amount of rocking the car with quick first gear and reverse gear changes budged it free.

My immediate plans was to hop out of the car, kick away some snow from around the wheels to clear my way, and my four wheel drive will just power itself out of its predicament. Being on an inclined road with the car facing uphill, gravity swung my car door shut as I exited. I did my 360 around the car tramping down and kicking snow away. On my return to the driver side door, I discovered that in my scramble to climb out of my uphill and sideways leaning car, I must have inadvertently engaged the door lock button, and now my car was completely locked, with the engine still running. My winter coat which I taken off for the drive was nice and toasty warm on the passenger seat along with my cell phone that I had left plugged into the charger; both so close by yet completely out of my reach. Meanwhile, the happy, chirpy tunes of 80’s New Wave continued to play on the satellite radio, oblivious that I was at this point neither happy, nor chirpy, nor there to appreciate the music.

My sense of disbelief at seeing my keychain with all my keys hanging from the ignition switch could have been considered comical if not for the midnight cold of winter and unceasing snow. A few minutes of dismay later, and after having done a walk-around to confirm that all doors and hatchback to my car were truly, irrevocably locked, I made up my mind that it was better to leave my car and to trudge up the rest of the hill to my cabin where at least I wouldn’t freeze to death. The parking lot in front of my cabin hadn’t been plowed, and was packed with knee deep snow; I know because I that’s how high the snow came to on me as I struggled through to reach my cabin. Without my keys, I hopefully gave the door handle a turn, and bless my cabin mates for leaving the front door unlocked when they went to bed.

I rummaged around the cabin until I found a coat hanger, which I thought I could fashion into some sort of  a tool that I could slide into the passenger compartment to push on the unlock lever. I also found a ski parka with a pair of gloves in the living room, and a pair of ski pants hanging on a wall peg in the upstairs hallway. I helped myself to all three. I suppose I must have made a bit of racket ransacking the cabin the way I did, because Barb woke up and came downstairs to investigate, finding me trying to get into her ski pants. I apologized and said I didn’t know to whom the jacket and pants belonged, but I had locked myself out of my still running car with everything in it and I needed to get back to try unlocking it. She understood, but told me that I had to get her clothes back to her by 6am, which was when she had to go to work.

Fearing less the cold, I struggled back through the snow to my car, which on approaching was a beacon of headlights piercing through the snow and steam, and sounding like a cheap dance club with tinny music emanating through the door panels. In the 1am hour of the morning, it was just too dark by the dashboard light to make out any landmarks inside the car, and it was impossible to visually guide the coat hook to any target in the vehicle interior.  Utterly cold, defeated, and miserable, I returned back to the cabin, went to my room, and crawled into my bed.

Sleep came fitfully, with bad dreams waking me up, and disturbing thoughts keeping me awake: would my car overheat and set itself on fire because its was bound in snow and no longer had any meaningful air movement through the engine compartment? Would it run out of gas, then with the heater, radio, and headlights running, proceed to draining the battery? Some lay-in-the-dark mental math had me figuring out that I know I could make it from Pittsburgh to DC on a full tank of gas with a comfortable enough margin to spare that I could drive out of the district before I had to refuel, so I knew that a full tank of gas would last at least four hours of driving at highway speeds with the engine revving around six thousand RPMs. I had filled up the tank just before driving out from Pittsburgh, and I remembered that when I was locked out of my car at midnight, there was over three-quarters tank of gas in the car, which gave me some cold comfort that at idle speed, the three-quarter tank of gas should last at least eight to twelve hours: long enough for the sun to rise, and for me to get back on the task of unlocking my car.

Unable to sleep, I decided at 4am that perhaps if I had a larger gauge of coat hanger, I might have better luck with trying to spring the door lock. So once again I went about borrowing coat, ski pants, and gloves, and battling the snow to my car. This second iteration of trying to unlock my car was just as unsuccessful as the earlier attempt. Back in the cabin, I wrote up two notes, placing one on the front door and the other on Barb’s glove making sure that she would not miss seeing my notes, which asked her that if she was headed up to the ski resort, could she wake me up and give me a ride.

Shortly before 6am, she knocked on my room door to tell me that she was indeed heading to the resort, and could give me a ride. Over quick morning shots of coffee in the kitchen, she said that she had an extra jacket in the car that I could wear in the car so I wouldn’t get cold in the short drive up to the resort. Since our cabin’s parking lot was inaccessible to vehicles due to the snow packed into it, she had parked her car at a pull-off about fifty yards up the access road. She came up with suggestion that I would give her a five minute head start so that by the time I followed and got to her car, she would have it unlocked, ready, and warmed up, which sounded like a capital plan to me.

After the appointed five minute head start, I dashed out of the cabin and followed her footprints, deeply indented into the untouched overnight snowfall which had all but filled in and covered any signs of my tramping about in the dark earlier that morning. When I made it to Barb’s car, she had indeed started the engine, but all doors were open, and she was shoveling out of her car.

“I don’t know how it happened,” she said as I approached. “I must have left the passenger side window open all night. There’s snow all over the inside of the car.” I tried hard not to laugh, which turned out rather easily accomplished since I was more preoccupied with shivering. She ducked into her car, and came out with her spare jacket: it was pink leather, and the sleeves were slightly too short for me. And I had trouble figuring out how to zipper it up until I realized that it was double-breasted. I must have looked very dubious in it. Her car had been plowed in, and she was busy emptying out the snow from inside her car, so I offered to walk up to some of the other cabins to see if there was a snow shovel left outside I could borrow to shovel out her car. It didn’t take me long: the second row of cabins I came to had left a shovel standing next to a front door. I climbed over the snowbank, retrieved the shovel and went back to Barb’s car and began to shovel it out.

After twenty minutes of hard shoveling an exit for her car, she asked if I was tired and if I wanted to switch with her and I could work on unsnowing the inside of her car while she took over shoveling duties. I agreed, handed her the shovel, and climbed into her car to brush out the overnight snow accumulation. Not thirty seconds after I started cleaning out the inside of her car, Barb called me out saying that the guy whose shovel we took was there. We introduced ourselves all round; I apologized for taking his shovel without permission, but I swore that I would have returned it once we were done. He vigorously offered to help us shovel out Barb’s car, an offer both Barb and I accepted. It was only later that I realized that he must have thought that I was such a douche dressed in a too small, pink leather jacket, hiding out in the car and while leaving a woman to do the hard work of shoveling snow. Twenty more minutes of shoveling, and with much wheel spinning, slipping and sliding, her car was finally freed. We thanked the shovel owner one last time, and drove up to the resort where she dropped me off at the ski patrol house.

With both access to a phone, and a warm place to wait, I called up AAA. After the usual canned music-on-hold, I finally spoke to a representative; I explained that I was locked out of my car with the engine running, and the service representative told me, “due to the extreme weather, AAA has stopped all service calls.” This was now totally WTF and getting to be FML.

My next option was to break into my car myself. I called up the borough police asking if they had a Slim Jim that I might borrow. The dispatcher said she would have to check with the patrol cars to see if any patrolman had one, and that she would call me back. We used to have a Slim Jim at ski patrol, but it could no longer be found.

I got equal doses of sympathy and amusement from the ski patrollers who managed to get to the resort and were reporting for start of shift. A ski patroller heading out offered to stop by the office for Winter Operations where their director might knows of Slim Jims on premises. Police dispatch returned my call to tell me that none of their patrol cars carried Slim Jims. Word then came back from the Director of Winter Operations that the vehicle maintenance department had a whole kit for gaining entry into locked cars.

I easily hiked the two hundred yards to the vehicle maintenance garage to borrow their Slim Jim. It turns out that they didn’t use Slim Jims as much as a plain stiff metal rod to disengage the door lock switch from the passenger compartment. Unfortunately, all their rods were in the trucks that were now plowing the roads, and they couldn’t afford to call any of them back. The maintenance mechanic dug out some surplus iron bars, cut off a segment of about a yard and a half, put a bend in it, and ground down the rough ends of it and lent that to me as a manufactured door lock rod. He also lent me two window wedges. The rod was definitely much more substantial than the flimsy coat hangers that I had previously used.

I was just in time to come across two patrollers driving up to the ski patrol house as I was returning there. The patroller in the passenger seat got out of the car, and I leaned in to ask the driver if I could con him into driving me back to my cabin. Surprisingly, he  said yes and said he knew exactly where the cabin was since he was renting a cabin in the same development. On the drive back to the cabin, I told him the whole story of how I locked myself out of my car. He said he and his passenger had seen my car and had wondered whose car it was.

It took me about ten minutes of fidgeting and jiggling the rod inside my car before I had it unlocked. The patroller who had ferried me back to my car, had driven up the access road to turn his car around, returned and told me that while he was up by the cabins, he had helped shovel out two other cars.

Finally, past eight in the morning, I was able to drive out with my car and head to the ski resort. I noted that my gas tank was just under three quarters of a tank full, making this little point the one small standout highlight of the weekend.

National Novel Writing Month

It’s been about a month since someone told me about the National Novel Writing Month, Nano for those in the know.

It’s alwaye been a dream of mine to be published, although through all these years while I keep coming up with idea after concept for books, short stories, and screen plays, I’ve never really put words to paper and written anything.

Nano has become, for me, the kick in the pants of having a hard deadline to write something. Anything. The goal of Nano is very simply to write a 50,000 word novel from scratch within the time span of one month. The primary aim of the campaign is quantity, not quality. Apparently the hard part is to generate the requisite amount of words. Rewrites to polish the opus can come later after the initial 50,000 words are done.

Instead of dusting off some of already thought-of ideas, I’ve inadvertently come up with a brand new idea for my novel. I originally wanted to title it Gods of War, but that name is already used for a video game. The backup title, and now the working title is War Gods.

So, let’s see how November works out for me on my road to published-dom.

Last day

Last day. Capricorn 29’s. Year of the city 2274. Carousel begins.

In Logan’s Run, upon their thirtieth birthday, everyone was on their last day, where they would enter into a ceremony called carousel in which they would undergo renewal and be reborn. In reality, nobody was ever renewed.

Today is my last day at work. I won’t be coming in to this office anymore; my renewal will be with another firm. For the first time in my seventeen year working career, I am out of a job. I’ve been retrenched and next week will be unemployed.

Technically, this is still my first post-college job, although I’m on my fifth company. I’ve survived numerous layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, and sell-offs, and have always been part and parcel of every transaction that saw the company name or ownership change. This latest development is the company principal wanting to do a drastic head count reduction. I saw this company go from a start-up in my boss’ home’s basement to being acquired by a near billion dollar company, and then being sold off again as small, lean, entrepreneurial firm, and now a company in shambles as it tries to operate with an understaffed IT group trying to pick up the pieces of the esoteric and complex processes that I dealt with everyday for the last few years in my cube.

Packing my belongings from my cube, I find the old reminders of the early days at the company. There is the superball that we used to randomly throw over the cubicle walls hoping that it would land or bounce onto a developer’s keyboard. There is also the small, hollow tube that I used as a blowpipe shooting wads of paper at the other programmers in the office. So, the denouement of my history at this job are the knick-knacks and toys that pack into a simple cardboard box, which I carry with me on my last exit from the building.

Counting down…

As of today, I have one more month of employment, after which I will be retrenched.

I’m not entirely certain what I should be doing at the office during this last month. Should I keep working on the initiatives on which I’ve been working, knowing that I probably won’t be able to complete them in time, and that it’s unlikely that any other programmer will pick up the effort after I leave? Most of my code deals with configuration management; it’s not customer facing. So it’s not like if I don’t finish my work, a customer will notice its absence and demand its implementation. My work deals with configuration management and comes into play when changes need to be made to the database: my code makes managing rolling out these changes easier, more reliable, and more robust. At least I’m not getting a slap in the face by being tasked to train-up an employee or outsourced employee who is replacing me at a lower salary.

On the other hand, it is a bit of a refreshing feeling, coming in to work and knowing that I can largely skive and get away with it, since no one will really be gauging my productivity anymore, and I can spend my day working on my resume and looking for a new job. But still, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling that I’m about to go out without a safety net, and not having a job for much longer.

The head-count reduction that the company principal wanted may be going deeper than he anticipated. He’s let go of about half the development team, added to those who have voluntarily jumped ship on the first hint of lay-offs in the pipeline, plus those of us still here but actively searching for new jobs because we don’t see any future in the company anymore. Whomever is left, which may be down to a number you can count on one hand and possibly one finger, is really only enough staff to come in everyday to monitor for problems and reboot the servers if things do go wrong.

Abandon ship!

For the first time in my decade and a half of working career, I am facing the prospect of being retrenched and having to look for a job. I was hired right as I graduated and have held on to my first job even though I’m on my fifth company. In the time since I was first hired, the company has been mergered and acquired, sliced and diced then sold, reacquired, and I have been passed along to each new ownership.

The company for which I work now has been operating as leanly as possible; we run like the early days of dot-com startups. Our job descriptions basically fall into one of two departments: customer service, or software development/QA. We don’t have any dedicated IT staff to minister the network or servers. All of us wear multiple hats as programmers in addition to network, server, and system administrators. There is no tier-1 support staff from whom difficult trouble tickets would escalate to the development group; we as the non-customer facing department are hit directly when goes wrong with the production system and we serve as the first-line of support.

The absentee principal in the company lives and works in a different state, so he’s rarely if ever in our office space. He conducts his management of the company primarily by email and phone. He recently has decided to reduce head count in the development group down to a level that we in the local office feel is unsustainable for continued operations. With as deep a staffing cut that he desires, those of us left would be in a position only to watch and we would no longer have staffing flexibility to do any development nor management beyond putting out fires as errors occur in the production system, even then we might not have enough resources to fix the error beyond diagnosing and acknowledging that a valid bug existed, and to tell our customers not to perform that operation in the future.

On Friday afternoon, he let go a key staff member. Immediately after that layoff was announced, none of us felt safe anymore, knowing that the next cut could indiscriminately be any one of us; it was like a gunshot had gone off in the room. The whole development team resembled rats abandoning a sinking ship. What little more time that we endured in the office that day was spent on cell phones lining up head-hunters and job searches, and commiserating the loss of our colleague.

We left work early and went to the pub around the corner to finish off this disastrous day.

Mattie Cat

In my life, I have had to say good-bye to two cats. The first was Tumbles, years ago. He was an orange cat, who toward the end had lost control of his bowels, and it turned out to be a lower GI tumor. I didn’t get to say good-bye per se. His owner had taken him to the vet, who kept Tumbles overnight for tests and observation. We went back the next day, and were told that it was inoperable. Tumbles’ mom made the decision to put him to sleep. We weren’t there for the procedure, and the vet kept the body because the ground was too frozen in the winter to bury Tumbles. I wonder if Tumbles and Mattie might recognize each other in kitty heaven by their common shared bond through having known me.

Mattie’s very fast decline started with paraparesis about a week and a half ago. An ultrasound at that time revealed an abdominal mass; the blood tests took several days to process, and on its return, the CBC showed abnormal cells. The vet diagnosed Mattie with feline lymphoma and possible sepsis from a tumor on her intestinal wall, and prescribed a mega dose of antibiotics to control the infection, steroids to alleviate the tumor symptoms, and a fentanyl patch to control her pain.

On Friday last, Sara decided it was time to put Mattie to sleep, and I got to spend about half an hour with Mattie to say my good-bye. Mattie had been refusing food for four days, and was beginning to refuse water. When I got to Sara’s place, Mattie was lying on a loose pile of clothes on a throw rug, and looking very sad. I laid on the ground next to her and scratched her under her chin which she’s always liked. I felt bad for all the times that I pushed her away while I was encamped on the couch typing on my laptop computer. And now, I was trying to pack in a lifetime of happiness for her into the thirty minutes we had. If it could have made any difference now letting me make Mattie happier or healthier, I would have let Mattie type all she wanted on my keyboard. Mattie was still concious, and I’d like to think that she still recognized me, laying her head on my hand for affection. Then she looked around, as if she was looking for something, so I offered her some water which she lapped up. After the water, she continued looking around, so I offered her some tuna, of which she ate some. She moved around a bit, but never really getting up on her hind legs, mostly just using her front legs to scramble about.

Mattie Cat and laser dotI pulled out the laser pointer, which always fascinated her and in better times caused her to go chasing after it all over the apartment. Mattie was still lucid enough to take a weak, little swipe at the red laser dot. I will forever remember this image of her as the last happy time she spent with me. Of all the days of playing this game, on this day today, she finally got to catch the little red dot. And then it was time for her to go to the vet.

That Friday turned to be a reprieve; the vet’s opinion was that Mattie had improved significantly, and that the steroid was doing its job in reducing size of Mattie’s tumor, even though it was by no means a cure. At the vet, Mattie was showing an interest in her surroundings, and grooming herself somewhat, which meant that she still wanted to live. So it was with hopeful optimism that Sara brought Mattie back home again, and it would be day-by-day to see if Mattie would continue to improve.

Late morning Sunday, Sara texted me, saying that it was time. After some initial improvement including on Saturday, Mattie woke up Sunday morning miserable. I met them at the animal hospital. Mattie was looking very sad and tired and showed no interest in anything. The nurse took Mattie away for a few minutes to get an IV line started in preparation and while they had her also made a little impression of Mattie’s paw in a clay disk for Sara to keep. Sara then had Mattie on her lap and I was right next to them, and we comforted Mattie as the hospital did their paperwork. Then it was time; the little moving around we had to do caused Mattie to groan in pain, but she was otherwise listless; she was ready to go. We kept on petting and stroking her, letting her know that she was in the hands that loved her in her final moments. The vet gave Mattie the bolus of euthanasia drug. Mattie perked up a bit, raised her head and looked around with clear, sparkling eyes; the vet had warned us about this, it was just her body releasing some endorphins and cats get excited; it was less than a second. Then she put her head down one final time, and was quietly gone.

All things water

I’ve never been that big on swimming nor water activities. Nevertheless, I find myself in or on the water quite a lot these days.

Crew rowing has always been a passion of mine since I discovered it in college. I’ve never truly managed to leave the sport, even as I quit it for a few years, and I return to it a few years later. Sara brought me back to rowing this time when she signed up to do the corporate crew program at the boat house. So, I’m back to coaching sweep rowing. At the same time, an opportunity presented itself for me to learn sculling. Years ago, when I was sweep rowing, I took up sculling, and the sum total of my sculling instruction from my then coach Liz was her telling me, “remember it’s left over right; everything else is left-over. You’ll do fine; go out and have fun.” So I consider this recent sculling instruction as filling in the blank spots for which I never had to the opportunity to learn.

Last weekend, Sara organized a rather good sized whitewater rafting trip at Ohiopyle. It was a wonderful weekend spent at a great lodge, and the Gear and Beer microbrew festival was also on the same weekend.

The other activity I picked up for this year is that I’m volunteering with Venture Outdoor for their kayaking (and biking) events. So I’m going to be on the river even more. I do remember that Lawrenceville spring break in Mexico, and kayaking in the Sea of Cortez and camping in the desert. That was a great school trip.


Against my better judgement, the Venus Flytrap that Kim had given me for Christmas is still alive. There’s been a constant renewal of greenery in the little pot: some green fingers of leaves have died off, but have always been replaced by other leaves coming up. In fact, the plant is absolutely thriving, if it can actually thrive in a pot barely larger than a shot-glass. I have more green things in there now than when I first received it. Admittedly, Kim had said that she won’t blame me if the plant died because she forgot to water it for quite a bit while awaiting gifting it to me. It looked sad enough when I got it that I thought it might be a hopeless case.

Kim had gotten idea of giving me the Flytrap because in high school, I had a venus flytrap, that accidentally died when I took it for a walk one night. I went to a boarding high school, and I was in the house (dorm) one night, with my Flytrap in hand, and walking it around. I had stopped in the hallway to talk with someone, I think it was Paul. Someone else came by and bumped into my elbow, which made me drop my plant onto Paul’s foot; Paul, sensing that something had landed on his foot, and not realizing that it was a poor plant, thought that an animal had latched onto his lower extremities, reflexively kicked. The plant and pot both launched up and bounced off the ceiling, before bouncing on the floor. The plant was never the same after that, and shortly later died, wasting away like people do in comas in the ICU. It would have probably died anyway because while I was attentive and feeding it meat from the cafeteria, my classmates were feeding it pistachios and pencil lead; not proper plant diet.

Coming back to the plant that Kim got me, in my first few weeks nursing it back to health, I worred that my house had no flies or mosquitoes upon which my pet plant could feast, so I was quite attentive in feeding it meat from a Wendy’s burger. However, the Flytrap never closed its trap. For a while, I thought that this plant too was in its agonal coma, waiting to die in the ICU that was my kitchen window ledge. Against my worst anxieties, it began to recover and grow. Then it occured to me, “this is a fscking plant! It doesn’t need meat; all it needs are sunlight and water, and it understands photosynthesis.”

And I don’t have to clean out any litter boxes.

On experts

Researchers John Hayes and and Benjamin Bloom have written that it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas.

I’ve never considered myself truly an expert. Often, I’ll hear myself being introduced to our clients as the Oracle expert, which always surprises me, because I know there are so many dark corners of an Oracle database in which I have no idea of its workings.

By another measure, an expert is someone who is no longer obligated to follow conventional wisdom. Owing to his or her mastery of the subject matter, an expert is allowed to forge off the well-worn path, and develop in new and novel directions. Over time, perhaps these novel and unique directions may eventually become the new conventional wisdom for others to follow.

I’ve never considered myself truly a rowing expert, although I have spent at least a decade on-and-off with crew rowing. I’ve rowed stroke; I’ve coxed; I’ve coached; and I’ve taught. My rowing charges probably do view me as some sort of authority in rowing since they are learning from me how to row. They ask me questions for which I have well-reasoned answers. And I have gone off in my own direction on developed what I think are the best techniques for moving the boat through the water. Yet, I know I still am not fully an expert.

Rules to live by

Rules to live by: Never make a “portable” when you can no longer taste the “diet” in the CrystalLight (or whatever that pixie stick of ice-tea mix was). And when you haven’t eaten all day. And you’ve been eating Jello shots like there was no tomorrow because you were hungry.