Thank a Teacher Who Changed Your Life

Kevin Kelly – co-founder of Wired – has offered collections of “unsolicited advice” on his last few birthdays. He turned 70 this year, and while reading this year’s list over breakfast this morning one of his suggestions brought me up short.

Thank a teacher who changed your life.

I sat for a moment, reflecting on how incredibly fortunate I’ve been.

Mrs. Tanizawa and Mrs. Hurtado (née Yoon), who taught me – through the lens of hindsight – that there’s more than one way to hold students to high standards and great expectations.

Mrs. Kemp, who was living proof that “playing with computers” could be a living. I can still see that 7th grade class room in my mind’s eye – desks on one side, Apple computers on the other. Her choice to “retire” from industry and teach is one I will be forever grateful for.

Mr. Barron, who accepted a freshman into an elective course for 3rd and 4th year students, making it clear that if I stayed my work would be held to that standard. And who showed a bunch of over-confident teens that when arguing a case in front of a judge, confidence only gets you so far. And that teams can go further than they realize. I think of him anytime I see a red marker pen, or someone mentiones Chester A. Arthur.

Mr. Klevos, who imagined my surname might be french, and found ways to blend literature and the arts in ways that deepened my appreciation for both.

Mrs. Wilkoff, who made European history about more than the wars. And who reminded me, in a moment of candor in the classroom, that teachers are first and foremost “just people.” I thought of her on my first visit to Prague, standing at the window of the famed defenestrations. If learning is what you remember years later… I learned.

Mr. Cullinane, who was a teacher, a scientist, and a coach. He couldn’t help but be all of those things all of the time, and his students reaped the benefits.

Mr. Douglass, who always graciously accepted the lead roles in our in-class Shakespeare readings – and who insisted that plays were meant to be heard if they couldn’t be seen.

Randy Hyde, and Dr.’s Molle and Payne, each of whom had disproportionate impact on my undergraduate studies.

And while I don’t think I was ever her student in a classroom setting, this list would be woefully incomplete if it didn’t include my mom. You may have retired, but you’ll never stop being a teacher.

The words “thank you” are not near enough.

We Have a Guest Bed (Again)

Yesterday afternoon Dawnise helped me assemble the guest bed, which had been disassembled and stowed up against the wall since before we moved in to this flat 14 months ago.

I was surprised at how much seeing a bed in that bedroom made me smile.

Yesterday was my last day in the office, and assuming our pre-flight COVID tests tomorrow don’t surprise us (incredibly unlikely, since we’ve basically self-isolated for the past week), Tuesday morning we head to Heathrow to catch a flight to Seattle. We planned the trip before the Omicron wave, and after much consideration and debate, we decided to stick to the plan.

We’ve dialed down our social planning a bunch, so as not to catch anything and become super spreaders, so if you’re reading this in Seattle and would like to catch up while we’re there – we’d love to, but “not this time,” I’m sorry to say.

The bed building that started this all is for a friend of ours who’s coming to stay at the flat for the time we’re gone. It’s a change of scenery for her and care and company for the cats, who’ve not been separated from us for the better part of two years. She might even get to spend some time wandering around London, weather permitting.

One of the hardest bits of planning this trip – or any trip – was sorting out care for Oscar. A cat sitter willing to appear twice a day to feed and inject a cat has proven to be tricky.

I’m happy to report that our cat care needs got significantly easier a few days ago, when Oscar’s latest blood work showed continued normal fructosamie levels and glucose control. When his vet called to chat about the results, she said “it’s up to you, but if it were my cat, I’d stop giving the insulin; the risk of overdose at this point is higher than being underdosed.”

You don’t need to tell me twice.

Along with the need for daily insulin, so goes the need for a strict 12 hour feeding schedule. His (very low carbohydrate) wet-food diet, and needing to ensure Oscar doesn’t eat Ivan’s food, still pose challenges for once-daily pet care vists.

We bought Ivan a fancy feeder that only opens for him when we found one on significant reduction (who knew having the cat microchipped would be useful beyond reuniting us if we wandered off?), and a lower tech dual timed feeder for Oscar. We’ve been working on figuring out how to do all the days feeding at night. We haven’t quite cracked it, but it feels like we’re close.

So no insulin while we’re gone, and a week or so after we return we’ll bring him in for another test. Assuming the blood work continues to look good he’ll go to a six-month recheck schedule, and after that TBD.

Tuesday evening we’ll land at SEATAC, pick up the rental car, and switch back to driving on the right (hand) side of the road.

We’ll sort through a couple years of mail and clean out the pantry of stuff that’s two years out of date. Dawnise has an appointment at the Department of Licensing to get her driving licence renewed, and we’ll finally get to meet our nieces. After about a week in Seattle we head to visit my parents on the east coast for a few days before heading back to London.

I wish I could say I’m looking forward to the trip, but mostly I’m just trepidacious.

Oh, that guest bed? Once COVID sees fit to give us our lives back, reservations will be available…

I’ve forgotten how to travel…

As I type I’m sitting on a LNER train to York, Dawnise and our traveling companions scattered through the carriage behind me.

It’s the farthest I’ve been from Central London in nearly two years. It’s just for a few days – were back in London on Monday – but it feels..significant.

Foreign.

A feeling I remember from the before time.

The anticipation of a new place. The uncertainty of what we’ll find.

“I hope the hotel is as nice as it looked.”

“I hope there’s a place that makes drinkable coffee.”

Getting this far took a surprising amount of work – mostly to find someone to care for our diabetic and hence high maintenance cat(s). After several false starts we’ve left the boys and a set of keys to our flat in the hands of someone we’ve only just met, but who seems lovely.

Packing used to be a rote routine. I’m clearly out of practice. I’m pretty sure I packed only what I need, and didn’t forget anything. At least not anything I can’t obtain or do without for a couple days.

Fingers crossed.

It also reminds me that I really like train travel. Watching the scenery blurring past. The quiet of a not-crammed-full train carriage, people reading, chatting quietly.

And it reminds me of work trips from a past life.

Wandering around the UK and Europe visiting business partners with colleagues who were good travel companions and friends. The sinking feeling when a colleague realized she’d left her handbag on a train. The incredulity when the train operator confirmed that they had her bag and it would be back where we were via the first train the next morning. The utter shock when it actually appeared as promised, contents intact.

We’re approaching our penultimate stop.

Soon I’ll be somewhere I wasn’t this morning. That I’ve never been before.

I miss this.

When The Juice Isn’t Worth the Squeeze

I generally avoid writing about “work stuff.” This is an exception.

It’s early November as I type this, but it’ll sit unpublished for at least a couple weeks. A couple weeks ago, in late October, I “gave notice” that I intend to resign my role and part ways with my employer.

In the US it’d be all done and dusted by now. Not so in the UK.

Per my employment agreement (contract, even!) I owed the company (and the company owed me) three months notice if either side wanted to end the relationship. So notice in October translated to leaving in January. At the time of this writing, only a handful of my colleagues and leadership are aware of my decision. Communicating broadly this early seemed unnecessary and likely counter-productive, hence the delay in publication. As you’re reading this, it means the proverbial cat’s been let out of its bag.

The frequently asked questions from peers and leaders were “what’s next?” and “why?”

“What’s next?” is the easy one. Nothing, at least for a bit. I’m going to take a break. We’re planning to stay in the UK for a while, and hopefully (all appropriate digits crossed) eventually get the chance to do some of the traveling we moved “over here” to do, before Covid repeatedly dumped cold water on our plans. I figure I’ll start looking around for the next thing in the spring, and we’ll see where that ends us up.

Saying “easy” is maybe glossing over things a bit. That we can stick around, and don’t face a deadline to get ourselves and the cats out of the UK, comes from a healthy dose of good fortune, a bit of good planning, and help from some good friends*.

So that leaves “why?”

When someone decides to leave a group there are three sets of reasons. There are reasons they keep to themselves, reasons they share with the group, and reasons the group hears. To me, making the reasons I share and the reasons that are heard “the same” is important. And can be surprisingly difficult. I figure the best strategy is to pick one message you want to deliver, state the message as simply as you can, and deliver it consistently. Even then people, to a large extent, will hear what they want to hear. They’ll focus on the bits of the story that resonate with their world view, their experience, or their biases. And there’s not much you can do to prevent that.

The message I’m trying to consistently deliver is rougly “it’s not you, it’s me.” Over four years working in three different parts of the company under different leaders on different projects, I’ve proven to myself that I can be effective and impactful in this peculiar environment – something I wasn’t completely confident of, having been in my last role and company for over a decade. In that time I’ve also come to realize that I’m not having as much fun as our tagline suggests I should – especially given the energy and time the role demands.

At the end of the day I’m moving on because, as a friend (and soon-to-be-former colleague) likes to say, it feels like “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

I’ve learned a bunch over these four years. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how this “really big tech company” does what it does. What it’s good at. What it struggles with. I’m leaving with no regrets and (hopefully) no bridges burned.

I’ve met some great folks who I’m happy to call friends, and who I’d happily choose to work with again. And who I’m definitely going to miss.

That reason is true, by the way. Which to me is really important. But it’s obviously not the whole truth. One could ask “why?” again and again, until there are no new answers. I’m not going to bore you with that exercise, but I did do it. It pointed me at root causes that I don’t have leverage or agency to fix. Indeed, “fixing” some of them would mean changing fundamental tenets the company culture holds close, and has been successful following.

So, it’s time for me to try something new.

All that’s left now is to figure out what that might be.

I Will Not Take These Things for Granted

Europe and the UK are entering another holiday season with COVID hanging menacingly over the festivities like The Sword of Damocles.

Christmas events across the countries in Europe hardest hit by the current wave are being canceled. The trip to Belgium we failed to take in 2019 owing to a French rail strike is this time being scuttled by the near vertical case growth in Belgium and the restrictions that accompany it.

In a shocking first, the government here has taken quick action in response to the new “variant of concern.” England has reinstated mandatory masks on transit and in public indoor spaces (but not restaurants or pubs, the places people tend to gather close and trade exhalations), and as of today will require mandatory self-isolation pending a negative PCR test on (re)entry to the country.

Against this backdrop, Dawnise and I hosted two other expat couples to celebrate American Thanksgiving on Sunday. It was the first time we’d had six people around the table in the year we’ve lived in this flat.

We spent the morning prepping our contributions, and when guests arrived we spent the day cooking, laughing, and quaffing wine before eating good food with good friends.

After dinner, we each took a moment to share some of the things we were thankful for over the past year.

There were a few shared themes. Being healthy. Having friends to share moments of lightness. Of having been incredibly lucky to find a life partner who’s a good partner – even after two years in near constant close quarters.

We played a few games before parceling out the left-overs and saying goodnight. One couple caught a cab home to their place a few miles east, and the other covered the few blocks that separate us on foot.

After putting the ovens into self-clean mode, loading the dishwasher, and washing the handful of things that needed it we adjourned to the sofa and found something funny to watch before turning in for the evening.

It was a poignant reminder of the sort of thing we used to do fairly regularly, and the sort of thing I sincerely hope to do with increasing regularity in the future.

And something I will do my very best to not take for granted.

Exhausted from Social-ing… A lot.

I’m sure weekends like this used to be pretty normal… in the before times. But I’m out of practice, and I’m totally knackered.

Dawnise found-out on Facebook post that a neighbor of ours from Seattle was moving to London. She arrived (and made the aforementioned Facebook post) earlier this week. She got settled into temp housing, got a clear COVID test, and we had her around for Saturday brunch. I made brioche french toast and we sat and caught up for a couple hours. It was fantastic.

Saturday night we caught the DLR to a “do-over” birthday party for a friend, at a gastro pub in east London, along the Thames. They had arranged a room – food, drinks, and more people than we’d been in one place with in quite a while. At some point, somehow, Dawnise and another extroverted friend ended up chatting with a group of very well dressed folks who turned out to be quite interesting. Two were musicians, one in media, and the last a bit of a serial entrepreneur.

This morning we got up, made breakfast, and caught an early afternoon train to Guildford, to meet up with friends and former colleagues we haven’t seen in far too long. We spent the afternoon chatting, eating and drinking with friends with better weather than we had any right to hope for. We got a ride back to the station, fortuitously arrived just in time to catch an express train back to London, and got home just on time to feed and medicate the diabetic cat.

Tomorrow we’ve got tickets for a play we were scheduled to see just before the theaters were closed, with friends who’ve since moved back to the US.

Put a fork in me. I’m done.

But also, more of this, please-and-thank-you.

A Path Not Taken

Occasionally, life nudges you to look over your shoulder, and wonder about what might have been.

I finished reading This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, by Nicole Perlroth. It made me look back at a moment when the choices I made left clearly visible ripples in the pond.

In 2002 I was working for a startup that was running out of runway. I was asked to stick around and wrap things up, as much as they could be, but knew before long I’d be looking for “the next thing.” I started talking to companies in the Los Angeles area, and had a couple prospects.

I chatted with a company then called Overture, formerly known as GoTo.com, that pioneered the pay-for-placement search model. A few years later they would be acquired for billions-with-a-b dollars by Yahoo!, but I didn’t join them. So the story doesn’t go there.

One afternoon I headed out to UC Riverside, where I’d done my undergraduate degree, to say hi to some of the faculty I stayed in touch with, and have lunch. That conversation set the wheels in motion for me to return to UCR, work on a DARPA funded research project, and get my Masters degree. It also meant I got to kick the job hunt down the road by a couple years, which was fine with me. This was set against the backdrop of the “1st dot com bubble burst,” and while I was fortunate to have options, none of them were particularly compelling.

Over the next two years I met some fantastic folks, learned a bunch about topics that were new to me, taught a couple classes, got my first experience leading and mentoring people in an academic setting, publish a few papers, and even managed to build a system, write a thesis and defend it. Not bad, really.

For part of that time I’d been flying up to Seattle, at the invitation of a friend and repeat colleague to consult.

All good things come to an end, and I once again had to turn my attention to “the next thing.” Over a few months, I would interview with Amazon (didn’t join them, but that decision would turn out not to stick), was asked to turn my consulting role into a full time role in Seattle, and got connected through former colleagues to a little “cyber security” company called @Stake. I had worked at the same company as some of the principals before that ill-fated startup, and that was enough to get a phone interview, which turned into an on-site interview, and looked to be on track for an offer.

In 2004 the “cyber security” landscape was very different. Microsoft was investing heavily in improving security, catalyzed by Bill Gates’ annual memo in 2002. Break-ins at large companies that leaked sensitive data weren’t yet commonplace. The world hadn’t yet seen a nation-state weaponize software to attack physical infrastructure. That sort of plot was reserved for Tom Clancy novels, and bandied about by us tin-foil hat types. And Snowden hadn’t yet shown the tin foil hat types that there were threats in heaven and earth even they hadn’t dream’t of.

And in this “left-of-boom” moment I was seriously considering joining a software security firm. Helping customers defend their networks from bad guys and… well, who knows what else.

But that’s not what happened.

@Stake, it turned out, had started doing a bunch of work with Microsoft. Their offer was for me to move to Seattle and they expected a bunch of travel. I had two other offers to move to Seattle, and neither of them involved much travel, which seemed preferable when uprooting your spouse and moving to an unfamiliar place. When I said thanks-but-no-thanks to @Stake they didn’t push back on my summary of “moving plus heavy travel sounds like a great recipe for divorce.”

We did end up moving to Seattle. I turned the consulting gig into full time for a few years. I worked on music and media streaming, not keeping bad guys out of networks.

Perlroth’s book gave me a peak into the world I nearly joined. I’ve had a few brushes with that world over the course of my career. And there were moments in the book that resonated sharply.

Being on the defending side when a bad guy was actively trying to do things they shouldn’t. Working with a wicked smart group of colleagues to clean up a mess when defense succumbed to attack. Spending a few weeks in a windowless room, following the digital footsteps of a sneaky intruder to reconstruct a timeline of events. Finding digital fingerprints that led a colleague back to the intruders name, and address, and photograph. Sharing a look of shock when a coincidental power outage during an event made us all wonder if we were in well over our heads. Laughing when we realized that power outage had inadvertently neutered an otherwise persistent threat. Working closely with security professionals in private practice and in US federal law enforcement. Seeing the look of confusion when my wife said there was a call for me from the FBI one Sunday afternoon.

I’m not sure I’d call them “fun” times. But they were memorable.

At several points in the book, and while reading the closing chapter this morning, I found myself intensely curious about what might have been.

How life might have turned out had I made different choices.

That’s a Name I’ve Not Heard in a Long Time…

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it turns out you can decide to read one based appearance alone. Which is how, despite having no idea who Flint Dille was, I found myself reading his biographic.

It was all about the cover. And the title maybe might have helped.

How do you pass on a book called The Gamesmaster: My Life in the ’80s Geek Culture Trenches with G.I. Joe, Dungeons & Dragons, and The Transformers?

To be clear, I like transforming robots as much as the next male geek growing up in the 80’s, but it was the Dungeons & Dragons bit that sealed the deal.

My first foray online was via a 1200 baud modem (or maybe it was 300 baud, I forget) and an Apple ][+. The computer and modem had been handed down by my uncle, when he upgraded to an Apple //e.

I started calling BBSs from the listings in the back of the free computer magazines that had started appearing at the local public library. I learned that the ones with lots of phone lines – that didn’t just buzz busy all the time – generally charged for access. I learned that lots of them had basically the same games, and that just because a number was in my area code didn’t mean it was free to call.

This last bit turned out to be really important for a kid with no source of income.

One day I saw a listing with a promising name:

The Belching Dragon Inn & Tavern

You can’t judge a BBS by its name any more than a book by its cover, but this name had my attention. Having learned about “local toll calls,” my first move was to flip open the phone book to the list of local exchanges. As luck would have it, it was a free call from my parents house. I dialed in, and ended up “finding my people.”

These days finding like minded people on-line is basically a given. Doesn’t matter what esoteric interest you’re trying to match, there’s a community out there. Not so much in the 80’s. Finding a group of people who were also into pen-and-paper Role Playing Games, Computers, fantasy and science fiction… It was pretty incredible.

I had no idea, when the system asked me to choose a “nom de modem,” that my choice would still be with me over two decades later. Or that many of the people I connected with – first as glowing green characters on my monochrome display, and later in face-to-face living color – would leave such a lasting mark on my life.

By the late 90’s the BBS had succumbed to the siren song of the Internet. Connections and conversations shifted to email lists, then to Facebook. I could say that shuttering my Facebook account made me lose touch, but in reality the threads connecting the group had frayed before that. Most threads just wore thin. Some were snapped, cut, and occasionally set alight.

Communities are more than the net of the relationships of the people in them – but those relationships are key, and relationships can be fragile.

At any rate, just as I couldn’t pass up a book called The Gamesmaster, it turned out I couldn’t read it without thinking about those times, and about those people.

It nudged me into reaching out to a few folks I haven’t spoken to in too long. And when I was writing a message – tapping someone on the shoulder from half a world away – I realized I should probably use the name they knew me by best.

And that’s the titular name I’ve not heard in a long time.

One of my own.

Losing the Thread

Dawnise took a big step this evening, and got rush tickets to a production at The Barbican. So the cats and I are hanging out at home and I have music on louder than I might otherwise.

Amos Lee came up in the shuffle. I remembered seeing him at Royal Festival Hall, and sat trying to figure out when that was. Did we live here yet? Did we know we would be living here? Were we living in Luxembourg?

I know I did it, but I can’t remember when. A memory adrift in a fog.

That sorta sums up the last couple years for me. How ’bout you?

Life’s Uncertain, Eat Desert [sic] First

My mom attributes part of my frankly shockingly bad spelling to the trend, when I was young, of teaching phonetic spelling. I was given a bunch of letters, the sounds they made, and asked to spell a word. I picked the way that looked the best.

“Hook’d on fonix werkd for me.”

So when Dawnise and I were getting invitations printed for our wedding dessert reception, there was basically no way I was going to notice that what they actually said was desert – as in the hot places with no water and a bunch of sand.

By the time the error was discovered all we could do was lean into it and put some cacti on the table with the sweets.

It was not, in the grand scheme of things, a particularly big deal.

The same can’t be said for today (15-Aug) in 1999. Dawnise was recovering from some foot surgery, and that morning she didn’t feel right. Fast forward to the afternoon, and despite her objections and insistence she was fine we were in the car headed to urgent care, where they examined her and immediately sent us across the road to the emergency room.

If you’ve never seen the ER jump in to action the way it does in the movies, try coming in with a young woman in a wheel chair presenting with chest pains and shortness of breath, sent over by the urgent care across the street. I was just along for the ride – staying out of the way and, in an age before ubiquitous smart phones, trying to glean what information I could from what I was overhearing.

The answer, for those playing along from home, turned out to be a pulmonary embolism – and the no energy was because her O2 levels were through the floor due to a partial lung collapse.

She was started on oxygen, heparin and admitted to the ICU, where she would stay for the better part of a week.

I called work – a now-defunct e-commerce software company outside Boston where I worked in professional services – and told them that I’d be unreachable for “a while.”

I don’t remember many details from that week. I bounced between home and the hospital. I figured out what a “pulmonary embolism” was – and how serious, and I slept in a hospital chair a fair bit.

She slowly got to the point where she could take a breath. Then she learned to hate her lung capacity exercises. And she learned to love-and-hate it when friends visited and made her laugh (thanks, Brad!).

A week later she was discharged, still on heparin – which brought changes in diet (no leafy greens), a propensity for easy bruising, and a call for extra care when doing anything that might make her bleed.

Today the episode is mostly just a memory – save when I remind her that historically she is not to be trusted in saying she needn’t seek medical attention.

But every year, around now, that memory serves as a powerful reminder that life really is uncertain – it encourages reflection, and sometimes change.

This year, and last, it’s hard to say we’re doing “what we want to do” – and I realize that as “these uncertain times” stretch off toward the horizon, this is one of the memories that brings home for me the weight of the passage of time.

The pandemic, and the changes and restrictions it brings aren’t really in our control. They’re not our fault. But that doesn’t stop them from being our problem.

Eat desert – or dessert, if you like sweets more than sand – first. Tomorrow is a terrible time to do anything important.