Friday, October 26, 2012

learning new things

I have a new job that I'm transitioning into. That means I need to learn information that until now I could get away with only understanding at a very superficial level. While I won't be learning how to write software I need to learn how software developers work and what is important them--especially their tools and processes. Now I find myself without the proper language or context to draw upon and I feel a little exposed. My peers are largely from a development background so while we are all learning the discipline of our newly formed team, I need to also learn the language/logic of software development.

The result of this process is the uncomfortable realization that my ability to learn has ossified.

Although I'm continuously taking on new projects I actually rely heavily on skills and patterns of thinking I already have--in essence playing different versions of the same song. This kind of thinking is highlighted during my work with Aracely. I was resisting so much of what she offered me because it didn't fall in line with things I already knew and were familiar with--I was at a certain level unable to assimilate the new information because it so radically differed from what I already knew.

Many times when I find I'm confronted with information outside of my sphere of experience I shut down a little--there is part of me that unconsciously parses out information as irrelevant so I go to whatever point in the information I can relate to and that is about as deep as it goes. I write this at the risk of sounding like a lunkhead. However I'm actively working to overcome this tendency and I wanted to share some of what I'm discovering.

I remember a fable about how when Columbus's ships came to the new world the people on the shore literally could not see them even though they were very prominent on the horizon. The reason was simply the information was so strange and so far out of their experience they couldn't parse the image. It’s an interesting story because when I heard it I couldn't imagine NOT seeing something in front of my face yet here I am in my own learning process with my own blinders--having to find brand new ways to look at information so I can become conversant.

It’s helpful that I'm working in other areas where I really need the guidance of an instructor because it’s making my mind more receptive. Also Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's words are especially relevant "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few."  How can I learn something completely new if I try to experience it the way I experience familiar things? 

I can only proceed with an open mind, develop more curiosity and pay attention when my mind wants to drift to something comfortable and familiar. These are muscles to build in myself. Let’s see where this goes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Putting Your Face On It

The actual me in a tiny hat...
I remember a conversation I had almost twenty years ago. We were talking about "on line" services and how cool it was that so many things were available as services via the internet or other online mediums (BBSs were still heavily used at the time). He enthused that soon we would never have to leave our homes or interact with people face to face--he was serious. I don't recall my exact words but I remember countering that we shouldn't be striving for new ways to hide from others--that we need to interact with other people face to face.

Now that the election is so close I'm reminded of our last national election and one proposition that was also on the ballot for California--Prop 8. Some of you might have already read my thoughts on this period of time but I feel drawn to talk about it again.

In 2008 I had one of the most joyful and pure experiences of my life--I wedded my long time partner Keri in a civil ceremony just one month after lesbian and gay folk were granted the right to marry in my home state. My father in law traveled to attend and wore his Sunday suit. On that day, holding hands with Keri and surrounded by our families, I felt my life was complete.

Only two months later I started seeing yellow signs on the lawns of my neighbors, Yes on Prop 8. First a few but then the route I biked to work was marred by these visible signs that people I had never met or seen before thought I didn't deserve the life affirming status that marriage brings.

I spent a couple weeks feeling unwelcome in my own neighborhood, angry and even somewhat afraid. I would find our own signs defaced or stolen. Keri and I had our home there for 6 years. I have lived in far dicier neighborhoods but never have I felt the chill that I did during that period of time. I felt I needed to do something--something to remind them who their neighbors were.

I decided to write them all letters.

I collected the addresses of all the homes in my vicinity (just the several blocks on our side of the major road--no more than a half mile out in any direction) and wrote them each a letter. I introduced myself, told them Keri and I were recently wed and that their signs hurt us. I asked them politely to remove their signs as children would see them and receive the message of intolerance they communicated.  

Before I sent the letters I was having coffee with a friend on the back porch who said he was concerned for my safety--that by exposing myself I was at risk for harassment or worse. All I knew is that this was a defining moment in my life. I wouldn't be able to look at myself and feel I was the kind of person I wanted to be if I didn't say to my neighbors "We're are hurting us. Please stop."

I sent the letters.

I would like to say that signs came down. They did not. Some put up even more signs. I would like to say I felt better for it. What was brought home to me is how difficult it is to relinquish tightly held beliefs, even when someone else is being harmed. Even after the election certain people in our lives had the audacity to say to our faces "I love you but I voted Yes on Prop 8."

I had to dig into myself to forgive those people but I can't say they are friends who have my back--I see them from time to time, and still friendly and certainly only wish good for them but its real for me in a way it will never be real for them.

Putting your face and your name on your actions means you have to make choices--choices about the people in your life, choices about who you show yourself to be to the world and what you stand for. Yes, I'm talking about morality and ethics and being a good human. You can't hide any longer and say that things are working they clearly they are not.

Its why I called the HSUS and told them why I was cancelling my support when their CEO said Michael Vick would be "a good pet owner" and its why I put my name on this blog.

These are my words and I stand behind all of them.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Insane ideas

Last week when I was working out with Aracely she mentioned she wanted to lead a trip to Nicaragua (her country of origin) to run a race there and check out the country side-she would act as guide.

I asked Aracely if she thought I could possibly be ready to run by the time the trip happened. She said I would be ready for something--1/2 marathon, 10k, 5k and 2 mile options would be available.

I said it sounded interesting and I would give it some thought.

By the next morning I was already researching flights to Managua and reading about all the Nicaragua has to offer. It turns out it's also a prime surf country.

Running and surfing in Nicaragua? A year after my crash and burn? I'm obsessed. There is a lot to love about Nicaragua--cloud forests, active volcanoes, one of the largest Jaguar populations in the world along with 3 toed sloths, toucans and other beauty. Also a visit would afford me the opportunity to see how the country has progressed after all the turmoil and mischief of the 80s. This is no ordinary vacation opportunity—it’s loaded with the amazing!

I'm crazy. This is either getting far far ahead of myself or the chance to tie up several dangling threads at once. Not moderate thinking. Not even very smart. But compelling. It’s actually freaking me out.

If I were to do this, what would be the road to take to be maximally prepared? What could I do to make sure I pass through this gracefully?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Happy Sunday: Violentacrez, Trolls, Pussy Riot, etc

Ok, I don't spend any time on Reddit but this news article showed up in my news feed. Somewhere in the last 15-20 years the free speech argument has been trotted out to defend general idiocy on the web.I had a number of other articles I wanted to cite but lets stick with this one.

The Violentacrez thing... is this what we are defending when we talk about free speech?

Segue--there is something singularly embarrassing about hearing your 89 year old mother railing against Pussy Riot--calling the girls "the Pussy" in her lingering Russian accent. For a good 3 weeks every time I dropped by for a visit Mom would have the Russian language channel on and the news would be all about Pussy Riot, their antics at the Orthodox church, Putin etc. The girls have been sentenced to hard labor for their performance art, punk prayer, act of civil disobedience (they have an appeal in action and I believe one of them managed to get out).. Mom wanted them to go to jail for a very long time and I wanted to know why? They were a disruption but nobody was harmed and no property was destroyed. Mom replied "they hurt the feelings of those people in the church". Mom isn't even a practicing Orthodox. From the way Mom was going on you would have thought "the Pussy" had marched into her home and peed on her carpet. My policy is to not irritate my Mother by waging pointless battles but I had to quip that while I am generally not in favor of anyone's prayers being disrupted, hard labor and imprisonment seemed kind of heavy for the crime. It reminded me of Act Up laying down in St. Patrick's Cathedral during the height of the AIDs crisis. I'm pretty sure some of them spent the night in jail but I don't think anyone ended up breaking rocks as punishment either.

Friday, October 12, 2012

new work, old work

At work I'm in a pretty happy place. I am starting to learn a new job while finishing up a program I've been running for almost 2 years. Despite drama, conflict and disaster (foreseen and unforeseen) things are progressing to a positive conclusion and transition. 

Many many years ago I was fed up with my job. I had a really good run with a top tier software company but an acquisition brought about a huge layoff and I was RIF'd. They gave me a nice severance package. I had a cushion but I still needed to find work. It didn't take long for me to find something new--I even received an increase in pay. However, it didn't take long for me to become dissatisfied with the work, the company, my position...everything. I griped and moaned about "wanting to do something else...something meaningful blah blah". A dear friend (my mother in law at the time) tried to gently tell me I could do something meaningful in the circumstances I had right then. I wasn't hearing it. I wanted big change right then and there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Does anyone remember the story of The Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman? In it he describes his relationship with his enigmatic teacher who in the book goes by the name of Socrates. I have my own Socrates. Her name is Aracely--she is my running coach.

I've been working with Aracely on and off for three years at least. I sought her out to learn Chi Running-- a technique I read about in a book of the same name. I took up Chi Running at a time when I was learning about how we form our realities through our thoughts. I decided my new reality was to be a long distance runner. With the help of the book and 6 weeks of self training I ran my first half marathon in just under 3 hours. I weighed close to 200 lbs (very very heavy for me) but I only entertained thoughts of finishing--and I did!

It occurred to me that if I could run a half marathon with just what I learned in the book I would do even better with someone to teach me the technique in depth. I found Aracely's name and email address on the Chi Running site and sent her a note. We made a date to meet at the Cupertino track a few days later.
When I saw her across the field I waved to her. She waved back and motioned for me to run towards her. She had a small video camera in her hand.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

My Epic Journey

For the last two years I've been plagued with injuries that have sidelined me. Most maddening is that they are "invisible" to everyone. Enough to keep me from running (or even swimming!) but not so much that anyone would notice in my day-to-day life. It messes with my sense of reality too because I wonder to what extent I'm limiting myself because of fear. I'm not sure because the part of me that is deeply lazy is a little too willing to buy into my PT saying "don't run, don't life weights". There is another part of my brain that is screaming for me to "get going!"

I've written about my aborted epics before. Last year, injury sidelined me from my marathon attempt, and currently from a proposed backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. 

I started writing this essay several days ago about a vacation I took last winter that didn't go as planned. I went to Costa Rica to once and for all learn to surf. I wanted to write about the feelings of alienation travel can bring but I found something else. So, let me begin.

Santa Cruz (a thirty minute drive from my home) is one of the great surf capitals of the world. Not far from there is Mavericks Beach--home of the Mavericks big wave surf invitational. Living here nearly all my life, I figured I should learn to surf. Seeing kids carrying their boards under their arm with one hand on the handle bar of a beater bike stirs something up in me...but why now? It never occurred to me when I was a teenager or in my 20s to try it. 

The summer before my 40th birthday I saw an ad for an all women's surf camp in Costa Rica--I really wanted to go. It just seemed like a great way to turn that milestone. I ended up not going but the idea wouldn't leave me alone. 

I tried surf lessons in Hawaii and Santa Cruz. The ads all say "we guarantee you will get up". How can they guarantee that? I never was able to get up on the board...I'm very tight in my hips and ankles so "popping" to my feet from a laying down position is really a problem. It was frustrating to see everyone else getting up on the board but me. Paddling out wasn't a problem but once I was in position I couldn't manage to get my feet under my hips. Or if I did manage to drag them into place the wave would die out. Still, the idea was there in my head.

The year before my 45th birthday was a difficult one. My partner Keri was out of work and her Father had moved to San Jose to be close to her. He was very sick and in decline. Our lives revolved around his care especially numerous hospital stays due to random seizures that were never fully diagnosed. I wanted something to look forward to. With my 45th birthday on the horizon I decided to take an epic journey and solve the mystery of surfing forever.

Going to surf camp isn't epic in the same way climbing Machu Pichu is or taking a cross continental walk but it captured my imagination. When things were difficult I imagined surfing in warm water under a tropical sun, getting tan and enjoying the company of good women. I booked my trip 7 months in advance and started doing things to get ready--brushing up on my Spanish, doing pushups, swimming and stretching. I didn't have much time to work on these things but I reminded myself that these sorts of vacations are for beginners and almost everything I read seemed to say that this would be "my moment". With this in my mind, I had a place to retreat to when things were challenging.

The months passed and while my father in law had a good living situation, his health continued to decline. Less and less he resembled the man I had known from my teenage years. 

On the eve of my departure for Costa Rica my father in law passed away. We knew he was close to death and we had made preparations. Keri and I had talked about it and she agreed that it was ok for me to go on my trip. A friend drove us so Keri and I could talk before I checked in. My flight left at midnight.

My expectations were sky high. Leaving a grey February for warm waters, friendly instructors and one of the friendliest countries on earth seemed so decadent. I was ready for the break.

Camp started a day after I got there. I booked a room at the local no frills surf hotel and settled in. My roommate for the camp arrived early too--a lean, hardy woman from the Northern Territories of Canada who didn't blink once at the two-day trip. The next morning she found me and invited me to walk up to the resort so we could look around. I anticipated it would be 15-30 minutes so I just locked the door to my room and met her out front. From the signs it looked like we should turn left--we really should have turned right. We walked for 2 hours before we decided to go back--I hadn't applied any sunscreen yet so I was really sun burned by the time we got back. Also, my flip-flops rubbed two open sores on my toes.  We were both pretty tired so we decided to try a different route to get some relief from the heat--we walked back along the water's edge and I let the salt water cool my feet. I figured it would help heal my blisters and toughen my feet up.

That afternoon the rest of the girls showed up--many of them from far North--4 sisters from Saskatoon, my room mate, girls from Toronto, New Jersey, New York, 2 from Minnesota, and two on the way from Anchorage. There was a camp alumni from California there too who brought a friend from San Diego.

Clearly there is something I didn't understand about northern girls and water because just about everyone of them was a natural surfer. Actually, I think they are just plain old tough.

My expectation for the week was that I would gradually build up my skills over the five days we had together. I tried to do everything right--I picked a white rash guard (I looked like a Beluga) to keep cool and applied a generous amount of zinc oxide. The instructors went over the basics--the same lesson for paddling and popping up I'd had in Hawaii and Santa Cruz. I was still having problems with flexibility but just decided I was going to give it my all--I had five days to do this. The water was a little rough but I managed to stand by the end of our session. I shuffled to my feet and stood like a peg on the board, feet almost together and rode the wave in. Mission accomplished! I was too excited! I couldn't wait to do this again.

I felt so lucky to be on this trip. This wasn't an ordinary group of women I was with either. These were scientists and artists and athletes. Many of them had similar stories to the one I had about my year. One of us in the space of the last year lost her mother to breast cancer. After that she was also diagnosed with breast cancer and had only finished treatment a few months earlier. Another lost her husband. Another, like me, also was on the brink of losing an in law (her family also urged her to go on her vacation). Here they all were in the rough surf enjoying this "new to them" sport. This group seemed so perfect for me to bond with and share.

The next day I looked forward to building on my previous success, hopefully standing again and catching more waves. Something was wrong however. The surf seemed much rougher. I couldn't position myself. I got stuck in an area where the rip tide kept tumbling me. The huge longboard was difficult to manage in the water and I got tired quickly--I was probably more fatigued than I realized. After swallowing salt water and of being bashed I was done. Close to tears I told the instructor I was going to go "do some work." "Work" is a fine reason to bail on anything. I did have my father in law's memorial to write but my real reason for getting out was feeling beaten up--I was in the grip of fear and wanted shelter from it. My little victory of the previous day vanished. I felt small. 

Because of my beaten up state of mind my personal grief was close to the surface and I was able to easily write my memorial for Doug--pain has a tenderizing effect. I tried to regain perspective but every part of me hurt inside and out. When the girls all came in for lunch I felt disconnected and wanted to hide. Instead I did my best to engage in conversation over lunch, turning all topics back to them and cheerfully shrugging my morning disgrace off. 

I felt a little better and reminded myself that I had three more days to figure the surfing thing out. That afternoon girls from Saskatoon created a little party on their lanai--we drank a lot of beer and laughed. I liked these girls--I was having a good time and my morning seemed like some rotten bad luck. I was sure the next day would be better. 

The surfing was better the next day--still rough but manageable. I didn't stand --I kept getting my feet on the board but had one hand down still--3 legged cat pose. I took it easy and kept trying. 

Mid lesson I saw that the outside waves were a deep rust color. "What is that?" I asked the instructor. 

"Oh, that's red tide".

Hmmmm, toxic algae bloom! Excellent!

That night there were plans to drink tequila and have a big dinner. One of the instructors brought her guitar to entertain us but people started disappearing early. That morning everyone had a little drink of red tide. My poor room mate was in a little ball on her bed. Just about everyone was up all night in the bathroom. I had a little stomach upset but I developed a rattle in my chest--I had aspirated the water. Most of us took the morning off. While taking a break next to the pool I decided to see how my blisters were healing--when I took off the bandage I saw they were red and oozing. All I could think about was necrotic tissue disease or full body sepsis with no hospital for miles. 

I abruptly got up and walked down the beach to the little doctor's office I saw near the crossroads. Luckily I brought cash with me! His air conditioning was on full blast and he had a little dog that followed him around. He let me know he never went out to the beach--too much bacteria especially in the road dirt. He prescribed antibiotics, dressed my toes, made an appointment to get the dressing changed and told me under no circumstances was I to go back in the ocean--at least not for the next several days. So, there ended my "epic journey". 

Of course back at the camp everyone was sympathetic and understood. I felt like a dope. My surf instructor was still hopeful that I would have another surfing day and brought out the largest board in the shack. God bless Annie but I was relieved to have a doctor's order to not go out again. If I had the spirit in me I probably would have just went with it and let the cards fall where they might (as I write this, I see that I did the smart thing which probably in the long run was the right thing...I just wish my spirit was there urging me to do the dumb, risky thing).

I smiled and did my best with the situation--I took pictures of my camp mates surfing and helped bring in boards. When everyone went their separate ways I still had a few days left--I had planned to go hiking in the jungle or snorkeling at Tortuga Island. Because I was still coughing I spent my remaining time away from the water, reading in my room or sitting by the pool. I got extra massages, spent time writing and chatted with the locals. I actually rested--a unique luxury.

By the end of the trip I had reframed the experience as being something I needed--not being a surf goddess, but coming to a full stop, spending internal time. Now, many months later, I realize I need to finish my "epic journey". I don't know if that means I need to take another trip to Costa Rica or what. I'm not sure where surfing fits in but I don't feel I'm done with it (even if its not ultimately my thing). There is all this physical therapy I need to do for my hip and my forearm. Its very boring and its easy to lose faith in the process because everything seems to take such a long time and works on a micro level. 

Staying at it is part of my epic-- my long game. I'm tempted to compare my experience to the outcome others have had. I'm not there yet...I'm still writing my epic.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Last night at Floating Zendo

Last night was the annual visit/teaching from Beth Goldring, a Buddhist nun who runs a chaplaincy program in Cambodia ( Her theme was "letting go". While at work in Cambodia, Beth and her group go to places the like the National AIDs Hospital to visit the patients and help with care. They also do outreach to prisons to bring in nutrition (the diet is very poor so ailments like beriberi are common) and to help with inmates with AIDs.

While she was on one of her visits to the prison she was approached by an inmate jailed for pedophilia who asked for Dharma teachings--her response was that if someone asks to be taught, you say yes. She promised to get permission from the Warden to do services.

What she found out was that the Warden had been looking the other way. Now that she asked to do something, she found she needed a government permit to do anything in the prison, even bring in food and visit the AIDs inmates. She and her org were now faced with mountains of paper and miles of red tape to get back into the prison. Letting go for her meant facing the reality that her program could shut down with out the right cooperation of people besides herself. The office ground through the piles of papers and three months later they were able to go back to the prison. In her absence things have been moving forward. She expects the hospital will even have a quite room to do services. Letting go, meant taking herself out of the way and letting the importance of the mission itself drive the work

Sunday, September 30, 2012

White Space

A few months ago I re established my meditation practice. It was (and is) a non negotiable, peg in the ground practice that happens shortly after I wake up. However, it didn't start this way.

I would get up in the morning, make coffee, feed the animals and do some reading of the news and contemplate the things I'd like to do before getting off to work. Even though I'm an early riser, the progress of the clock hand would stress me out and even something as easy as doing a round of crunches or sitting still for a few minutes overwhelmed me. I would force myself to sit and then run out the door, hopefully with my lunch made and in time for my first meeting. This inner turmoil is completely invisible to the world because A> I don't talk to others about it and B> I'm habitually punctual when other people are involved.

I have a weird relationship to time in that I am keenly aware of its passage in terms of minutes, months and years. Unlike some who simply get lost in whatever they are doing, I can perceive the clock winding forward. Likewise, I also am aware of the passage of years and where I am in my life relative to how many I've accumulated. In short, I'm always somewhat experiencing a mid life crisis.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


I had to postpone the Go Live date of a project I've been working on for nearly 2 years. When I sent out the cancellation notice I received a bastion of emails from people I've never heard from in the past literally yelling at me for not including their distribution list--didn't I know that I was affecting their schedules and work blah blah blah blah blah?!?

Good Lord! The message I sent basically communicated was that nothing was changing and it was business as usual.

While reading all this my phone rang with an external number. I picked it up and some guy with a cop voice berated me for not including his distribution list and not reading the contents of someone else's email. Really aggressive, really loud. I just stayed quiet on my end of the line and finally said "well, send me that distribution list address and we'll include it next time, we done here?" I did my level best to control myself but I still ended up putting the receiver down a bit hard and muttering "dick" under my breath.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Back from Munich

Flew back on Monday after an amazing week in a beautiful city. When I got home I ordered a copy of Carnet De Voyage by Craig Thompson. I spent a little time reading it this AM. After being treated pretty nicely by French hosts (on a tour promoting his work as a cartoonist) he takes a trip to Morocco by himself. I could completely relate to his experience of loneliness, defensiveness and self loathing. Going somewhere where there is so much poverty and need and being for once "the alien" and never feeling good or comfortable or that there was any good reason to be in that place.